What's so magical about 160 characters?

Yesterday, The Guardian's music critic, Alexis Petridis, decried the inventive nomenclature surrounding the latest 22-track release from the artist Drake: "This year has so far proved confusing for anyone old enough to remember a time – not that long ago – when music fans knew where they were with new releases. Artists put out singles and albums: occasionally an EP, or a mini-album."

The question of albums versus EPs, or mixtapes versus playlists, conjures a folk tale concerning the capacity of a compact disc. During the 1980s, the compact disc, or CD, became the fastest-growing home entertainment product in history. With a diameter of 12 centimeters, a CD holds 74 minutes of audio (or 700 megabytes of data). Legend has it that the technical specification for CDs originally pegged the diameter at 11.5 centimeters in the 1970s. As engineers from Philips and Sony collaborated on the technology, the size was purportedly increased to 12 centimeters at the request of Sony's executive vice president, Norio Ohga, to fit the entirety of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. (What's more, the size of the hole in the center of a CD was determined by the presence of a Dutch coin in the right place at the right time.)

As consumers shifted to digital downloads and streaming music services, CD sales crumbled. But the seemingly arbitrary technical decisions behind such a ubiquitous embodiment of the pre-iPod era are on our minds at Textline HQ as we ponder a more modern question and the fable-like answer:

Why are text messages limited to 160 characters?

Mark Milian answered this question in the L.A. Times back in 2009, in an interview with text messaging pioneer Friedhelm Hillebrand. As the story goes, Hillebrand was the chairperson of a committee setting standards for cellular networks in the 1980s. He typed random sentences and questions on a typewriter, and unscientifically determined that 160 characters would suffice for most postcard-length messages. (Subsequently, Twitter's infamous 140 character message limit was intended to allow any tweet to fit in a single text message, setting aside 20 characters for the author's username.)

For many people, the 160 character limit of SMS has not been an issue since they upgraded from older flip phones to smartphones like the iPhone. Newer devices and many carriers have developed work-arounds that allow longer text messages. In some cases, the carriers break longer messages into smaller segments, and modern phones reassemble the messages so we can't tell they've been split up and put back together.

Still, Hillebrand unintentionally established texting etiquette: messages should be no longer than 160 characters whenever possible. For one thing, texting is not email. Contacts on the receiving end prefer messages short and sweet. And if you send texts to recipients in other countries, longer messages are more likely to be split up. (In some places, Textline's interface limits outbound messages to a strict 160 characters, but we often allow much longer messages, etiquette be damned.)

Our mission at Textline is to make text messaging a business as easy as texting a friend. If your company or organization is ready to start texting with customers, sign up for a Textline free trial.

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(Photo by stuartpilbrow / CC BY / unmodified)