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Why Does Android Break Up Text Messages?

I must admit that the first time I received text messages out of order, I just thought the person sending them wasn’t making sense. But I soon quit being so judgmental and started getting annoyed with my phone instead. It’s hard to read messages that aren’t in any sequence. Then, many questions began to cross my mind.

Do other peoples’ phones do this? What causes this? Is there a way to change the character limit? I resolved to get to the bottom of this issue. And here’s what I found.

Must Read: 5 Great Apps for Checking Texts on Your PC

1. Is this Normal?

This is a common issue. The character limitation that causes it is so common and notorious that it went into the decision to make Twitter’s tweets 140 characters; allotting the extra 20 for the user address. The mobile network supports messages up to a maximum of 160 characters before it’s broken into chunks. To add to the confusion, many carriers don’t number these split messages so that it’s easy to put them back together.

Some of the characters should be used to tell the receiving device that these are a series of messages and how to put them together in the right order, but this doesn’t always happen. Sometimes the information becomes corrupt or simply gets lost. If even one of the pieces is missing, the receiving device isn’t able to piece them together again. The messages take on the same characteristics that any other individual text would possess.

Most devices will join the message together unless there is some sort of issue. Any text message exceeding 918 characters is typically converted into an MMS message. Although there technically is a menu where this setting can be changed, most manufacturers/carriers don’t allow access to it.

You can also sidestep the problem by switching to a messaging app, such as Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp. And there certainly many advantages in doing so. You can sync conversations with desktop apps, share your location, and enjoy unrestricted messaging size. Instant messaging is an attractive alternative for you because of all the added features it offers. It’s also beneficial to the companies that provide these apps, since being the communication hub gives them the opportunity to try to draw you in to purchase other products.

Unfortunately, you do have to convince your contacts to download the same messaging app. Also, these apps tend to require a Wi-Fi or data connection. Virtually everyone has text messaging on their phones, but not everyone has an affinity for the same instant messaging app you do. So why are we still stuck with this problem when it comes to text messaging?

2. SMS Technology

SMS actually stands for short messaging service; and is also known as SMPP, which is an acronym for short message peer-to-peer protocol. It was designed for the transmission of short messages, 160 characters or less. Unlike services that depend on data, SMS does still function through the voice network, and is based on the GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) standards. It has expanded since its inception to accommodate other mobile technologies such as CDMA and Digital AMPs.

There has always been a limit as to how big these messages can be, and foreign alphabets such as Arabic or Chinese are limited to just 70 characters due to space constraints. SMS is transmitted over a packet (like a letter inside an envelope) network—the same one that provides the pathway for your phone calls, except even smaller—a secondary radio channel that had previously only been used to provide cellphones with reception strength information. Not only do your texts have to contain the data that comprises your message (or letter, for our analogy), but also the signaling data that tells it where to go (like an addressed envelope). And just as both your letter and envelope are considered when weighing items at the post office, both the message and directional data take up space.

It might seem old school, but back in the eighties when text messaging came into existence, it was never designed to carry more data (not a UPS package service, if you will). The concept was created in part by Friedhelm Hillebrand, who argued that 160 characters was sufficient to express most messages succinctly. He came to this conclusion by trying to determine the number of characters in a sentence and/or postcard, and also had to consider what the bandwidth limitations were at that time. Bandwidth availability has improved since the eighties; and the messages can easily be sent in short succession. However, these are still sent as individual messages that may not be in order when they arrive—especially if the “address” gets messed up or the messages are split so quickly that the timestamp is the same for all of them.

3. Why is this still even an Issue?

The technology for SMS came into being about 30 years ago. This explains a lot of why Android breaks up text messages. Surely technology has made some strides since then, right? In some ways yes, and in some ways, no. Regardless, plenty of people still use it.

Some carriers approach the problem by converting the messages into MMS, which can handle more data. Many phones will allow you to bypass the issue by allowing you to choose a setting that automatically converts long texts into MMS. Another solution is concatenated SMS, which still splits the messages, but then transparently recombines them on the receiving end. Other Japanese alternatives include Skymail and Short Mail, and RIM Blackberry used email messaging called SMTP over TCP/IP. Rich communication services is another communication protocol that aspired to replace SMS messaging.

So why is SMS still being used despite its limitations? Because usually it does get that wall of text in the right order, especially if the sender and recipient use the same carrier. And even if it doesn’t, this is not nearly as big of an issue as if texts aren’t being received at all, which is relatively uncommon. Even if it is annoying, it’s not critical when it comes to the functionality of the service.

4. How Can I Fix This?

We have already mentioned a few ways—instant messaging as an alternative, MMS, possibly switching carriers (although this is a bit drastic and not guaranteed to work), and finding out if your phone has a setting that would provide a solution. Perhaps the simplest way is to start looking at the settings on your phone. For instance, on the Samsung S7, you can go to Settings > Applications > Messages > More Settings > Text Messages > Auto combination. If this is already enabled but not working, try wiping the system cache.

If you are concerned about receiving a charge when SMS automatically converts to MMS, you can set an alert on some devices. Look under the settings for MMS. You could also try out a third-party messaging app. In fact, according to Wikipedia, over 97% of smartphone owners use alternative messaging services like WhatsApp or Viber every day.

These apps can also save you money if you don’t have unlimited texting. Google Hangouts is similar to Facebook Messenger, and Textra is bound to be an upgrade from your default messaging app. Go SMS and Handcent are other third-party alternatives that can handle the character limit much more elegantly. Of the services mentioned, WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger are some of the most well-known apps.

Viber can save you some change by making digital calls over Wi-Fi as well. Skype came to fame because of its same ability, but alongside this feature is a messaging app as well. All of the instant messaging apps come with stickers, although some require purchase. Most apps offer an abundance of customization options you won’t find in your default SMS app either.

Conclusion

Despite any grievances I have about texting, I still find myself doing it a lot. I would take it over making a phone call the majority of the time. In spite of this, I also use messaging apps at least once a day. Third-party messaging apps are definitely starting to compete with traditional SMS.

What has helped you cut down on fragmented texts? Send us your thoughts.

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4 Comments

  1. As I understand, one way around this, from the sender’s position, is to type your text and the long-press the Send button. This will open up a Subject line. Enter anything, even just a space, and then you can press the Send button to send the text. This should create one text on the receiving end, having switched the text from SMS to MMS.

  2. This splitting only happens with CDMA networks (Sprint, Verizon, US Cellular, C Spire); multi-page (“concatenated”) SMS breaks the 160 character limit flawlessly between GSM/UMTS network users (AT&T, T-Mobile, Cellular One, Viaero.)

    As CDMA networks are shut down and CDMA operators move to the GSM technology path (with LTE and NR), this problem should eventually go away entirely.

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