'Father of texting' happy to take just some of the credit

The Finnish engineer who dreamed up the SMS has not claimed to be the sole inventor, writes Richard Gillis

The Finnish engineer who dreamed up the SMS has not claimed to be the sole inventor, writes Richard Gillis

YOU WON'T have heard of Matti Makkonen, but the chances are you have used his "invention" already today. Makkonen, a 56-year-old Finnish former mobile telecoms engineer, is credited with being the man who created the mobile text message, and his story says much about the nature of innovation and who gets credit for the big ideas.

The short message service (SMS) is a multibillion-euro industry, the most widely used data application on the planet, with 2.4 billion active users, or 74 per cent of all mobile phone subscribers, sending and receiving text messages on their phones.

But only recently has Makkonen received official recognition for his efforts, most significantly at the Economist's Innovation Awards in London this year.


"For a long time it was referred to as an accident," he says, talking to The Irish Timesin a west London hotel, before flying back to his home in Finland. "But I knew that it was not an accident."

It was in a Copenhagen pizzeria in 1984 that the idea came into being, as part of a discussion between Makkonen and his colleagues at the Finnish government-owned post and telecommunications authority.

They were working on developing future mobile communications services and the concept was part of a broader plan for the establishment of a worldwide GMS standard for mobile phones.

"It was I who said the critical words," says Makkonen. "We had a conversation about how we could get words sent via pagers, which are only one way, and it was me who finally said, 'Why don't we use mobile phones which can send and receive text messages?' "

The collaborative nature of innovation is often put to one side in the race to claim the credit. This has always been the case.

The arguments still rumble as to who invented the telephone. Was it Alexander Graham Bell, who showcased his new invention at the Philadelphia World's Fair in 1876, or Elisha Gray, who patented his phone on the very same day as Bell?

History, as we know, is written by the winners. But it's also true that inventions are claimed by those with a greater feel for self-promotion.

In the case of the text message, it was 18 years before anyone tried to uncover the circumstances of its inception. In that time, its use grew sharply, from something that was given away free by mobile networks to a service that boasts 90 per cent penetration in Western Europe.

In 2002, a reporter for the Helsinki-based newspaper Helsingin Sanomatbegan the process of investigating the history of the SMS. Among those she interviewed was Matti Makkonen, by this time a consultant working in Finland's dominant mobile industry.

In the time-lag between that historic meeting in Copenhagen and the phone call from the journalist, "many things had slipped from my memory", says Makkonen, "although I had looked through my old diaries. I found some meetings that we'd had in Copenhagen in spring 1984.

"We didn't know that it was going to become such a big issue," he says. "We forgot the different roles we all played - it was just one of the many things that we were doing at that time. And then suddenly, all interest was focused on who did what: why do we have this text messaging? Who was responsible?

"The reporter started digging into the background and then called me and told me that my colleagues had informed her that it was me that invented SMS, and can I do an interview."

One of the reasons for Makkonen's lack of global fame is that he is a genuinely modest man, who seems faintly embarrassed by the attention he is now receiving. For this reason, he prefers the title of "father of text messaging", rather than creator or inventor.

"When I was initially asked for an interview, I thought it was wise to say 'no' at that time; because so many people were involved in the business, it would not be right to take the credit. But she (the journalist) explained and it emerged that the conversation we had had in Copenhagen, which I remembered very well, was the source of the story.

"The 'father of text messaging' is a better term than founder or innovator, because that is a bit misleading," he says.

"With technological, scientific or medical research, it is a series of steps taken by other people, hours of doing the practical experiments required to make it work. The notion of 'father' better describes the situation because it assumes there is a mother, and I see the mother as being the environment in which the idea was born. Many unknown people have contributed ideas and time to its birth."

The belated recognition means that Makkonen is called upon to comment on all manner of issues in relation to text messaging. Not all of these are related to technology.

He is often called in to discuss the social impact of text messaging, which has become such a part of modern life.

This can range from the nature of communication on relationships to the perception that text messaging has negatively impacted upon children's spelling.

"A government minister in Norway had to resign because he was involved in a scandal which involved him being texted by a woman who was not his wife, who then wanted to make the text string public and expose him.

"The television programme's discussion began by asking whether I was pleased with myself for creating this thing. I told them that it was not my fault and that I'd prefer to take credit for all the beneficial effects of text messaging."

Makkonen's relationship with some people in the mobile industry has become strained because of the mantle he has been given. "Something changed and it wasn't all positive," he says. "Some people were jealous of the recognition that I received because they had done so much on the project themselves. But I think I have behaved well - I've never made a big noise about it and offered myself up as the sole inventor."

He says that earning a place in history has the side effect that his current work is given less attention, and that some ignore the work he has done since. "My career became very much tied to launching mobile networks, in particular helping to develop technologies that led to the establishment of GSM."

He feels that the immediate future is not so much about developmental change in mobiles, but how we adapt to use mobile phones in ever more creative ways, particularly in relation to how the phones are combined with internet use.

The mobile industry is Finland's biggest employer. The government has also shown an enlightened view of support for innovation. For example, the spread of the mobile phone in Scandinavia was initially driven by governments' view that everybody should have one.

This approach stole a march on the market, allowing Finland to build critical advantage in mobile manufacture.

The pressure is now on to maintain this position, as Nokia moves to create added value services, like music or satellite navigation, rather than the high-cost, low-margin business of manufacturing handsets.

"Government's role in innovation is a delicate balance," says Makkonen. "There is a danger that people start to think that the endpoint is to get funding, so it makes people and organisations lazy.

"One way governments can help is to fund universities properly and allow freedom of information between businesses and the academic sector. I think on the whole private investors make better decisions than government about which new technology should be supported.

"What politicians think is a good idea can be driven by their own needs for re-election, driving money to particular regions where votes are required - which is a good way to waste millions of euro."

It is the first time that Makkonen has mentioned money. What if he had patented the idea for the SMS text back in the 1980s? How many millions would he have today? "I try not to think about that," he says, picking up his jacket to get his flight. "That way lies madness."