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Friday, 3 July 2015

Why Finland is not Silicon Valley: farewell Matti Makkonen, the "father of SMS"

We are a society that worships innovation and idolize those who commercially capitalize on it. Mark Zuckerberg, the late Steve Jobs, Sergey Brin and Larry Page are (or were) all larger than life personalities. Indeed, the fame that each has enjoyed is part and parcel of his commercial success, and vice versa. To analogize to copyright, each enjoys something like moral rights in his respective enterprise, whereby the respective persona of each is intertwined with the business itself, to the extent that a failure to speak of the enterprise in terms of its persona is akin to a violation of his commercial “right of attribution”. While Silicon Valley likes to distinguish itself from Hollywood, the role that glamour plays for both is not so dissimilar. Matti Makkonen, aged 63, passed away this week. His name is probably not known to most Kat readers, even after we tell you that this Finnish engineer was popularly known as the “father of SMS”.

As the story goes, Makkonen proposed the idea of text messaging in 1984 in a pizzeria during a telecoms conference in Copenhagen. At that time, he was working in a senior position in the Finnish Telecoms and Postal Authority. In large part due to Makkonen’s direct involvement, the first 160 character format was developed a year later. The first message was sent in 1992 by Brit Neil Papworth to Vodafone director, Richard Jarvis, at work-related party (“Happy Christmas” was the message). Two years later, following developments in phone hardware, Nokia introduced the first phone that enabled its user to write messages easily. While the use of SMS technology is declining, billions of text messages are still sent each day. No exaggeration here—SMS technology has changed the way that the world communicates with each other.

Given all that, what was the concluding comment that this Kat heard on the radio this week, in reporting Makkonen’s death—“He did not bother to seek a patent for his idea. His wife cannot have been too happy about that.” There we have it—innovation, technology and patents, all for one and one for all. Makkonen, however, did not see the world like that. The one word that described him is “reluctant”. He did not like the nickname that had been given to him—"the father of SMS." In his own (text-messaging) words, “I did not consider SMS as personal achievement but as result of joint effort to collect ideas and write the specifications of the services based on them.” Indeed, for a long time, his name was not even associated with the technology. It took some dogged newspaper reporting to uncover his identity and his connection to SMS technology. Only in 2008 did The Economist magazine award him one of its prestigious Innovation awards.

Makkonen seldom expressed his views in public. All the more intriguing was the “SMS interview” that he had with the BBC in 2012. This Kat sets out below several of Makkonen’s text responses to the questions posed by the BBC interviewer.
“20yrs ago I didn’t see sms as separate issue—it was just a feature in the revolutionary mobile communications system.”
“I don’t think that I made a patentable invention, but was one of the early persons to understand the need and the concept. I’m glad the work was done as part of GSM.”
“In my mind private message of high profile persons should be kept out of public discussion. Privacy belongs to telecommunication as much as to private letters.”
“20 years is long time… I believe that reliable convenient to use text messaging will stay forever. Is not necessary what we call sms. No more pay per message.”
“Not my idea but integration of mobile content display to my eyeglasses. Maybe someone is working with it?”
So we do make of this remarkable innovative life of Matti Makkonen? Start with the issue of patents. One wonders whether the Finnish Telecoms and Postal Agency even had a patent policy in 1984 (in any event, Makkonen was a civil servant at the time, so his personal financial interest in any patent that might have been issued would have been limited). This Kat can already hear Professors Michele Boldrin and David Levine, leading proponents of “the case against patents” position, pointing to the development of sms technology as a good example of where patent protection would have only got in the way of technological development. Pushing back is Makkonen’s own appreciation for the centrality of Nokia in the ultimate adoption of text-messaging, and the role that patents presumably played for Nokia during that period. Indeed, Makkonen joined a unit of Nokia in 2000.


As for his total reluctance to embrace the potential for cultivating celebrity status, part of this Kat finds it so very admirable. But there is also a part of this Kat that recognizes that celebrity status helps contribute to the dynamism that high tech entrepreneurship seems to require to reach its full potential. Without detracting from Makkonen’s accomplishments and his contribution to modern life, maybe that is one of the reasons why Finland is not Silicon Valley, despite the excellence of its educational system, the quality of its engineers and the imagination of its business community.

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