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SMS Messages

Short messaging service has evolved in the U.S., with nearly every cell phone carrier offering text messaging.

A text message can be up to 160 characters in length. [©Jupiter Images, 2010]
©Jupiter Images, 2010
A text message can be up to 160 characters in length.

SMS Messages

Short message service (SMS) messages are one of the most popular forms of mobile communication today. Also known as text messaging, SMS allows cell phone users to send messages containing up to 160 characters of text through their mobile phones. Software developers have used SMS technology to create games, alert services and other applications for mobile devices, which has essentially revolutionized the personal telecommunications industry. Even though SMS was designed to send only short bursts of information, the numerous possibilities for its use are causing SMS technology to rapidly become a vital component of complex wireless communications.

History of SMS Messages

According to the International Engineering Consortium, SMS messaging first appeared as part of Europe's Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) wireless network in 1991. Unlike American networks, the European network made use of SMS messaging from the start, partly because the GSM standard was designed to include text capabilities whereas competing standards were not. In fact, European developers had been considering the possibilities of SMS messaging since 1982, when the group responsible for the creation of GSM was founded by the Confederation of European Posts and Telecommunications (CEPT).

During the 1990s and 2000s, when mobile service providers in the United States improved their networks, many of them adopted the GSM standard and brought SMS messaging to the general public. As of early 2009, almost every wireless carrier in the country offers text messaging as a standard service, and many provide additional SMS-based capabilities.

How SMS Messages Work

The technology behind SMS messages is a bit complicated, but the basic way the service works is relatively easy to understand. When a message is sent from a cell phone or other mobile device, it travels through the wireless carrier's network until it reaches a short messaging service center (SMSC). The SMSC then stores the message and forwards it to the recipient's phone; if the phone is turned off or has no wireless service, the SMSC retrieves the message and saves it to be forwarded in the future. Because of this ability to hold text until it can be delivered, SMS technology guarantees that users receive their messages, making SMS messaging both extremely reliable and practical.

Advanced SMS Formats

As SMS became increasingly popular, developers looked for ways to expand its functionality. After considering the various limitations of SMS, they came up with two primary variations:

  • Long SMS messages
  • Enhanced messaging service (EMS)


Long SMS messages rely on the same technology as traditional SMS messages, but they can contain much more information. Essentially, long SMS works by taking large blocks of text and breaking them up into small, 160-character sections so that they can be sent along normal SMS networks. When this string of messages reaches the recipient's device, the message is reassembled into its original form.

Enhanced messaging service, on the other hand, is capable of sending music, pictures and animations, as well as text. People using EMS can also change text parameters like font size, bold and italics, which can be useful for businesspeople and other frequent users of the service who need to send more accurate messages. Unfortunately, many mobile phones do not yet support EMS, so the system's functionality is somewhat limited.

The latest advancement in SMS is MMS, or multimedia messaging service. MMS takes the technology of EMS one step further by allowing users to send any form of multimedia, from videos to presentations. MMS also enables users to send larger amounts of text than SMS or EMS. The main difference between MMS and SMS is that, whereas SMS messages travel through a service center, MMS messages rely on Internet protocol (IP) networks, meaning that the messages recipient must have access to an Internet connection to properly view the message.

Applications Based on SMS Messages

SMS messages provide the foundation for many different kinds of mobile applications. According to the Sun Developer Network, these include:

  • Games
  • Notification services
  • Information services (e.g., stock quotes, weather reports and sports scores)
  • Local news and traffic services
  • Location-based services (e.g., GPS, traffic reports)
  • E-mail


Of these applications, notification and information services are probably the most important to businesses, since they can both be used to receive breaking industry news and keep tabs on client e-mail communications. Games are also very popular, especially with young users.

The Future of SMS Messages

SMS messaging seems to have a very bright future. According to Telecom 2.0, SMS is the most successful non-voice service ever offered by the telecommunications industry, and it is projected to become even more popular in the coming years. In terms of technological advances, SMS-based applications are likely to feature an expanded functionality that will make text messages a reliable and vital element in the business world. SMS applications that provide real-time tracking and location services are one such possibility, and devices like the Apple iPhone have already begun to utilize SMS' many capabilities. Additionally, industry experts expect the SMS network itself to undergo structural changes that will make it more efficient and cheaper to operate.

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