What's going on?


16 April 2013

By: Danny Singer

Blog #6: The tail wagging the dog - A telephone is just another app


Although Carl Friedrich Gauss (that incredible polymath) may have used a form of telegraphy as early as 1833, the electrical telegraph was officially only invented in 1837, allowing people to communicate rapidly over vast distances.


In 1875, Alexander Graham Bell patented the telephone and brought instant communication to the masses, and for the next hundred years or so, apart from some gradual qualitative improvements technology remained more or less the same.

A century later, in 1973, Motorola demonstrated the first mobile hand held phone (weighing in at just over 1 kg). This signalled the slow and painful demise of the public phone booth, to the inconsolable disappointment of vandals everywhere.

Almost 20 years later, on the 3rd of December 1992, the first ever SMS text message was sent over the Vodafone GSM network here in the UK. It read "Merry Christmas!" and it signalled the completion of a 155 full circle back to the days of the telegraph.

Only a few years on, sometime around the mid-90s, the first smartphones made their appearance by combining a handheld computer and a mobile telephone. This was a complete game changer. In a way, paradoxically perhaps, it may have marked the death knell of the telephone as we've known it for the last 138 years.

The launch of Apple's iPhone in 2007 meant that most of us no longer carry mobile telephones but high powered hand held computers. Most of these pocket sized devices are many thousands of times more powerful than the computers that NASA used to send a man to the moon or the mainframe super-computers that powered global businesses only a decade or so ago.

Although we still call them mobile phones, what we are carrying around with us are actually computerised networked devices. They have nothing to do with the wired analogue contraption that Mr Bell dreamt up all those years ago. The sounds that we occasionally hear are nothing but streams of bits and bytes on a VoIP (Voice over IP) channel. It's all data now.

So what's next? Funnily enough, the evidence appears to point us in the direction of text based communications and a modern version of the good old telegraph of 1837 (or 1833, depending on your preference). The popularisation of computers has meant that most of us are quite comfortable using a keyboard. Who these days would even contemplate using the services of a typist?

The younger generations are actually much more comfortable with typed messages than verbal communication. Not only is it "cool" but texting does not cause a nuisance on public transport in the way that shouting "I'M ON A TRAIN!" at the top of your voice into your smartphone often does.

So, soon enough, we will be carrying (and shortly wearing?) objects which will mainly be entertainment and communications devices within which a telephone function will be nothing but a minor side show. The recent emergence of tablet computers has further served to highlight the misnomer that the term "mobile phone" has become. In effect, what we are all carrying in our pockets is nothing more than a mini-tablet. The phone is just an app now.