How Emojis Work

From DoCoMo To Unicode

Shigetaka Kurita, first emoji Shigetaka Kurita, first emoji
Japanese engineer Shigetaka Kurita shows a picture of the very first emoji he created, a clunky-looking thing with a box mouth, inverted 'V's' for eyes, crude weather symbols, and a rudimentary heart. Kurita coined the term 'emoji.' BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images

Fortunately for DoCoMo, one of the company's engineers, Shigetaka Kurita, was working on an early mobile internet platform called "i-mode," which was meant to share information like news and stock market data. He realized that it would be easier to communicate certain types of information, like weather, via tiny graphic symbols (like clouds for overcast days or a sun symbol for clear days), especially because i-mode restricted messages to a maximum of 250 characters [source: Kageyama].

In 1999, inspired by necessity and deadlines, Kurita developed a series of 176 initial icons for the new i-mode platform. The library of teensy icons featured simple symbols for food, drink, weather, sports, love and a lot more. Kurita called his little pictograms "emoji," derived from the Japanese words "e" (picture) and "moji" (character). Then, it was just a matter of figuring out how to transmit the symbols without bogging down phones [source: Galloway].

Data networks in the late '90s and early 2000s were too slow to send emojis as individual image files. So instead, the 12 x 12-pixel images were preloaded onto DoCoMo phones. When senders created new messages, the data for emoji were represented by just 2 bytes, which corresponded to the appropriate icon on the recipient's phone. The result was a picture-driven conversation that didn't require a lot of slow and expensive data usage [source: Blagdon].

As years passed, more icons emerged, but they didn't work properly between different devices and cell service providers. When a sender meant to send a thumbs-up symbol, the recipient might instead receive a thumbs-down. What emojis really needed was some form of standardization.

In 2010, in stepped the Unicode Consortium, a non-profit group of technology companies and tech-savvy volunteers who have a vast understanding of linguistics. It created a standardized library of picture characters available for Android and iOS devices, as well as Windows and Apple computer operating systems. The exact artwork for particular icons differs depending on the platform, but the meaning is similar. The end result was a nearly universal system for communicating via tiny cartoon images [sources: Warren, Emojipedia].