SMS celebrates 30 years in Sweden
In April 2023, it will be 30 years since the first SMS was sent in Sweden. At the time, it was a service that was completely unknown. The rest is history. That story begins at Europolitan in Karlskrona, Sweden. We have spoken to some of those who were there at the beginning.
It’s hard to imagine a time without SMS, but in the early 1990s it was still unknown. The very concept of cell phones wasn’t new, but many were still the size of bricks and couldn’t do much except make calls. The operators were few and Telia had the monopoly for a long time. The competition from Comviq and the small upstart Nordic Tel, which soon changed its name to Europolitan, irritated Telia. They complained to the government and claimed that there was no room for three operators in little Sweden, which was not true.
Bertil Hedén was working at Autodesk in Gothenburg when he saw that something new had started in Karlskrona.
– It was 1993 and Europolitan was looking for a product manager for new services. I hardly understood what it meant, but I applied for the job like 500 others, and got it. It is impossible to describe the feeling in the company during those years. It was a pioneering spirit. We worked around the clock and lived in the office sometimes, says Bertil Hedén. His employment started when the head office had been built at Gräsvik in Karlskrona (now Telenor), but before that Nordic Tel worked from the old ballroom called Rotundan in the same area.
One who remembers the pioneering years is Zeth Nyström, who was then marketing manager at Europolitan.
– It was the best time in my professional life, I think. A company management that was forward thinking with Flemming Örneholm as CEO. He was a visionary who let people do what they were good at. You were allowed to try and allowed to make mistakes. He already talked about the fact that in the future we will not call a place but a person. It was an entrepreneurial spirit that I have never met anywhere else, says Zeth Nyström.
An important part of Europolitan’s philosophy was to take a leading position in technology development. A position that neither Telia nor Comviq had. A decisive factor for that was Christer Palmgren, who worked with Europolitan’s product development and was behind several new, smart services that Europolitan was the first to offer.
– We decided to invest in SMS because we saw it as an exciting opportunity. I immediately realized when I read the GSM specifications that SMS could perhaps become something big, Christer Palmgren remembers.
Telia, which was a major customer of Ericsson and had exclusivity on network infrastructure for the GSM mobile network in Sweden, ensured that Europolitan was not allowed to use their equipment. Bertil Hedén remembers that problem.
– But there was a Finnish former tire manufacturer that also invested in network infrastructure and was good at mobile phones, Nokia. Their network infrastructure was prepared for SMS. You could send 160 characters between phones. Nobody saw the full potential at the start, but we wanted to be first and forward. We bought the service from Nokia to make it work, says Bertil Hedén.
Said and done. In April 1993, the first SMS was sent in Sweden – the second in the world as Vodafone in the UK had done it a few months earlier. So what was the text?
– I don’t remember exactly what it said, says Bertil Hedén.
– I remember that, says Christer Palmgren and laughs. It said ABC123ÅÄÖ.
– We were going to show off this magical trick of sending text between mobile phones at a trade fair in Stockholm, says Bertil Héden. Telia came by the stand and were cocky. They didn’t think we would make it, but it worked.
A little later, the service to send SMS from a computer to a mobile was launched. It was made possible via modem and X.25, because this was before the internet had become widespread. A little later, smart information services came where you could subscribe to stock market information or get weather reports from SMHI. But it would take many years before SMS took off for real and it wasn’t until you could send SMS between mobile networks that it became really big.
Jonas Rexeke, today CEO of Spirius, worked at the time in Europolitan’s technology department and ran several different projects.
– Christer Palmgren asked if I could help with a new project called SMS. I had no idea what it was and in those days you couldn’t google. A colleague, Marie Jacobsson, needed some help with the SMS project because she was also responsible for the voicemail service, so that’s how it started, says Jonas Rexeke and continues:
– We were young and had no experience, but we were ambitious. Initially, SMS only worked in our mobile network. In addition, we could see that 50 percent of all SMS sent in Sweden came from our own employees, so it didn’t feel good at first. SMS is just one of several services that Europolitan was the first to launch. For example twin cards, mobile data and later mobile internet, but there were also many projects that never came to be.
However, some ground-breaking SMS services were launched.
– For example, Europolitan developed a system so that our customers could receive golf results to their mobile phone via SMS. It doesn’t sound exciting today, but back then it was very cool, says Bertil Hedén.
A problem that immediately arose was the pricing. Europolitan was first and had no one they could look to.
– We didn’t know if SMS would become popular. What happens if people send SMS instead of calling? remembers Bertil Hedén.
When you talk to the people who were there on the occasion, everyone remembers a little differently, but Jonas Rexeke is confident that the price was based on the postcard postage of the time and that it was Bertil Hedén who came up with the brilliant idea.
– Yes, like sending a postcard, says Jonas Rexeke. It cost SEK 2.90 at the time and contained about as many characters as an SMS, we thought.
What can be ascertained is that SMS eventually became a huge success. Today, SMS is one of the most common services for short messages, notifications and community information. A service that saw the light of day in Sweden thirty years ago and with which Spirius is still working successfully.
– I have continued to work with SMS since day one. First at Europolitan, then at Wireless Maingate and the subsidiary Imez AB before I started Spirius. Last year, Spirius sold more SMS than ever before, so after thirty years it is still good business – from a service that few believed in at the beginning, concludes Jonas Rexeke.
For more information, contact Jonas Rexeke.
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