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News, 6/19/2008

The birthplace of text messaging

Printing was not invented in Finland, but mobile telephone text messaging does have a Finnish father.

Text messaging, a Finnish invention, has become widespread around the world in less than a decade.

At first, the whole invention was very nearly missed. Mobile phones were meant for businessmen who were on the road a lot, and intended only for voice communications. In the early 1990s, companies in the sector estimated that by the start of the new millennium there could be as many at 100,000 mobile phones in use in the Nordic region.

Soon, quite ordinary people were beginning to buy these phones. Some of the system designers were upset to see that instead of important business affairs, mobile phones starting to be used to manage personal relationships, for gossip, even being used for child care. Before the new millennium was ushered in, more than one-in-two of all Finns had their own mobile phones.

An even bigger surprise was the popularity of text messaging (Short Message Service – SMS). Initially, mobile phone operators did not even understand the value of text messaging enough to charge customers for its use. It was a feature thought to be of interest only to technology hobbyists.

Change, however, was to bubble up out of classrooms and schoolyards. Sometime around 1997, teenagers with their own mobile phones started sending each other text messages during lessons. Parents were astounded to get monthly bills for hundreds of text messages.

There was an explosion in the use of text messaging. For the first time, messages could be sent and received without the limits of place or time, without people nearby even noticing.

Matti Makkonen, inventor of the SMS, developed the idea of text messaging in the 1990s.

This was not only about the technology. A new form of culture arose. Language was adapted to express thoughts of 160 characters that began and ended human relationships, gave birth to scandals, and spread news.

The Finnish monster-metal rock band Lordi would never have been Finland’s entry in, much less winner of, the Eurovision Song Contest without the power of text messaging. For now at least, mobile texts are also the best way to warn large groups of people of natural disasters.

Text messages do what science fiction fantasy so often promised. Life became easier, a new culture flourished, companies found a goldmine. The child was healthy and vigorous, but the father was unknown.

Somewhere, though, there had to be an inventor. This would simply not exist if someone in a lengthy telecommunications standards meeting had not proposed it and got his idea accepted.

Rumours and legends sprung up. The inventor was sought high and low, even as far away as in south-east Asia.

In 2002, the monthly supplement of the Helsinki-based newspaper Helsingin Sanomat began in earnest to investigate the history of this invention. Among those interviewed was Matti Makkonen, a graduate engineer born in Suomussalmi in 1952, who had years of experience in the creation of telephone technical standards. He described the process of how work on the innovation had progressed, but he named no names for the source of the concept.

Many interviews later, it began to dawn on the journalist, where the idea had come from. It was Makkonen himself who, a bit reluctantly, admitted to being the father of SMS.

Starting in the early 1970s, Makkonen had been a systems designer for Finland’s post and telecommunications authority. Along with colleagues in its radio network unit, he worked on developing future mobile communications services. It was in a pizzeria in Copenhagen that the idea for a feature to generate texts was born. The concept was taken to discussions on a worldwide GMS standard, meetings were conducted and chats held during coffee breaks.

Makkonen headed the Finnish Telecom’s mobile services divisionwhen, at the start of the 1990s, it opened its GSM service, includingtext messaging. Development engineers for the telecommunications authority worked in the spirit of freedom of information, and it never even occurred to Makkonen to document his efforts and apply for a patent. When the big listed companies started piling up money from the invention years later, he preferred to just put the history of its origin out of his mind.

Without some investigative journalism, the story of one of the most significant Finnish inventions of all would have remained an untold tale.

Text by Matti Kalliokoski

Originally published in "Breakthroughs - 90 Success Stories from Finland", 2007. Published in Virtual Finland in April 2008.

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Updated 6/23/2008

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