On Thursday December 6, over 42 MPs were invited to a crucial meeting via SMS, the communication service that turned 20 last week and may have contributed its 20 cents’ worth in determining the direction Kenyan politics will take.
The crux of the message to TNA and URP members of parliament was that they had to hang together or be hanged separately.
The short messaging service has been hailed for its succinctness and blamed for everything, from breaking marriages to the decline of conversational skills.
On December 3, 1992, Neil Papworth, a 22-year-old software engineer, was the first person to send a SMS text.
Papworth used a computer to send the text message to Vodafone director Richard Jarvis on his Orbitel 901 cell phone. It read: “Merry Christmas”.
The idea of a mobile phone messaging service had been suggested by Finnish civil servant Matti Makkonen over a pizza at a telecoms conference in 1984.
Significant progress was made in 1994 when Nokia introduced the first phone that enabled easy writing of messages, Nokia 2010, sending the world into a texting craze.
While few messages were sent by customers at that time, the average number of SMS sent by each subscriber per month has risen astronomically.
With just 190 bytes and 160 characters, SMS texting transcends age groups and cultures because of its simplicity, conciseness, and compatibility with all types of mobile phones.
There is even a competition for the fastest thumbs. During this year’s fifth annual National Texting Championship held in New York City, 17-year-old Austin Wierschke took home the prize money of Sh4.3 million ($50,000) in the second year in a row, reports the BBC.
In 2010, Melissa Thompson booked her name in the Guinness World Records for fastest text when she took only 25.94 seconds to type and send, “The razor-toothed piranhas of the genera Serrasalmus and Pygocentrus are the most ferocious freshwater fish in the world. In reality they seldom attack a human.”
Currently, the SMS has surpassed voice calls and email in popularity around the world.
According to Portio Research, 8.6 trillion text messages are sent each year globally.
In Kenya, according to the Communications Commission of Kenya (CCK) data, 986 million SMS were sent in the fourth quarter of the financial year 2011/2012. In the previous year, the figure was a billion.
The number of SMS sent annually grew from 2.6 billion in the financial year 2010/2011 to 4.2 billion in 2011/2012, a significant annual growth of 62.8 per cent.
Growth aside, SMS text can land you in a spot. In April, Benson Mugo was fined Sh120,000 or a prison sentence of 12 years for sending abusive and threatening text messages to a friend.
The SMS can also transform your fortunes.
In February, the government put a temporary ban on all SMS-based lotteries that had been making millions of shillings daily.
Documents further revealed that one SMS lottery promoter received 10 million messages in a month.
The lottery was charging Sh69 per message. Another mobile service provider charged Sh23.81 or 50 per cent for the first 100,000 SMSs, Sh19.05 or 40 per cent for between 100,000 and 500,000 SMSs and Sh14.29 or 30 per cent for 500,000 and more messages received.
Recently, education Minister Mutula Kilonzo failed to testify in court in a case in which a woman is accused of sending him death threats through SMS.
During the campaigns towards the 2007 General Election and in the 2008 post-election violence, SMS were used to spread hate speech.
In new rules released by CCK, subscribers who individually send text messages deemed as inflammatory, divisive, and hate speech shall be tracked down and charged with incitement to violence.
The CCK has outlawed the transmission of anonymous political messages. The fresh rules have also banned transmission of political messages to customers who have not subscribed for the service.
Consequently, content service providers sending political messages are expected to submit bulk messages for vetting to the mobile network operator at least 48 hours before sending the message.
And then there is “sexting”, the sending of sexually explicit photographs or messages by mobile phone, which is said to be on the rise.
In a research, Indiana University psychology professor Michelle Drouin points out that 80 per cent of young adults in relationships sent or received naughty texts.
Others have employed SMS as an effective tool of ending marriages and sacking workers.
Arguably, the most famous SMS break-up is that of former Finnish Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen, who dumped his girlfriend via SMS, making headlines around the world.
Psychologists are also warning of the new phenomenon of sleep texting, where people send incoherent text messages while completely unaware that they are doing it.
This rare condition is said to be caused by the stress of daily life.
Just like any other technological innovation, SMS is facing competition from other simple, easier, and more affordable means of communication.
After two decades of constant growth, third-party messaging tools, especially in smartphones, have led to decline in text messaging.
Popular apps and services such as Apple’s iMessage, BlackBerry Messenger, Facebook and Twitter messages (based on the SMS format), and WhatsApp (which offer free or cheap texts) have given smartphone users the power to send texts over WiFi or cellular networks without paying per message.
A report released in October revealed that global telecom operators are expected to have lost $23 billion in SMS revenues by the end of 2012 due to the use of free messaging applications.