The Powerful Evolution of the Humble Text

Text messages are a normal part of using a smartphone in our current society. On-screen keyboards make it easy to type a message and send it to the recipient in no time flat. But texting used to be a chore since the keyboard was the only input. Early texting relied on the use of emoticons rather than today’s emojis, and only if the keypad had the ability to shift to use symbols. Now texting is as easy as speaking into the phone for speech to text, sliding a finger over the keyboard, or furiously typing with both thumbs. Here’s a look at how the humble text has evolved.

The Early Days of Texting

Image via Flickr by Thomas Leuthard (2008-2017)

Texts were possible starting in the early 1990s but were limited to certain makes of cell phones. Texting was also expensive; each text cost the sender 25 cents on top of the already expensive cellular call packages. And writing a text took time as typing required pushing through each letter on the alphanumeric keypad and hoping to get the right letter at the right time. The spacebar was sometimes the # symbol on the phone if there wasn’t enough room for the manufacturer to put one on.

There was no such thing as predictive text then, and erasing a mistake meant arrowing over to the letter, waiting for the cursor to highlight it, and pressing the number key to get the right letter in its place. Teens became the main demographic for texting, and even they were restricted in how many texts they sent because of the cost of each text.

Breaking Out Across Networks

Carriers initially restricted texts to exchanges between subscribers on their own networks. Someone on Carrier A couldn’t communicate with someone on Carrier B via text. A phone call had to be initiated instead. In the late ’90s, carriers allowed their customers to text one another across networks. Phones hadn’t changed much, and texting still took place on the alphanumeric keypad. Users still had to spend time getting each word just right, although cell phone software was getting better with predictive text options. Today texting is easy and costs next to nothing with unlimited plans on lightning-fast networks like T-Mobile.

Phones Designed for Texting

Keyboards finally became available on cell phones in the early 2000s. Blackberry phones had a keyboard built right into the body of the phone and a scroll button to navigate the screen. T-Mobile introduced the Sidekick, which was revolutionary for its time. People could use the phone like a normal handset or flip the screen out to reveal the QWERTY keyboard underneath. Palm took its PDA concept and created a cell phone with a keyboard known as the Palm Pre. Users could speedily text to their heart’s content with these keyboards. No more fighting with the alphanumeric keypad. Physical keyboards stuck around for some time but gradually disappeared as touch-screen phones improved.

The Evolution of the Smartphone

The first smartphones arrived on the scene in the late 2000s and offered a whole new way of interacting with the phone. Touchscreens meant that the keyboard could go on the screen instead of requiring a physical presence on the phone. Manufacturers realized that the physical keyboard wasn’t necessary with the advent of the touchscreen, but they continued to combine touchscreens with keyboards for some years. The combination gave users reliability in an era of a new technology.

Manufacturers came up with phones that flipped out their keyboards from underneath to maximize screen real estate and give the user the best of both worlds. However, the keyboard went the way of the dinosaur when consumer tastes started to diverge from the keyboard on the phone and toward the keyboard on the screen. Phones got larger as a result, and the mobile keyboard has taken its place in history.

Texting has turned from something of a novelty to a standard of communication in just over 25 years. It’s something we can’t live without now that we have it as a part of our lives.

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