In the first of a series of opinions, we look at the cellphone. It’s not merely a mobile phone or smartphone anymore, writes Colin Cullins. It’s the centre of your universe.
It may not be the World, but it is well on its way to taking over your world and, actually, it’s not a phone anymore.
There was a time when you used a camera if you wanted to take a picture. If you wanted to listen to the radio, you needed one. Getting somewhere new required a map, to pay for something you needed cash or a card.
To write letters, record messages, get the news, read books or play games, you needed separate items or appliances. If you wanted to make a phone call, you needed a phone, but now making calls is probably what you use your phone for least of all.
It is not a phone, or a mobile phone or even a smartphone anymore, it is the centre of your universe. If you need to get out of a burning building, grab your phone and go.
Despite ‘phone’ no longer being the accurate name, I can’t bring myself to talk about a smart device. Instead, the word phone will come to mean something very different to future generations, much like using an envelope as the symbol for email, or an incandescent light bulb as the symbol for a new idea.
So how did we get to the point that our phones are about to take over our lives, and where is it all headed? Let’s start at the beginning. You probably got your first mobile phone in South Africa after 1994. Vodacom was the first to offer an enormous Nokia, Ericsson or Motorola paperweight that would cost a fortune.
Initially, no one called so people would ask that someone call them during meetings, to look important. Despite that, we got the hang of it pretty quickly, and there are as many mobile phones as adults in South Africa now.
But that was not the real beginning. We need to go back to 1973, when a mobile call was made using the cellular protocol that used an upgraded walkie-talkie to connect to a base station that would then relay the signal to the base station that had the destination mobile phone registered to be in range.
We owe John Mitchell of Motorola a debt of gratitude for setting the wheels in motion to bring about the 4th Industrial Revolution, as the mobile phone has been the catalyst to trigger a massive shift in hardware, programing and data.
The idea is genius. Your phone scans for the nearest and strongest mobile phone signal and lets that base station know you are there. If you move to another cell, your phone informs both towers that it is now in the new cell. There is a growing list of criminals that have been convicted because their phones have given away their location while their owner is up to no good.
It may be a simple idea, but it was not easy to create. A cell may serve an area of about two kilometres’ radius. Cells overlap to ensure calls are unlikely to drop, and use different frequencies to avoid interference. The more phones in a city, the more towers needed to maintain quality. Cells in busy areas like stadiums and shopping centres serve a space of only a few metres.
It has been difficult because you need to build a lot of base stations. The jury is still out on whether mobile signals may cause long-term physical harm to us, and so few are willing to have a base station erected near their homes.
The growing mobile market has almost 5 billion users globally (there are about 7.5 billion humans), and the technology is more than two decades old, with little to indicate a significant risk, yet the biggest challenge to improving the network is getting permission to build the base stations.
The cost of rolling this out, and the real resistance to building base stations, resulted in the slow adoption. From the first demo in 1973, the first commercial launch was in Japan in 1979.
Those who love to venture off the beaten track and into nature gladly turn their phones off, but are nevertheless grateful that, in case of an emergency, help is a call away. It may be this that saw Scandinavian countries embrace both the creation of the network and the manufacture of the phones. It is why you likely used brands like Ericsson or the once mighty Nokia from Sweden and Finland.
The mobile network grew slowly at first, then suddenly, the tipping point coming around 2010. It took from 1979 to 2010 to reach a billion users; now there are almost five billion users. The capacity and roll-out of networks covered most urban areas, which allowed the lowering of costs for users.
The first race for mobile phone manufacturers was to make them work; the next was to make them small. The Nokia 8210 was the phone to define your status by its diminutive size in 1999. Less was more.
But then came a new goal, the smartphone, one that would not only make calls and send SMS messages but connect to the internet. While not the first, the breakthrough smartphone was Apple’s iPhone.
Launched in 2007, the iPhone sold a million units in less than three months. Sales have now passed a billion in just ten years. The original iPhone, now considered obsolete, was more powerful than the combined computing power of the systems that saw a man walk on the moon.
The rise of the smartphone marked the decline of many other devices. Even keyboards, once a significant part of a phone’s design, are now software. Soon there will be no buttons at all. You won’t need to type either as voice commands become more popular.
The new masters of the mobile world are Apple, Samsung and Huawei. Their big, gleaming, super-fast and power-sipping flagship phones can rival the best digital cameras and shoot video that is broadcast ready. They might not be cheap, but if you calculated the cost of the standalone devices they replace, it might feel less expensive.
Just don’t change it every two years, it is hardly necessary anymore. We may have reached a new plateau, but the evolution is not over. For size, a Kickstarter campaign plans to create a phone the size of your thumb. It is hardly needed though as there is a much better little alternative, your watch.
Wearable devices are companions to phones. The latest have sim cards allowing them to work independently of a phone. Add Bluetooth headphones and voice commands, and you could ditch the phone altogether.
The next companions are your car and your home assistant (Amazon’s Alexa and Google Home smart speakers). They can now do everything your phone can do and, if you consider how much time you spend at home or driving, you may use them more than your phone for everything from playing music to navigation, booking a cab, buying groceries, streaming videos and, of course, making phone calls.
Eyewear is the other way you may see mobile technology evolve. Navigation, taking pictures and augmented reality layers are coming. It has been a slow evolution but the eyewear equivalent of an iPhone is likely before the decade is over. Microsoft’s Hololens, and Google Glass, are both gaining a following, while the recent unveiling of Magic Leap is sure to attract more interest.
All of these collect a massive amount of data, and so it stands to reason the data will be expanded to gather medical information too. At first, it may seem like a gimmick but in time the future version of your phone will in effect become your GP, alerting you when you’re getting a cold, or tracking stress levels or other indicators.
By monitoring your vital signs and being aware of where you are and who you are talking to, it may begin taking on the role of a counsellor, connecting you with services, experts or friends when it detects you are at risk of becoming lonely, overworked or heading for a relationship failure.
Bizarre as it sounds, the capability is not far-fetched. Social networks, search engines and retailers can make accurate predictions about things like new relationships, pregnancy and other relationship issues, by what you search for, buy and post on your timeline. Your phone is probably the device used to do all three. It will know more about you than even you do, which may also see it evolve into a proxy for companionship.
That may be a bridge too far for you but, as we will explore in future, our interactions with machines will become a lot more personal and their abilities a lot more human.
They are not phones anymore, so perhaps we should start calling them assistants and maybe next they will become our friends.