[LINK] short messages [was: Mindless negativity about Twitter (was Re: Forum on high speed bandwidth in Australia - this Thursday)
ivan at itrundle.com
Tue May 5 09:08:10 AEST 2009
Why text messages are limited to 160 characters
Alone in a room in his home in Bonn, Germany, Friedhelm Hillebrand sat
at his typewriter, tapping out random sentences and questions on a
sheet of paper.
As he went along, Hillebrand counted the number of letters, numbers,
punctuation marks and spaces on the page. Each blurb ran on for a line
or two and nearly always clocked in under 160 characters.
That became Hillebrand's magic number -- and set the standard for one
of today's most popular forms of digital communication: text messaging.
"This is perfectly sufficient," he recalled thinking during that
epiphany of 1985, when he was 45 years old. "Perfectly sufficient."
The communications researcher and a dozen others had been laying out
the plans to standardize a technology that would allow cellphones to
transmit and display text messages. Because of tight bandwidth
constraints of the wireless networks at the time -- which were mostly
used for car phones -- each message would have to be as short as
Before his typewriter experiment, Hillebrand had an argument with a
friend about whether 160 characters provided enough space to
communicate most thoughts. "My friend said this was impossible for the
mass market," Hillebrand said. "I was more optimistic."
His optimism was clearly on the mark. Text messaging has become the
prevalent form of mobile communication worldwide. Americans are
sending more text messages than making calls on their cellphones,
according to a Nielsen Mobile report released last year.
U.S. mobile users sent an average of 357 texts per month in the second
quarter of 2008 versus an average of 204 calls, the report said.
Texting has been a boon for telecoms. Giants Verizon Wireless and AT&T
each charge 20 to 25 cents a message, or $20 for unlimited texts.
Verizon has 86 million subscribers, while AT&T's wireless service has
And Twitter, the fastest growing online social network, which is being
adopted practically en masse by politicians, celebrities ...
... and news outlets, has its very DNA in text messaging. To avoid the
need for splitting cellular text messages into multiple parts, the
creators of Twitter capped the length of a tweet at 140 characters,
keeping the extra 20 for the user's unique address.
Back in 1985, of course, the guys who invented Twitter were probably
still playing with Matchbox cars.
Hillebrand found new confidence after his rather unscientific
investigations. As chairman of the nonvoice services committee within
the Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM), a group that sets
standards for the majority of the global mobile market, he pushed
forward the group's plans in 1986. All cellular carriers and mobile
phones, they decreed, must support the short messaging service (SMS).
Looking for a data pipeline that would fit these micro messages,
Hillebrand came up with the idea to harness a secondary radio channel
that already existed on mobile networks.
This smaller data lane had been used only to alert a cellphone about
reception strength and to supply it with bits of information regarding
incoming calls. Voice communication itself had taken place via a
"We were looking to a cheap implementation," Hillebrand said on the
phone from Bonn. "Most of the time, nothing happens on this control
link. So, it was free capacity on the system."
Initially, Hillebrand's team could fit only 128 characters into that
space, but that didn't seem like nearly enough. With a little tweaking
and a decision to cut down the set of possible letters, numbers and
symbols that the system could represent, they squeezed out room for
another 32 characters.
Still, his committee wondered, would the 160-character maximum be
enough space to prove a useful form of communication? Having zero
market research, they based their initial assumptions on two
"convincing arguments," Hillebrand said.
For one, they found that postcards often contained fewer than 150
Second, they analyzed a set of messages sent through Telex, a then-
prevalent telegraphy network for business professionals. Despite not
having a technical limitation, Hillebrand said, Telex transmissions
were usually about the same length as postcards.
Just look at your average e-mail today, he noted. Many can be summed
up in the subject line, and the rest often contains just a line or two
of text asking for a favor or updating about a particular project.
But length wasn't SMS's only limitation. "The input was cumbersome,"
Hillebrand said. With multiple letters being assigned to each number
button on the keypad, finding a single correct letter could take three
or four taps. Typing out a sentence or two was a painstaking task.
Later, software such as T9, which predicts words based on the first
few letters typed by the user, QWERTY keyboards such as the
BlackBerry's and touchscreen keyboards including the iPhone's made the
process more palatable.
But even with these inconveniences, text messaging took off. Fast.
Hillebrand never imagined how quickly and universally the technology
would be adopted. What was originally devised as a portable paging
system for craftsmen using their cars as a mobile office is now the
preferred form of on-the-go communication for cellphone users of all
"Nobody had foreseen how fast and quickly the young people would use
this," Hillebrand said. He's still fascinated by stories of young
couples breaking up via text message.
When he tells the story of his 160-character breakthrough, Hillebrand
says, people assume he's rich. But he's not.
There are no text message royalties. He doesn't receive a couple of
pennies each time someone sends a text, like songwriters do for radio
airplay. Though "that would be nice," Hillebrand said.
Now Hillebrand lives in Bonn, managing Hillebrand & Partners, a
technology patent consulting firm. He has written a book about the
creation of GSM, a $255 hardcover tome.
Following an early retirement that didn't take, Hillebrand is
pondering his next project. Multimedia messaging could benefit from
regulation, he said. With so many different cellphones taking photos,
videos and audio in a variety of formats, you can never be sure
whether your friend's phone will be able to display it.
But he's hoping to make a respectable salary for the work this time.
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