Happy birthday dear mobile

Editor

With more mobile phones in operation than people on the planet, there are few success stories to rival the rise of the cell-phone. It’s just a shame they’re not very good at being phones anymore

Astonishingly, today marks the 40th birthday of the mobile phone, a landmark guaranteed to make those of us with clear memories of a mobile-free world feel very old indeed. 

In truth, despite the first mobile call being made in 1973, the technology’s impact wasn’t truly felt until at least a decade later: when the then brick-sized devices became something of a yuppie icon. And it wasn’t really until the 1990s that it began  to approach the levels of ubiquity that we see today. Indeed, it’s interesting to think that while there’s perhaps a perception that the technology has changed our lives overnight, its rise has — like the rise of most technologies — actually been relatively stately.

Motorola's Martin Cooper reenacting the world's first hand-held mobile phone call with the Motorola DynaTAC
Motorola’s Martin Cooper reenacting the world’s first hand-held mobile phone call with the Motorola DynaTAC

Today, for most of us, mobile phones underpin our working and personal lives. The mobile industry generates annual revenues of £800 billion and there are now thought to be more mobile devices in operation than there are people on the planet. Other than the internet, it’s difficult to think of another technology developed in the past few decades that’s had such a transformative impact, and impossible to name another product that has managed to create such a huge market so quickly. In Africa, it’s completely transformed lives, providing connection where none was possible before. Several nations are installing mobile networks without establishing landlines first.

And yet ironically, as our phones have become ever-more sophisticated they have arguably become less good at being phones.

They’re frequently great  cameras, useful web browsers, and handy music players, but when it comes to making calls, which is arguably still their core function, they’re frequently disappointing: with the simple user interface of the early mobiles drowned out by a plethora of different functions, and the call quality frequently leaving a lot to be desired.

Despite its apparent dominance the technology is, it would seem, far from mature.

So what will we see from the industry in the years ahead?

In The Engineer’s forthcoming April edition (available from https://www.theengineer.co.uk on Monday 8th) we’ve taken a look at the emerging field of wearable technology, an area that many analysts believe is poised to undergo huge growth. The next generation of wearable technologies promises a host of entirely new, user interfaces that do away with the clutter of the mobile-phone and replace it with something altogether more intuitive.  It’s an intriguing glimpse of the future, and a reminder that however dominant a technology might appear to be, sooner or later something better will come along.