Amazing the things that get you thinking and wondering. Here I am resting on a nice (hot) Saturday, having fixed the arm holding my generator to my bicycle (provided by the good folks at Bike2Power), and I come across a discussion on Twitter that makes me think a bit…

This conversation isn’t too far off from how many people think. If you have to turn off the engine in your car in order to get better gas mileage (new cars do this), then is the problem that gas isn’t better, or that we chose the wrong method in which to propel ourselves to an intended destination?

In the same wise, I am looking at the development of mobile phones (inception to now, the tech that’s died and lived, etc.) and I have a very conflicting question that’s hit me:

Were mobile phones the wrong turn?

Thinking back to when mobile phones first came on the scene – radios on boats (yes, these can be considered mobile and phones) – we saw a technology that fit the purpose of communicating a person in one position to another who might be in a more mobile position. This was good, and fit the tech that was developed for it. Now, we have interpersonal radios which allow us to channel surf with one another audibly, visually, and even passively. Yet still, the function doesn’t fit all the power that we’re asking of these devices to do this.

4G – since it was the topic of the twitter thread – is a power-sapping tech, not just because its new, but because for what its being asked to do (be a wide-enough pipe that enables more traceable, secure, and clearer communications). But the funnel is this small handset that might not be stationary, and definitely has a finite size for its antenna. An antenna that’s able to tune into that pipe, but has to do some nice gymnastics in order to make sure that it knows what’s going on in the whole (wide) pipe so that the intended communications stay on task. That’s a lot to ask.

Could we have done better?

The first thought that I had was that of the future tech that existed when mobile phones came on the scene in the 1970s and 80s. Specifically, that watch that could do everything. And sure enough, the ability to make smaller and smaller radios is indeed here – am considering a smart watch myself. But, we’ve continued to make slabs the most important comms device (because if you play with your thumb and pinky fingers, you get a similar-sized ear-mouth device). And as such, as these slabs become more and more refined, we ask more and more of them. Shouldn’t we have seen the opposite happen though. A reduction in size, and even ability of a comms device? Something that did something as simple as just keep us in touch with one another, without the camera, fast media needs, sharing media needs, apps or no-apps drill?

What if the mobile phone developed less in the direction of the calculator (which it has) and more in the direction of our brain (as we get older, our brain shrinks, literally, wisdom makes our brains work smarter over few connections)? What if mobile phones, instead of taking on the goal of trying to be everything a (human) computer needed, just focused on being the connection to one another that we all really ping for?

And if we start at simply connecting, getting away from everything else, does that make other issues like battery power limits, bandwidth, and even pockets, less the question to ask?


2 thoughts on “Were Mobile Phones the Wrong Turn

  1. Interesting perspective on this. So by your criteria, a Nokia or Samsung that makes calls and plays Snake would be close to ideal, because the battery lasts for days, and the call quality is great. I find it ironic that modern-day smartphones have poorer quality than a four-year-old Nokia phone that just makes calls.

    I don’t think society will turn back though. Phones are mini-tablets now: my brother uses his iPod touch more than he does his laptop, even. The devices we put in our pocket need to do more more more, and convergence is a huge part of that. I myself wish I still carried around a Nokia or some other simple phone, but I carry a Palm Centro just for convenience. It’d be an interesting experiment to design a phone that’s made for dead-simple calls, without all the baggage of current slate phones: I imagine it’d look a lot like a bluetooth headset, but with all of the features in the headset itself. Interesting.

    Thanks for the great post!


  2. Thanks Andrew. Efficiency I value is all. If tech is supposed to get better, then we should not just see us be able to do more, but that the tech is more efficient in doing it. We don’t see that, and therefore battery tech doesnt get as much press-forward as app store numbers. I was a Treo/Centeo guy years ago as well. When I moved to another platform, battery life was a main concern, as was being able to do more w/o changing how I charged my devices. It’s a different perspective. But, one I think is healthy to look at from time to time.

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