The mobile phone: birth of an icon

In the space of just over 100 years, mobile phones went from science-fiction fantasy to the world’s foremost means of communication. Today, nearly all adults in advanced nations rely on mobile phones as their primary means of not only keeping in touch with friends and family but also for learning, watching sporting events and even gaming.

However, the rapid ascendancy of mobile telephony throughout the last decade would not have seemed an obvious prediction to most people even as late as the mid-1990s. Let’s take a look at how the cellphone rose from relative obscurity to become modern man’s lifeline.

The birth of the ultimate form of long-distance communication

In the late 1890s, two inventions permanently changed the way that people communicate. The first was the telephone. The second was the radio. Both of these inventions meant that, for the first time, people located hundreds or even thousands of miles apart could carry on a conversation in normal speech.

But it wouldn’t be until the late 1940s that these two game-changing technologies would successfully be married into a practical system. Many people today don’t realize that the first true mobile phones date not from the 1980s but from the year 1946. It was then that AT&T introduced its first Mobile Telephone Service. MTS, as it was called, was the first true mobile telephony system. Users still needed to contact an operator to place calls. However, each mobile phone had its own number and could both place and receive calls from landlines.

Despite having call quality that would have impressed cellphone users from the mid-2000s, the MTS had severe limitations. By its peak, it was only available in around 100 cities and towns. Furthermore, each area only had three available channels, which were manually selected. By the 1960s, traffic congestion in major cities like Chicago and New York was threatening the viability of the system.

The demise of 0G

In the mid-1960s, AT&T introduced an improved version of its Mobile Telephone Service. Called IMTS, the service greatly expanded the number of channels available, easing network congestion. It also introduced customer-dialed handsets. For the first time, mobile telephones operated in exactly the same way as landlines. The equipment was far lighter and more compact, a development made possible by the use of newly invented integrated circuits. And this represented the first phone systems with the ability to automatically scan for available channels, an important step towards cellular technology.

But in the largest markets, even the much-expanded channel range was eventually overwhelmed by the rising popularity and resulting glut of users of these car-based systems. Due to limited capacity, AT&T was forced to limit its nationwide subscribership to just 40,000 people, ensuring that the cost of the system was prohibitive to the average person. And for those who could afford it, the service was generally poor, with callers in New York and Chicago often having to wait a half hour or more to place a call. The high costs and poor service meant that the practical limits of the old radio-based mobile phone system had been reached.

The beginning of the true cell phone

The congestion-imposed limits on total subscribers and the ever-increasing demand for car-based mobile phone services marked the effective limits of the 0G services like IMTS. The main problem was that many cities only had a couple dozen channels on which to transmit calls. Mobile phone providers needed a way to handle a massively larger number of calls simultaneously, without the need for customers to wait.

In 1983, the first true cellular network, the Advanced Mobile Phone System, went online. It was similar to older mobile phone systems in most ways. But it had one key difference: The AMPS allowed for channels to be simultaneously used for more than one call. Allocation of channels was now based on signal strength. Before, only one call could be handled per channel at any time within an area as large as an entire state. With AMPS, that channel could theoretically now be used for dozens or even hundreds of calls within that same area.

2G and beyond

The advent of the first true cellular systems, like the AMPS, allowed for vastly increased numbers of users, lower costs, far wider service areas and better overall service. Still, these 1G systems had a number of major weaknesses, most of which related to the fact that they relied on analogue equipment.

Phone calls were vulnerable not only to static and interference but also to eavesdropping through the use of off-the-shelf radio equipment. The analogue systems also limited how well channels could be simultaneously reused. And the original cellular networks didn’t allow for data transfer at all.

In the mid-1990s, the introduction of 2G networks, the first fully digital cellular systems, fixed all of these shortcomings. Now, calls were encrypted, making any form of eavesdropping vastly more difficult. The networks could efficiently allocate channels. And for the first time, fast and efficient data transmission became possible over cellular networks, setting the stage for the advent of the modern smartphone.

The large advantages of 2G systems quickly became apparent, rapidly displacing 1G systems until their virtual obsolescence by the late 1990s. The 2G phone systems also led to the introduction of many novelties that we take for granted today. The phones themselves rapidly shrunk, with the average handset in the year 2000 being considerably smaller than even the smartphones of today. Prepaid phone services were introduced, made possible by the rapidly decreasing costs of 2G technology. And the first mobile content providers sprang up, with the sale of ringtones, starting in 1998, marking the first time content was commercially offered to cellular customers.

The smartphone and total ubiquity

While the rapid spread of all-digital 2G technology was the major sea change in cellular telephony, the advent of 3G or broadband networks set the stage for the smartphone and the explosion of cell phone usage to nearly every person in advanced countries and many of those in the developing world.

While the cellphones of the year 2000 could do many of the same things that modern phones can, most people still did not own a mobile phone. By that time, the price of cellular phones had dropped precipitously. Companies like TracFone were now offering free handsets for signing up, with unlimited calling plans as low as $30 per month. Still, the quality of the 2G networks and the limited ability to use data services meant that landlines continued to be the communications mode of choice for most Americans.

But the implementation of 3G broadband service in the mid-2000s began to seriously undermine the competitive advantages of all other forms of communication. The ability to not only send SMS messages and download ringtones but to be able to watch streaming video, listen to CD-quality music and surf the internet from one’s cellphone meant that cellular technology was now becoming a mobile replacement for not only land telephones but also computers, CD players and even maps.

Touchscreen technology had been around since the 1960s. And the first true smartphones, like IBM’s Simon, had been around since the early ‘90s. And by the early 2000s, many people were using cellphone-computer hybrids like the Blackberry. But the advent of practical broadband cellular networks meant that Steve Jobs, president of Apple, could finally create a viable release of one of his longstanding visions for a truly revolutionary communications device.

In 2007, Apple introduced the first iPhone. This was unlike any other consumer device ever put on the market. The phone featured an ultra-sleek design, with only one external button. Everything was controlled through a touchscreen, vastly improving the ability of people to consume media through the use of a virtual keyboard.

The introduction of the iPad further blurred the line between personal computing device and cellphone. The iPad enlarged the iPhone, enabling users to make calls while providing a computer-sized screen and optional keyboards that made the device highly competitive with any contemporary laptop computer.

The iPhone set the standard for smartphones, which now account for the majority of cellular phones that are sold in the United States. Today, 92 percent of all U.S. adults own a mobile phone, a remarkable increase from just 20 years ago when mobile phones were still largely niche business tools for the wealthy. So successful has the mobile phone become that there has been an explosion of academic interest surrounding its use, with many studies warning of the harms of cellphone addiction. At the same time, the enormous benefits of instantaneous communication and worldwide access to the near entirety of human knowledge through a simple-to-use handheld device is undeniable.

Love them or hate them, mobile phones have become the defining symbol of our time.