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How Cellular Technology Lost its Voice

Depending on your age, you might remember the colossal cellphones of the early 80s. You didn’t need to carry around mace back then. If someone threatened you, simply beat them senseless with the brick of a phone you were carrying.

Martin Cooper of Motorola was the pioneer of the cellphone. Together, with Bell Laboratories, they created the first ever non-vehicle cellphone. The phone weighed 2.5 pounds and its dimensions were 9 X 5 X 1.75. Cellular infrastructure started in Chicago in 1977 and then progressed to 1G by NTT in Japan in 1979. We have been making leaps and bounds ever since.

Obvious technology limitations were the reason for the size of the phone, however, by its standards it was a technological breakthrough. A screen didn’t exist at first, just several gargantuan keys, a speaker, receiver, power switch, and a couple of lights indicating if the line was busy or if it was currently dialing.

As processor, circuitry, and general electronics technology increased, the phone started slimming down. Additional to this was the appearance of the LCD screen. Phone users had been complaining that they needed a visual representation to ensure they were dialing the correct numbers and that they could see who was calling them. It was at this point that the second age of the cellphone came into view.

As years progressed, the phone got smaller and the screen got bigger. Eventually, the phone branched out into two categories. Its earlier bar-style still remained but in 1996 Motorola again stormed the gates of technology and introduced the flip (or clamshell) form factor (although GTE held a trademark on its flip phone since the 70s). Motorola’s design was deemed the StarTac.

Oddly enough, if you look at human evolution and that of the cellphone, you notice a similar pattern. The same mechanism of natural selection that takes place in nature also applies to technology. The flip-phone held its ground for over ten years, but in 2009 it started being phased out as two other branches emerged; the slide-out keyboard phone (popularly known as the QWERTY) and the touchscreen.

These two were actually mutations, like the flip-phone which is a hybrid of GRiD’s laptop design and cellular technology. The slide-out keyboard was an adaption of the flip-phone itself and the touchscreen an improvement of the original LCD bar-style phone.

The slide-out phone was brought about do to a lack of support for efficient typing when web services and texting became popular. The QWERTY pattern was actually developed over a hundred years ago for a typewriter and remains one of the most efficient keyboard layouts to date.

Touchscreen phones were introduced for a completely different reason. As technology advanced exponentially, it became possible for larger screens to appear in smaller confines. Screens actually stayed relatively small until the explosion of mobile applications came on the scene. There were a few random exceptions for this such as Nokia’s N-Gage which was introduced in 2003. Additional to the applications, the introduction of beefier and more reliable network infrastructure allowed streaming of mobile media which also contributed to the need for larger screen size. In 2011 a new line of tablet-touchscreen hybrids started hitting the market, taking the phone a step farther.

What we see here is a transition from a vocal device to a full-blown multimedia computer. It wasn’t just consumer demand that forced the progression. There was certainly a strong push from media and computer moguls, application developers, and the phone companies themselves who could now charge new and higher rates for different services.

At present day, the QWERTY phones hold the low-end market, with touchscreens carefully trailing, and the touchscreen-tablet hybrids by far dominate the high-end market. Phones have went from brick-like devices only capable of voice, to handheld computers with calling capability. Voice has become the secondary feature.

One of the biggest sign of the times is the fact that we don’t talk about phones in the same light that we used to refer to them. The three main categories are iPhone, Android, and Blackberry. Only two of these are actual brands. What this tells us is that the operating system on the phone has come to define the phone itself, with carriers and brands taking a backseat.

Looking forward we will see more touchscreen-tablet hybrids with accompanied keyboards. Not only that, but their prevalence will, in my opinion, surpass the need for full form factor laptops, especially with the introduction of projection technology to offset screen size. Cellphones will become our multi-tool of the future.  They already are in some sense and I think that most of us have an idea of their implications, but to reiterate, voice has become a distant alternative option while monetary transfers, social media, scheduling, navigation, and virtual media become frontrunners in a new digital age. The age where computers and cellphones have infused with one another and become a mobile powerhouse. They have already killed the watch and camera.  Soon they will be coming to finish off wallets, claim remote control of all your devices, and possibly even alert you to health issues.

While I’m not entirely sure Martin Cooper could have imagined the future of his product and the way it would change the world, I am certainly glad that he had enough vision to produce one of the greatest inventions of the modern age. We may all be captive to these devices, but they have become a part of us in a way. Our destinies are intertwined.


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