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Communication gadgets: Then and now

by Danyelle Arredondo


By 1979, the telecommunications market was picking up speed. More than 90.5% of homes in the U.S. had telephones.1 On January 1, 1979, the first commercially automated cellular network (1G generation) was launched in Japan. However, it was not until 1983 that the first 1G network launched in the U.S. by the Chicago-based company Ameritech.2

Pagers and beepers

Long before email and texting, there were pagers, portable mini radio frequency devices that allowed for instant human interaction.3 Invented in 1921, pagers (also known as beepers) were used by the Detroit Police Department when they successfully put a radio-equipped police car into service.4

In 1959, the term “pager” was coined by Motorola. By the 1970s, tone and voice pagers were invented. After the tone, the pager relayed an audio message. This was a big improvement because the recipient was immediately given more information such as “Code Blue in CIU.”

But it wasn’t until the 1980s that pager use exploded. To have one hanging from a belt loop, shirt pocket, or purse strap was to convey a certain kind of status — that of a person important enough to be reached at a moment's notice. Like today's emoji-savvy texters, pager users eventually developed their own form of shorthand communication.

There were 3.2 million pager users worldwide in the early 1980s. Pagers had a limited range and were used mostly in on-site situations —when medical staff needed to communicate with each other in the hospital. At this time, Motorola was also producing devices with alphanumeric displays, which allowed users to receive and send a message through a digital network.

A decade later, broad-area paging became available and more than 22 million of the devices were in use. By 1994, more than 61 million were in use, as pagers became popular for personal communications as well. Pager users could send any number of messages, from "I Love You" to "Goodnight," all using a set of numbers and asterisks.

While Motorola stopped producing pagers in 2001, they are still being manufactured. Spok is one company that provides a variety of paging services, including one-way, two-way, and encrypted.

Paging networks are often viewed as more reliable than cellular or wi-fi networks. Even the best of those networks still have dead zones and poor in-building coverage. Pagers instantly deliver messages with no lags in delivery. So, until cellular networks become just as reliable, the "beeper" remains the best form of communication for those working in the critical communications fields.


Cell phones take off

Many early cell phones were considered to be “car phones,” as they were too large and cumbersome to carry around. However, in 1983, the Motorola DynaTAC 8000x arrived on the market. Though huge by today’s standards, it was considered the first truly “mobile phone” because it was small enough to carry. The phone, though incredibly expensive, became a pop culture symbol. However, cell phone use had not spread to the general public yet. They were primarily used for business at that time.

Though the DynaTAC and subsequent models were smaller, more mobile, and ultimately cooler, they still had their faults. Bulky, luggable models like the Nokia Mobira Talkman and the Motorola 2900 Bag Phone had longer battery lives and more talk time, making them more popular. As the technology advanced, cell phone companies learned how to pack all the features their customers wanted into smaller, portable, and more affordable models.

As features like voicemail were added, the primary purpose of the cell phone was to talk. Eventually, cell phone manufacturers began to realize that they could integrate other technologies into their phones and expand their features. The earliest smartphones let users access email, and use the phone as a fax machine, pager, and address book.

Cell phone use has now shifted from a communication tool to a multimedia tool, to a “mobile device.” We now use our cell phones to surf the web, check email, take photos, and update our social media status rather than place calls.

Cell phones of today are also replacing our other gadgets, such as cameras and video cameras. When cameras were first introduced on phones, the images were low quality and the feature was considered to be an extra. Now, consumers no longer carry cameras and just use their cell phones. Modern day smartphones — the Apple iPhone in particular — changed everything that consumers expect from their phones. The app market has transformed the phone into a virtual toolbox with a solution for almost every need.

It’s not just the technology of the cell phone that has changed over time; the physical design has also gone through a rollercoaster of changes. Original car phones and bag phones were as large as modern day computers and just as heavy.

Like computers, cell phones became drastically smaller. Customers’ perceptions shifted, and they demanded a smaller, sleeker cell phones. Just in recent years, cell phone designs have started to become larger and simpler, making room for a larger screen and fewer buttons. Because phones have become mobile media devices, the most desirable aspect is a large, clear, high-definition screen for optimal web viewing. Even the keyboard is being taken away, replaced by a touchscreen keyboard that only comes out when you need.