The History of Mobile

How did we get here? A look back at the history of mobile and how little electronic boxes power our lives.

Looking Back at the Innovation that Changed the World  

Back in 2014, Forbes published an article titled Mobile Is The Future of Everything. In it, Josh Steimle, Forbes contributor and founder of MWI—an international digital marketing agency, got really excited about all of the mobile content changes that Spotify announced in December of 2013.

Now, in 2020, it’s easy to forget a time when Spotify wasn’t one hundred percent optimized for mobile… but back in 2014, mobile first strategies were new, exciting, and monumental. The companies that came up with the best ones set the standard for literally everyone else. Steimle prophesied, “People are using mobile devices to do everything they do, and if there is something they can’t do on their mobile phone, they’re frustrated and ready to leap to the first offering that comes along.”     

It’s been 6 years since that article was written and if you’re not ordering a pizza, booking a dog walker, counting your steps/calories/heartbeats/macronutrients/minutes of meditation on your mobile device, are you even living? At least that’s the question among most people in the world… well, nearly most. According to the latest data published by Statista, 3.5 billion people around the globe currently use a smartphone. That’s 45.12% of the world’s population; which is a staggering percentage, considering it was only twenty-seven years ago that the very first text message was sent.   

Some of this 45.12% think they could live without our phones and many of us try. (According to one blog digital detoxing will be a big health trend in 2020… along with something called “Ecotherapy”–which just sounds like a fancy word for hiking.)  But while we’re swiping, tapping, texting, and trending, do any of us take a minute to figure out how we got here… standing in the middle of the sidewalk trying to send a Venmo payment to our roommate for our half of the power bill, or scouring Tinder for a decent date while we sit on a toilet. How exactly did this mobile mania begin and… what’s in store for the future?

Mobile Mobility 

The technology that would transform into the modern-day smartphone dates all the way back to 1918, however it wasn’t until 1946 that the first “mobile” telephone, offered by AT&T, saw marginal use by customers. Growth of the technology was limited because there were only three available radio channels, and the telephone equipment weighed 80 pounds. That would be like carrying around 281 iPhones.

During this time though, the globe was abuzz with ideas and inventions that would further the development of what we know (and love… and hate…) as the smartphone today. From the first discussion of cell towers at Bell Labs (now Nokia) to the first fully-automated mobile phone system for vehicles that debuted in Sweden… it was an era of innovation and optimism.

In 1979, though, things got real. That year the first analog cellular system (1G) debuted in Tokyo. In 1983, it showed up in America; and then, in 1994, IBM introduced Simon, which is arguably Siri’s great, great, great grandfather. Simon was able to send and receive faxes and emails. It had an address book, a calendar, and an electronic notepad—mobile technology that was downright groundbreaking at that time.  

Around the turn of the millennium, people really started falling in love with these boxy chunks of technology and it became increasingly common for a household to have one cellphone, and then—just like that, with the improvement of the network and the technology, everyone had a mobile phone. But the greatest game changer was yet to come…

On June 29th, 2007, Apple changed the world forever with the release of the iPhone. And the rest is history. Now it’s not just about everyone having a mobile phone; it’s about everyone and their dog having an Instagram account. The wheels of our diminishing attention spans and addiction to internet validation were put in motion before humans even stepped foot on the moon. For over a century we have been scheming of this epoch of technology that would provide the world with… memes and UberEats.

What a Time to Be Alive 

Of course, there’s more to it than that. The mobile phone changed everything. According to a 2019 study by the Pew Research Center, the majority of people think that mobile phones have been beneficial. The report states: “Across the 11 countries surveyed, people’s attitudes toward mobile phones tend to be largely positive. In most of the countries, a large majority say mobile phones have been good for them personally, and many also say mobile phones positively impact education and the economy.” In addition to the large impact, there’s the day-to-day conveniences that we once lived without. Now, going back to the olden days of paper maps and MP3 players seems archaic. Yes, life is different, and it is better. Yet, there is a dark side to our emerging dependency on technology: digital addiction.

Since over a third of humans everywhere in the world are attached to a mobile device, studies have been popping up delving deeper into our relationship with this new way of life. One study out of San Francisco State University claims that digital addiction is not only real, it has long lasting implications. According to Erik Pepper and Richard Harvey, the researchers behind the report, the future of mobile phone use may be worrisome. “Being plugged in and connected limits time for reflection and regeneration. Unprogrammed time allows new ideas and concepts to emerge, giving time to assess your own and other people’s actions from distant perspectives. It offers the pause that refreshes and allows time for neural regeneration…. Ongoing stress or stimulation without time to regenerate leads to illness and neural death.”

While studies like these may give some mobile phone users pause, there’s also ample reason to rest assured that, where there’s a vision to fulfill a human need or problem, a solution will surely manifest. The mobile phone itself is living (and evolving) proof of that. 

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