There is a story worthy of a minor Hollywood movie about the father of SMS and Matti Makkonen but it is not quite the story many might imagine.
My research could find absolutely no link between Matti Makkonen and the conception or development of SMS. Instead a comedy of errors emerges. What is nearer to the truth is a story that begins with a shy local Nokia manager being interviewed by a lady reporter for a local Finnish newspaper. During the interview he makes a throw away remark that, whilst having a pizza in a Copenhagen pizza parlour, he imagined the potential of sending text messages on mobile phones. But as far as I can tell the only person he ever communicated this idea to was the local journalist interviewing him. Certainly the Chairman of GSM at the time has no recollection or record of it. The journalist then embellishes the story that he was the “father of SMS”. He later claimed to have tried to correct this with the local newspaper. He told them he was not claiming to be the father of SMS. This is spun by the journalist into an even better story of “the modest hero” who was the father of SMS. This is put on-file and is then picked up by a national Finnish newspaper that runs the story. This gets it onto the radar of the Finnish Government who adds his name to a Finnish Foreign Office web site as one of the great Finns alongside the composer Sibelius.
One assumes by this time it became impossible for such a shy man to deny the story in blunt enough terms to allow the real truth to emerge – so he rides along with the journalist’s creativity but sticks to his line that he is not claiming to be “the father of SMS” – which is taken as confirmation of his “modest hero” status. Soon every journalist was picking up the story on Google searches and repeating the claim in various international articles which became self-reinforcing for the next round of those seeking who the father of SMS was. By now, such was the universal acclaim that Makkonen started to believe that he really had invented SMS. He was not the only one sucked into the myth that had now taken root on the Internet. An eminent judging panel awarded him the prestigious Economist Innovation Award in 1999 for his (non-existent) work on Short Message Service (SMS) text messaging. His name is placed alongside such illustrious names as Bill Gates and Tim Berners-Lee, other winners of this award.
In 2005 a group of outraged GSM veterans had enough and headed for Helsinki to confront Mr Makkonen. He admitted to them that he had nothing to do with the creation of texting. What the veterans saw in front of them was a very nice man who found himself at the centre of a story that spun out of his control. Rather than publicly expose this deception the GSM veterans accepted Makkonen’s assurance that he would no longer claim to have created SMS and pass on all future inquiries about the origins of SMS to them. This gentlemen’s agreement did not last. Makkonen accepted an interview with the BBC on the 20th anniversary of SMS that put the myth firmly back on track and crushing the hopes of those who really had invented SMS that the world might recognise their inspiration (and perspiration) to have created the world’s largest messaging community.
If proof were needed that the myth of Makkonen’s invention of the SMS no longer needed any help from the man himself it came with his death in June 2015. There were a flood on media comment that the modest father of SMS had just died. The Tech section of BBC web site on 30th June led with the headline “Finish Pioneer of Texting Dies” with the following eulogy: “Matti Makkonen, who helped to launch the worldwide sensation of texting, has died at the age of 63 after an illness. Makkonen became known as the father of SMS after developing the idea of sending messages via mobile networks. Despite the nickname, he was often quick to point out that he did not invent the technology single-handedly“.
From “zero to hero” on the back of a pizza in Copenhagen is quite a remarkable achievement in its own right. How much of this is down to Makkonen himself and how much is down lazy journalism? I find it quite incredible that so many journalists (and others) accepted that he had not invented SMS single-handedly but none took the trouble to ask any of those “other hands” what role he’d actually played.
WHO WERE THE REAL FATHERS OF SMS?…click here
(Author’s note: The original web posting on GSMHistory.com that challenged the veracity of Mr Makkonen’s claim was published during the 20th anniversary of SMS as a small contribution to those whom I knew were the father’s of SMS. The above more recent account is based on a response to a question from David Meyer, a reporter for POLITICO Europe, who was considering writing something about the death of Matti Makkonen. He asked me if I know what role Makkonen played in the creation of SMS and among the few journalists to have ever asked the question).