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From SMS to Telegram: A history of messaging

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Despite being integral to our lives messaging platforms have not been around for very long. From the simple beginnings of Mxit to the almost vital WhatsApp, there have been many iterations and tweaks over the years. 

Here is a look back at how far messaging platforms have come. 

SMS - the beginning 

(Image credit: Vodafone)

While not anything like the instant messaging services we use today, SMS (short message service) was where mobile messaging began. 

Finding its roots in radio telegraphy, SMS became a part of the Global System for Mobile Communications series of standards. The first SMS was sent in 1992 and quickly became adopted by new cellphone users. 

Since early phones didn't have qwerty keyboards, SMS "speak" became popular to minimise the effort of writing out words using the three push button method on older cellphones. 

Although not bringing down the English language as many thought would happen, SMS shorthand paved the way for later text-style messaging. 

While not the most common messaging form anymore, with internet messaging services overtaking it, SMS is still popular in South Africa for direct marketing or important service messages. 

Mxit - instant messagings beginnings

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Mxit: A proudly South African invention and early instant messaging platform. 

First released in 2005, Mxit made messaging cheaper and more accessible, especially for those with feature phones. It also made it fun, going online and seeing who was on and joining chatrooms had never been an option with SMS. 

It also worked on the early internet phone options, including CSD, GPRS which were key for South Africans where the internet was improving at a snail's pace. 

Although it was mostly used by South Africans, the platform had users worldwide, with an estimated 7.4 million subscribers at its peak. 

A fall in users and the rise of cheaper, newer messaging options lead to a slow decline for the platform. The company closed in 2015, with the service officially ending in 2016.  

BBM - the rise of instant messaging

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Blackberry Messenger (BBM) was the ultimate selling point of the qwerty keyboard phones. Marketed for business people, this instant messaging feature and the cheap contract options made the Blackberry Bold a must-have. 

From the simplicity of sharing your BBM Pin to connect, to the interactive benefit of status updates, BBM acted as a social network in addition to a more affordable messaging service.

However, Blackberry rested on its laurels and soon was outshone by smartphones with access to a similar service: WhatsApp. Without innovating to meet the market, even BBM couldn't keep the company afloat and it closed in 2019. 



(Image credit: Shutterstock)

WhatsApp, the brainchild of a former Yahoo! employee, made its way onto people's phones from around 2010. Since South Africa was still in the grip of feature phones or Blackberry, pick up took a bit longer here. 

The founders wanted to create the platform to serve iPhones, as the phone had no internal instant messaging integration. Much like BBM, it had statuses and people were alerted when messages came through. 

As Apple improved their phones and other Android smartphones overtook Blackberry, WhatsApp became the go-to replacement instant messenger service. 

Since its inception, and takeover by Facebook, WhatsApp has continued to innovate to keep up with the new demands on messaging services. These include adding video call options, broadcast lists, groups, Business accounts and encrypted messaging. 

With this kind of backing, despite some concerns around safety, WhatsApp has yet to be completely overruled by another messaging service in most countries, and is the number one messaging app in South Africa. 

WeChat - a Chinese alternative

(Image credit: wechat)

China has made its own versions of all popular messaging and social media sites as a result of its strict control of information. While most of these stay strictly within its borders, WeChat has gone global. 

Released in 2011, there was a period where WeChat was getting a major push in countries across the world, including South Africa. 

With added features, including payment options, the app gained some popularity as it offered things others didn't. It was also picked up by major corporations and government bodies, further promoting its use. 

While never reaching WhatsApp heights, the platform continues to be used in the country. 

Facebook Messenger - not to be left out

Facebook Messenger app

(Image credit: Facebook)

Remember when Facebook had no chat option? It wasn't for long but it does explain why some of your memories come up with weird wall chats. 

Facebook introduced the first iteration of its chat feature in 2008, revamping and officially bringing out Facebook Messenger in 2010 and an app in 2011. 

While not ever really becoming the central messaging app for most people, it was eagerly adopted and sometimes forced upon Facebook users (especially the app). While Facebook as a company doesn't need a messenger app here because it owns WhatsApp, it is apparent that keeping the original Facebook platform relevant in all arenas is still important. 

Facebook have kept the service up to date including video calling, file sharing and emojs and end-to-end encryption into its operation. Most recently, it included Rooms, which allows for group chats and conference calls. 

Telegram - the emergence of secure messaging

(Image credit: Telegram)

One of the more recent messaging services Telegram, a cloud-based service, hasn't really taken off in South Africa. Globally, it has 40 million users as of 2020.

Marketed as more secure than other messaging platforms, it does make an effort with its higher encryption. Telegram use client-server encryption during transit, and data is encrypted at rest.

The developers at Telegram hold the encryption keys however and since the company is Russian based, this has concerned possible users. 

The platform has all the same functionality as its counterparts, with video calling being added this year. 

Users also have optional end-to-end encrypted "secret" chats. These leave no trace on Telegrams servers, are not on the cloud and cannot be forwarded. 

Leila Stein

Leila Stein is an experienced multimedia journalist and content producer with a special interest in data journalism. she is skilled in news writing, editing, online writing and multimedia content production and have a Bachelor of Journalism  from Rhodes University and an Honours in Historical Studies from University of Cape Town.