From Bricks to Softphones: How Mobile Communication Has Changed

As you go about your day, you don’t even notice the weight of the smartphone in your preferred pocket. That candy bar shaped gadget is as invisible and weightless as a wallet or a tried and tested pair of glasses – not a tool so much as a natural extension of your person. It allows you to connect instantly with the world around you, records your experiences and broadcasts them to your digital network, and carries more music than your parents’ CD rack could ever hope to accommodate. The smartphone is an impossibly complex and useful facet of modern life.

Mobile technology is developing at an exponential rate. The possibilities today would have raised eyebrows just two years ago and been seen as science fiction when the first smartphones hit the market. As video streaming and web browsing became everyday activities, the trend of miniaturizing phones has reversed, and larger devices have since dominated the market. Mobile communication is in a state of constant flux and has been ever since cordless technologies were first pioneered in the 60s and 70s. By understanding the past, it becomes easier to predict the future.

Building Networks Brick by Brick

When 1G and 2G networks began to develop, America began to move beyond clunky and inconvenient briefcase and radio phones and started to adopt what we recognize as mobile phones today. That’s not to say that primitive cellphones were that much more accessible; in its first year on the market in 1984, the Motorola DynaTAC was priced at $3,995 (roughly $10,000 in 2016) and took ten hours of charging per half hour of talk time. The next decade was kind to cell phone development, culminating in the mid-90s with the first truly miniature cell phones and the Nokia 9000, the first marketed smartphone (though incredibly dumb by modern standards). While phones capable of managing emails were invented a few years before, they made little progress on the market.

In the 80s cell phones were symbols of wealth and futurism, but by the mid-90s they were gaining real mainstream popularity.

The Slimming Effect

By 2000 cell phones were essential pieces of technology for both business and personal reasons. Digital assistants like the PalmPilot were also on the rise but were fundamentally different devices. The marriage of phones and task managers was one of the trademarks of the smartphone revolution a few years later.

Miniaturization became fashionable as phone manufacturers strove to make devices as small as possible. This aesthetic epitomized the Motorola Razr and similar ultrathin phones. The early 2000s also saw the inclusion of cameras, games, and very, very limited web browsing capabilities. The impending revolution wasn’t a difficult thing to foresee.

The Smartphone Wars

In 2007, Apple released the iPhone and set the world on fire. Modern smartphones had been drifting around the edges of the market for a few years, but the marriage of a quick and user-friendly operating system (the iOS that’s still evolving today), a futuristic aesthetic, and a touch screen had a profound effect on mobile technology. The iPhone kicked off a golden age for Apple that doesn’t seem anywhere close to ending. The arms race between phone manufacturers and programmers blossomed into a genuine patent war in 2009, and the legal conflicts are in and out of the news with each new release. Early modern smartphones weren’t much larger than their flip phone equivalents, but as networks grew to make data more affordable, web browsing and video streaming on the go became an essential part of the millennial lifestyle, device sizes began to grow to accommodate larger screens (and batteries).

The Auspicious Future

Mobile technology seems to be heading for a convergence with more traditional technology. Many devices are designed to integrate with other platforms. If you own an iPhone and a MacBook, for example, you can send and receive text messages, audio and video calls, and emails seamlessly regardless of the device you’re on. Phones are no longer reliant on hardware, and can function as software on any device with a speaker and a microphone – these “softphones” are the latest way around landlines.

Laptops are still massively popular but are slowly being upstaged by convertible notebooks that work as both laptop and tablet. Phones are growing large enough to be mistaken for smaller tablets. Perhaps new developments will force the pendulum to swing back towards miniaturization, but for now it seems that bigger is better. The functioning adult of 1996 had a veritable tool belt of electronic devices. In 2016 a single handheld communicator stores more tools than a Swiss army knife. The technology of 2036 is an unknowable and exciting dream.