In this retrospective article, SooIn Yoon looks at inventions from the last 25 years – from email to social networks and mobile phones – which have expanded our personal communications channels and changed the way we connect with each other today.
Over the last 25 years, we have seen a revolution in the way we communicate in our everyday lives. Long gone are the days of carrier pigeons and Morse code – okay, we’re not that old. But from the first SMS sent in 1992, to over 20 billion text messages being sent every day today (give or take a few million), there have been enormous changes in how we connect. Personal communication has become more accessible and convenient, and new technology has enabled individuals to communicate with one another on a global scale. We’ve moved from physical, fixed platforms to digital, mobile technologies like texting, social networking, and over-the-top messaging and video, and the world has become smaller as our messages travel farther.
Advancements in how we communicate are not over, but let’s take a look back in time to see where we’ve come so far.
90s: Email & Messaging
In the 1990s, we saw a shift in personal communications from mail and fixed voice lines to digital methods of communicating in email and mobile texting. The first free web-based e-mail provider, Hotmail, launched in 1996, allowing individuals to have their own accounts and send digital messages to anyone around the world. The limit for free storage at the time was 2MB and by early 1999, Hotmail had over 30 million active users worldwide. Email was a great way to send a letter in an instant what one used to send by post. Alongside email platforms, many instant messaging platforms such as ICQ (1996) and AOL Instant Messenger (1997) launched in this decade, allowing users to add friends to their “Buddy List”[i] and communicate digitally in real-time.
Personal communications also became more mobile as 2G connectivity was introduced in 1991, enabling data services for mobile. Around this time, mobile phones also became more accessible. Handsets were lighter, more portable, and most importantly, cheaper for the average consumer. The first mobile text message or SMS (Short Message Service) was sent in 1992 over the Vodafone GSM network in the UK with the message: “Merry Christmas”[ii]. As more consumers adopted mobile phones, SMS messaging became increasingly popular. While mobile phones and text messages exploded in popularity, other new communications devices such as AT&T’s VideoPhone 2500, which enabled color video communication on a small LCD screen through phone lines, saw little commercial success. Although AT&T discontinued the product after just 3 years due to low sales (its retail price of $1,500 might have had something to do with it), the product was viewed as a technical success and was a sign of what communication might look like in the future.
00s: Smart Devices & Social Networking
At the turn of the century, we saw the rise of “smart” devices and social networking platforms. Devices improved in design, from color LCD screens to thinner form factors – the sleek Motorola Razr sold 130M units[iii] and was the best-selling flip phone in history, but it was the reimagining of their purpose and role in our lives that had the biggest impact on personal communications. The launch of the 1st generation iPhone in 2007 revolutionized the idea of a mobile phone as the ultimate communication tool. We could talk, text, and download a variety of applications that encouraged sharing, messaging, and expanding our network.
Online communities such as Myspace (2003), Facebook (2004), and Twitter (2006) launched in this decade as spaces for people to gather and communicate. These sites became popular platforms where one could share thoughts with friends, organize events, and participate in digital communities. Within these social networks, personal communication was not just limited to exchanges with one person, but expanded to broader interactions with groups of friends or an audience of strangers. As individuals around the world had increasing access to smart devices and joined these online communities, this type of communication enabled the spread of ideas between borders, triggering global movements that would continue into the next decade.
In addition to social networks, communication on a global scale also became more accessible through new voice, chat, and video software that enabled communication over the internet, such as Skype (2003). On these platforms, we could call, message, and eventually even see others for a much more affordable price than what traditional mobile providers offered. This trend continued into the next decade with more mobile applications that enabled data-based communication on the go.
10s: OTT Communication & New Social Networks
In the last few years, we have seen a significant amount of personal communication shift over to apps that send messages over the Internet. Apps such as WhatsApp, FaceTime, and Line have grown in popularity as better data and WiFi connectivity has spread throughout the world. WhatsApp, launched in 2010, was by February 2016 the most popular messaging app with 1 billion users worldwide[iv]. These over the top (OTT) messaging apps incorporate emojis, GIFs, photo and video sharing, and other add-ons to create a full-feature and enjoyable messaging experience. Communicating through photos and videos has become more popular and easier using data, as seen by the rise of new social platforms like Snapchat (2011) and Instagram (2010, acquired by Facebook in 2012).
These new OTT and social platforms have also grown in popularity in many developing nations as countries have skipped older connectivity technologies and enabled more advanced wireless technologies. In addition, mobile phone and smartphone penetration globally has reached saturation, meaning many people around the world are able to participate in this online community. This rapid adoption of smartphones over the last few decades has been a critical driving factor in enabling faster and more accessible communication with anyone around the world. As more people have joined the online community and engaged with others, we have seen the power of these platforms and connectivity to lead to revolutions, protests, and social change.
Future: Next-gen Communications
In the last 25 years, the different platforms and methods we use to communicate have rapidly advanced. We are now more globally connected than ever before, and with the introduction of 5G connectivity and new devices over the next decades, our ways of communicating will continue to change. Maybe we will only speak in emojis. Maybe Alexa or Google Assistant will write messages to our friends for us. Maybe we’ll reject everything and go back to good old fixed line rotary dial phones (seems unlikely). But one thing seems certain – we will not stop finding new ways to communicate and connect with one another. <>
To mark Cartesian’s 25 years in the telecoms, media, and technology sector, we asked our consultants to reflect on industry topics and write about how they have changed over the last few decades. Click here to receive your copy of our anniversary eBook: 25 Years – A retrospective on innovation in the telecoms, media, and technology sector
[ii] Gayomali, Chris. “The text message turns 20: A brief history of SMS”, TheWeek.com, December 2012.
[iii] “Hello Moto? Motorola denies return of iconic Razr flip phone”, The Telegraph, June 2016.
[v] “Most famous social network sites 2016, by active users”, Statista, September 2016.