The Technological Evolution of Cell Phones


By: Eric Flapjack Ashley (@flapjackashley)

Every once in awhile, some piece of technology comes along that grows from being a niche luxury item to a necessity of our everyday lives. Some people may still think that a cell phone is not a necessity, but let’s be real: it is our navigation system, our real-time public transportation schedules, our photo albums, our alarm clocks and our music collection. At the very least, they are a way to reach immediately out for help in emergency situations, providing a piece of mind that nothing else can offer.

Retail prices matter as many carriers have ditched the traditional two-year contract prices that would give people a significant discount on a new phone in exchange for a 24-month commitment. The entry-level price for the Samsung Galaxy S8 is a lofty $720, and the (incoming obligatory Note joke incoming) risk of the phone blowing up in your face is free. Want an Apple 7 Plus with 256GB memory? It pushes nearly a grand. Seeing all of these outrageous specs that make many phones more powerful than some home computers just a few years ago, it made me want to remember the humble rise that became a phenomenon of the cellular telephone. This is more of a personal reflection, but could also bring back a lot of, “Oh man! I remember that!” moments that you could have forgotten about if you lived through this fascinating era of time.

As a self-proclaimed nerd and a gadget addict, I was first aware of mobile technology with the rise of the pager in the mid-90s. Used mainly by doctors and then becoming affordable for anyone to get, they were pretty primitive, but yet so amazing for their time. First came the standard pager with the tiny single-line row display of numbers at the top that forced people to come up with secret codes to enter if you wanted to pass along a message that didn’t require a call back. Who can remember entering your own phone number in paging someone with a “911” after it, indicating that you needed a call back ASAP? Shortly thereafter, pagers came out that had larger screens on their sides and alerts that went beyond just the normal “beep beep beep.” Amazing!

But then the cell phone began to gain some traction in the technology marketplace. Car and bag phones aside, the earliest actual cell phones are now the most mocked, known as the Brick Phone – the Motorola-made handset that was huge and could last up to 30 minutes of talk time with a full charge. Despite it being the phone of choice for Saved by the Bell’s Zack Morris, the Brick soon gave way to more reasonable devices.

My first phone was also a Motorola handset, one with a StarTac-like little cover over the keypad that you could flip open and also expose the mouthpiece. It was a prepaid phone with a smaller provider named Omnipoint, and I was able to score 800 “anytime” minutes for $200. This was also before text messaging became a thing, so this was just used for talking. And “anytime” is in quotations because my next plan was with VoiceStream – who bought out Omnipoint and put Jamie Lee Curtis as their spokeswoman in a series of memorable ads – and that plan was a new monthly plan with a bucket of 300 minutes to use anytime and unlimited “nights and weekend” minutes. During the weekday, I could talk for up to 300 minutes in a month, but after 9 p.m. or on Saturday and Sunday, the cork was off and calling became unlimited.

I hopped over to Sprint PCS around 2001 when they made an aggressive marketing push as they expanded into my area. First phone with them was a Samsung 8500, a flip phone. A year later, I was the first on my block to have a phone with a color screen, the Sanyo 4900 – and it was branded as a 2.5G phone (“Sprint PCS Vision”) where it was faster than 2G but not quite 3G. I quickly got the first mass market flip phone with a color screen (and polyphonic downloadable ringtones), the Samsung A500. I also bought a small camera (with no viewfinder screen or anything) that would attach to the phone and I could upload pictures to my phone, which would be my first dabbling in assigning pictures to specific callers for Photo Caller ID. Trust me when I say people were amazed.

They were even more amazed with my next phone, the Sanyo 5300, which was a flip phone with a 0.3 megapixel VGA camera built in – another first for the market. The $399 price tag was a small price to pay so I could have the latest tech. While most other people were just getting into having a cell phone, and in a world where perhaps the most memorable “old school” phone was all the rage – the candy-bar style durable Nokia 3310 – I had what I felt was truly “next gen.”

Switching over to Verizon, and being around during the birth of number portability – prior to this, if you switched to a different provider, you would lose your number – I hopped on board with another major birth: true 3G. Phones with faster data speeds that would download music, phones with a monstrous 1.3 megapixel camera, phones with Bluetooth technology. No longer were phones just for talking, and people began to see them as such…still a luxury, but that would change.

Over the next few years, phones of every type would be released. The Motorola RAZR deserves special mention because it was the first “High End” phone that became a true status symbol to own with how sleek and thin it was. Phones with slide out full keyboards also made a splash, emphasizing how much texting had become planted in our society. We are now in a time period with unlimited calling and texting, and for many carriers unlimited data as well. 4G LTE speeds are giving way to the upcoming 5G, which could be faster than DSL Internet through your phone company.

All of this phone swapping would last with me for years, and feed into my addiction of wanting to have the latest gadget. It is something that got to be pricey, and I would grow bored of phones faster and faster. In the past couple of years, I have calmed down considerably, but the temptation is still there. My current phone is a beast by many standards – 13 megapixel camera, octa-core processor, built-in stylus, and full HD screen – but I still am keenly aware that there are phones out there that top it.

The time of thinking that cell phones are a luxury is gone. Almost everyone has one – Verizon alone has over 135 million subscribers and that’s just one of many carriers in the United States. Seeing someone on the phone in public no longer causes people to turn and stare in awe, but with annoyance at someone talking loudly and oblivious to those around them. Some of the frills may be above and beyond what one absolutely needs as having the latest iPhone is probably not a necessity to function. But when I was in Seattle, my phone was my lifeline… I used it daily for up-to-the-minute bus schedules, for weather info, to locate places with Google Maps, and more. I literally couldn’t imagine even attempting to do these tasks with a pen and paper. It was my lifeline, and there are features that people have grown to use everyday.

Where does the tech go from here? Yearly incarnations of the iPhone and the Samsung Galaxy line have muddied things a bit – the differences between the current year’s model and the former year’s grow slimmer as each new edition comes out. But despite those complaints, each new model experiences great sales, and sparks phone envy in me. But I am always interested in seeing what is coming next…what the next new innovation will be. It’s hard to imagine that I’ve had a cell phone for 18 years this summer. To think I witnessed a form of tech that began as a niche item and exploded into becoming an everyday part of our lives makes me look forward to the future.

But regardless of when that will be or what it will be, I know I will be there, cheering it along.

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