Can you hear me now?


Technology has come a long, long way in the 40 years since the first mobile 'Brick' was developed, writes CIAN TRAYNOR

The first call made from a mobile phone would not have been a welcome one. When Motorola executive Martin Cooper called his rivals at ATT Bell Labs in April 1973, the fact that he was speaking outside the Hilton Manhattan told them all they needed to know. The race to produce a handheld mobile phone was over.

Still, it would take another 10 years for the first Motorola DynaTAC to reach the market. Nicknamed “the brick”, it offered 35 minutes’ talk time, took 10 hours to recharge and weighed over a kilo. Although its $3,995 price tag established it as an extravagant status symbol – partly aided by its appearance in the 1987 film Wall Street – mainstream crossover came sooner than anticipated.

The launch of the GSM digital network in 1991 brought with it improved reception, international roaming and a new service called SMS text messaging. Initially intended as a means for telephone engineers to exchange messages, texting became such a phenomenon that its 160-character limit yielded an international shorthand of abbreviations and emoticons.

But as mobile phones became smaller, cheaper and easier to use, they also began to alter other aspects of behaviour. Arguments could be settled on the spot, tardiness was harder to get away with and flirtatious exchanges were subject to new levels of scrutiny.

By the time phone companies allowed customers on rival networks to swap texts in 1999, Nokia decided to aim its new 3210 model at a younger market. Featuring an internal antenna, three games and changeable covers, it went on to sell more than 160 million units, helping the Finnish brand become the world’s largest mobile manufacturer. The industry, however, was about to face another shift.

As 3G networks made the internet mobile in the 21st century, phones began to consolidate other devices. The ability to play music, take pictures and browse the web led meant uptake rocketed. By 2002, more than a billion phones were in circulation and their presence was hard to miss. Bombs were detonated by phone, celebrities’ voice messages were hacked for gossip, and citizen reportage remodelled news coverage.

The urge to upgrade only intensified during the smartphone era, when BlackBerry’s convergence of email, wireless data networks and a physical Qwerty keyboard drew 10 million subscribers by 2007.

Crucially, that was also the year Steve Jobs unveiled the first iPhone, redefining what a pocket-sized accessory could do. A touch-sensitive interface and the ability to run apps developed by third-parties proved revolutionary, eventually facilitating everyday practicalities like hailing taxis and checking on to flights.

While many pointed out that the iPhone cost more and offered less than its rivals, Apple sold 270,000 units in the first 30 hours. The release of a new model phone had become an event worth queuing up for – a precedent that spurred other developers to raise their game. Google debuted its Android operating system in 2008 and in the years since, competing manufacturers have been locked in a litigation battle over patents and designs dubbed the “smartphone wars”.

Today, 40 years after “the brick” was developed, phones can still be considered status symbols – a titanium-encased Vertu costs about €7,900 – yet as mobiles keep changing, our attachment to them continues to change us too, raising concerns over dependency. Parents not only have to determine the appropriate age for a child to have a phone, but learn how to avoid potential dangers such as cyber bullying and dwindling attention spans.

Even the idea of how we spend time alone has been transformed. For some, those in-between moments in queues or on public transport are now subject to a craving for constant connectivity, often eliciting a sense of incompleteness whenever they have to do without.

The many models acquired and discarded along the way haven’t been forgotten, however. Dublin’s Mobile Phone Museum, a collection of iconic phones charting the history of the handset, is tucked into a phone repair shop called GSM Solutions on Upper Abbey Street. Its curator Alan Donohoe never tires of drawing in passersby to gawp in wonder.

“Your average teenager today might have an iPhone . . . so when they arrive in here and see some of the older models, they can’t believe what phones used to be like. It just goes to show how the whole landscape of technology has changed from the ground up. It’s something that’s touched everyone.”

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