Kamis, April 03, 2008

How the cellphone has changed our lives, 35 years later

Decades ago, an inventor was called 'crazy' for wanting to make a mobile phone, but today, many people couldn't live without one, writes Vito Pilieci.

Vito Pilieci, The Ottawa Citizen

Published: Thursday, April 03, 2008

On his way to a New York City press conference on April 3, 1973, Martin Cooper just couldn't help himself.

The then-project manager at Motorola was proud of what his crew of engineers and developers had managed to create and felt the need to brag about the accomplishment.

At the corner of 56th Street and Lexington Avenue, Mr. Cooper took the wraps off the first cellular phone and placed the world's first cellphone call to his rival, Joel Engel, then head of Bell Labs research department (which has since been acquired by AT&T Inc.) to inform Mr. Engel of the upcoming announcement.

He then walked into the press conference to tell the rest of the world of his team's accomplishment.

While he had dreams of seeing a cellphone in everyone's hands, even Mr. Cooper could not have imagined the impact the creation would have.

Today, cellphones help farmers in Africa get top dollar for their crops.

People in India use their phones to check bus and train schedules. In Japan, the phone offers a method of paying for goods. In China, the cellphone is connecting people all over the country, a feat that was once impossible.

And in Canada, new services are being rolled out weekly -- including having the ability to use your phone in place of a paper concert ticket or watching the latest TV shows while on the go.

On top of it all, cellphones are helping spread the reach of the Internet to places that could not get access otherwise.

From simple voice communication to text messaging, mobile e-mail, video e-mail and new GPS technologies that allow phones to show their position on the globe, every facet of how people interact has been changed by the device that was showcased to the world 35 years ago today.

But not all of the change has been welcome.

"It's an example of mankind's ability to introduce new technologies, but completely miss the boat when it comes to understanding the implications of those technologies," said Carmi Levy, senior vice-president of strategic consulting at Toronto's AR Communications. "In the past, you had to get someone live on the phone who was sitting at his or her desk in a certain location. They were literally tied to their location. Today, that limitation is gone.

"It doesn't matter if you are on your way to pick up the kids from school or sitting in an airport. The work continues to happen."

The cellphone heralded a new generation in which the idea of a "9 to 5" workday has almost been abolished.

The ability to work wherever/whenever captivated business-minded people the world over. Despite its $3,995 U.S. price tag, thousands were on waiting lists for Motorola's DynaTAC 8000x cellular phone after Mr. Cooper's New York showing 35 years ago.

Being able to always be connected has changed the very way we think, according to Kenneth Knoespel, a professor at Georgia Institute of Technology. Instead of having a phone tethered to the wall, the phone is now tethered to you.

Twenty years ago when you were talking to someone on the phone, you never would have thought to ask where the person is, Mr. Knoespel said. But things are totally different today.

"One of the first things you say to someone is: 'Where are you'," said Mr. Knoespel. "In some ways it becomes symbolic of technology itself in that we have come to rely on it in such an extraordinary degree. Twenty years ago it would have been Star Trek-like. Today we are doing it automatically."

Today, there are more cellphone lines then landlines. More than three billion people subscribe to cellular services around the world.

Mr. Cooper, who at 79 is chief executive of the California software company ArrayComm LLC, says he would like to see the technology become even more space age.

He believes within the next 20 years, cellphones will be micro-sized, voice activated, implanted into people's bodies and able to do much more than what they do today.

"Just think of what a world it would be if we could measure the characteristics of your body when you get sick and transmit those directly to a doctor or a computer," he told Reuters during an interview last week. "You could get diagnosed and cured instantly and wirelessly."

He also believes that future cellphones won't need batteries; instead, they will be able to draw power from the human body itself.

Mr. Cooper realizes his ideas are radical, but he believes the only obstacle to seeing them happen is the conservative nature of people. Still, he said he is reminded of the response he received when he first proposed the idea of a portable phone in 1973.

"It was a really risky thing to do," he told Reuters. "People thought I was crazy thinking about a phone you can just put in your pocket."

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