Why are Text Messages limited to 160 characters?

You may think that text messages were limited to 160 characters because of some archaic pre-1980s technical standard but the reality is far simplier. This is only because a German, named Friedhelm Hillebrand, decided that it was “perfectly sufficient”.

How did he come to that conclusion, in 1985? One, by identifying that most postcards that people send to each other were very rarely more than 150 characters.

Secondly, by identifying that Telex, which was the usual professional communications tool back in the 80s, were very rarely longer than a postcard despite not having technical limitations.

In the mid 80s, he became Chairman of the non-voice services committee within the Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM).

So, he naturally suggested that the small data line, independent from the voice signal, used only to alert a mobile phone about the strength of the reception and supply a few bits of information regarding incoming calls should support this 160 characters length. This became the short messaging service (SMS) standard.

According to a Nielsen report issued recently, American are writing more messages than make phone calls from their mobile phones (on average 357 messages per month versus 204 calls).

Funnily enough, Twitter, which has become in a few months the preferred communication tool of our politicians, celebrities and whoever wants to make his minute per minute life visible to his social network, the messages are limited to 140 characters. So Friedhelm Hillebrand seems to have been right, it is “perfectly sufficient”.

Now you may ask yourself, has Friedhelm Hillebrand become a billionaire for having defined the standard length of short messages? Did he get a small royalty out of each message? No, he did not make a penny out of it.

But we all know that our dear mobile telecommunications operators are making billions every year out of his simple find.