Fact: The world’s first text message contained the words “Merry Christmas,” and was sent by Vodafone engineer Neil Papworth on Dec. 3,  1992.

How things have changed! Although more than 1.5 billion texts are now sent every week, the service was never intended to be widespread or profitable. Texts were originally designed for the hearing-impaired.

The latest mobile phones may well allow you “tweet,” “poke,” and “check-in,” but all many people want to do is text.

Some mobile evangelists have been predicting the death of the text message for more than a decade, but a new study has found that text messaging is still very much alive and kicking.

“A common perception is that the text message has been usurped by mobile e-mail, which in turn is being displaced by social networks,” said Paul Lee, head of telecoms and technology research at Deloitte, which conducted the research. “Yet, there still appears to be plenty of life left in the humble text message. The intensity of usage of text messages remains high.”

Deloitte found that 90% of smartphone owners send at least one text message a day, compared to 4 in 10 who access social networks such as Facebook and Twitter on their phones.

Here in the United Kingdom, half of British adults access e-mails on their phones; more than 3 out of 10 between the ages of 18 and 24 send at least one text message every hour! (It is thought that children and teenagers, who were not included in the study, send an even greater number of texts).

Deloitte says that texts are more popular than social networking because they are more immediate and more personal. They are also easier to understand than Facebook and Twitter messages or check-ins on Foursquare.

The sending of a text message usually involves typing in a shortcode number. Practically everyone understands shortcodes and doesn’t need an explanation of how to send a text, making the service (still) invaluable to millions of companies and individuals across the globe. Reality TV shows offering text-voting mechanisms have certainly driven mass adoption in recent years, and it continues.

Many brands use mobile for alert services with news and product information updates. See the current press ad campaign for the U.K. store Marks and Spencer below:

Here M&S regularly sends out links to products on sale, and informational updates about new product ranges and services.

All of this has opportunities for newsmedia companies.

Take that into a newspaper environment and see what MiD DAY newspaper in India did recently to increase added value to its subscriber database. In essence, MiD DAY provides content via news alerts to subscriber base (twice a day). Its challenge was to create a subscriber base for news alerts, marketable to advertisers for new revenue generation. Revenue is in fact gained via advertiser messages at the end of every news alert sent. The service was extensively promoted by MiD DAY through print, radio, online. (See the ad at the top of this column.)

And again, back in the U.K. is a new concept being viewed by many companies who are looking to take text messaging to a new level by incorporating it with “live” operator purchasing.

In the example below, the external poster (it could also easily be a print or Web ad) asks viewers to send a text message to get back a link or voucher. The next stage is to have the respondent’s text trigger a call or ring back. So, when they answer the call, a “voice of the brand” (maybe a celebrity… or a newspaper editor) will say “Hi, this is xxxxx, thanks for your interest. If you’d now like to buy the advertised service/product, press ‘1’ on your keypad now.” Upon pressing “1,” the person on the call is automatically transferred to a call centre to process a credit card payment.

A new way to gain subscribers? Maybe! But one thing is for sure: text messaging is not dead. It’s very much alive, and demands you look at it as a still-modern, highly interactive marketing tool.

It has value to readers who can enter a competition, send text comments to an editor or vote on a news-of-the-day item. It has value to advertisers (such as the M&S example above) and it has value to newsmedia companies who can see this as a new communications device, database builder and new revenue stream — be it via premium-rate texting or by incorporating it as part of a multi-media campaign to clients or advertisers.

STOP PRESS! Just saw this today: a creative use of SMS from fast food chain Subway, which can be a lesson for newsmedia companies giving special offers to readers at events or as an added-value service to advertisers.