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Matti Makkonen: Father of SMS passes away

July 04, 2015 08:24 IST

Makkonen never received any money from the invention of text messaging, never applied for a patent

Matti Makkonen, known as the father of short message service (SMS), passed away on Friday at the age of 63 following serious illness, Finnish language daily Ilkka reported. A Finnish national, Makkonen, developed the idea of sending messages via mobile networks.

Pitching the original idea for SMS in 1984, while working as a civil servant, over a pizza at a telecoms conference in Copenhagen, he disliked the moniker ‘father of SMS’. His work is widely regarded as being critical to its success, though he never received any money from the invention, never applying for a patent.

Always pointing out that he did not invent the technology single-handedly, he saw SMS as a “joint effort” between many people (Communications researcher Friedham Hillebrand developed the 160-character format in 1985, for example). But much of the initial credit belongs to him.

Makkonen kept his work on the idea quiet, and it took a newspaper investigation for his identity to become known. Later, in a famous interview with the BBC in 2012 on the 20th anniversary of the technology - conducted, of course, by SMS - he said, “I did not consider SMS as personal achievement but as result of joint effort to collect ideas and write the specifications of the services based on them.”

Praising Nokia, he said, “The real launch of the service, as I see it, was when Nokia introduced its first phone that enabled easy writing of messages (Nokia 2010 in 1994).”

In that interview, Makkonen also admitted he did not write in “txt spk” but saw SMS as a way for “language to develop”. He also said SMS in some form would exist for a long time.

Suffice it to say that Makkonen’s work has spread far and wide. SMS is starting to decline as instant messaging apps take over but it’s still ubiquitous. Twitter’s roots are in SMS (hence that 140-character limit), and the tech is still considered vital for communication in areas where mobile internet access is too expensive, heavily censored or both.

In 2008, Makkonen was awarded The Economist Innovation Award in the computing and telecommunications category for his work on text messaging. He has also been actively involved in the development of the GSM-technology at various points of time.

Something of a legend at Nokia Networks, he also played a leading role in creating the mobile communication unit of what is today TeliaSonera AB, the dominant telephone company and mobile network operator in Sweden and Finland.

BS Reporter in New Delhi