The mobile phone is stimulating one of the most important technological revolutions in human history. This article first presents impacts, challenges, and predictions of mobile phone use. It first indicates that the impact of the mobile phone on society has been predominantly positive while the mobile phone has certain negative attributes. It then discusses multiple ways to overcome mobile technology challenges (e.g., new radio technologies and specialized devices optimized for medical, educational, or “Internet of things” applications). The authors predict that, in the two or three more generations, mobile phones use will have exciting advances to achieve the full benefits, especially in the area of healthcare, education, industry, daily life, learning, and collaborations, which will be more effective, productive, and creative.
And yet, the mobile phone revolution is just beginning. Simple “feature phones” have contributed to lifting over a billion people out of severe poverty in Africa. Simple add-ons are bringing professional medical treatment to remote villages in Mexico. In India, e-commerce is raising the standard of living for millions. In developed countries, we are only beginning to understand how much smartphones will improve our lives.
By far, the greatest contribution to society of the mobile phone is in improved productivity. People act more efficiently when they are connected, especially when they are connected whenever, wherever, and to whomever they wish. Beyond that, the mobile phone is an invaluable tool that can entertain, educate, improve safety, and add convenience to our lives.
As with every disruptive technology, mobile phones have negative attributes as well. Perhaps we first realized this in 1989 when mobile phones first rang in movie theaters. While some may have been annoyed or angered, we were dismayed. Our abiding belief in the potential of the mobile phone blinded us to the ways in which it could be antisocial. And, of course, ringing in a movie theater or concert hall was not the only annoyance.
The first commercial portable mobile phones became available in October 1983. Why did it take so long to discover their antisocial aspects? Initially, most mobile phones were wired into automobiles. The only handheld units—and we use the word “handheld” loosely—were Motorola DynaTACs, which weighed over a kilogram and were, for obvious reasons, called “the brick.” People were unlikely to carry the DynaTAC into a concert hall. Since that cell phone sold for $4,000, the equivalent of about $10,000 today, chances of even encountering one were slim. In 1989, Motorola introduced the MicroTAC, a flip phone which by modern standards was large, but at 12.3 oz was small enough to fit into a coat pocket. The MicroTAC was affordable enough to become popular.
In the early days, the cost of a call was high: 50 cents a minute. In the U.S., customers paid for incoming calls, making them reluctant to give out their cell phone number. As prices for service fell, especially after the assignment of more channels in the early 1990s, incoming calls and their related annoying alerts became more prominent. Consequently, smaller handheld units and the slow reduction of usage charges started to change people’s expectations—cellphones were becoming even more useful than fixed phones. We started to see—or rather, hear—phones in movie theaters and concert halls.
The mobile phone alone does not make people rude. Polite people learned to turn their ringers off in the concert hall and to speak in muted voices in crowded areas. In Japan, for example, using a mobile phone in a railway car will earn a sharp rebuke from the conductor. Society ultimately learns how to accommodate disruptive technology, so we rarely hear phones ring at the movies today.
All in all, the impact of the mobile phone on society has been predominantly positive. This impact has occurred mostly with the two simplest mobile phone technologies: talk and text. These simple activities have profoundly changed the lives of billions. One touching example is that of a poor woman in a village in India who obtains microfinancing to buy a cell phone and service. She then offers, at a nominal price, the use of her personal phone to farmers in her village to call the neighboring villages to find the best markets for their produce. Everybody wins! The woman, the farmers, and the customers who end up with fresher produce at better prices.
We are especially sensitive to the gender issue that affects the future of the mobile phone as it does everything else in our society. We know that most mobile phone and application engineers are men. This imbalance has neglected women’s sensibilities and needs regarding phone design. In some developing countries, women often do not have access to the family phone. We fervently hope that a more educated populace will realize that addressing women’s needs is not only socially responsible but profitable. As you will see in our predictions for the future mobile phones and applications, they will have a critical role in solving gender-related problems.
We are still in the early days of mobile phone development. Only a small fraction of the mobile phone’s potential has been unlocked. Services, especially Internet access, are too costly, as are the phones themselves. Smartphones try to do all things for all people but do none optimally. Mobile phones are designed as mass-market commodities without regard for the fact that people are unique and that different people benefit from phones designed for their unique needs.
- New radio technologies are increasing the capacity of existing systems and reducing service costs.
- Specialized devices optimized for medical, educational, or “Internet of things” applications are appearing each day.
- Applications are starting to appear that promise to revolutionize medicine, education, and business.
- People are starting to collaborate in ways that were not even dreamt about 10 years ago; the capacity of mobile-phone-enabled collaboration to topple governments has already been demonstrated.
We predict a world in which the mobile phone makes the most advanced medical technology available to all, as it helps solve the dilemma of a healthcare system focused on curing diseases rather than preventing them.
We predict a society in which mobile-phone-enhanced education occurs 24 hr a day everywhere—not just in the classroom; in which students are educated in stimulating ways; in which the knowledge of the world is available to all.
We predict an industrial society in which hierarchical organizations give way to collaborative self-organized entities in continuous communications with one another.
We predict a technological revolution in which the wireless technologies we espouse become either invisible, transparent, or intuitive, with the sole function of serving us as they make our lives better, and hopefully simpler.
We predict a new education paradigm in which students wirelessly connected to the Internet learn in the real world, and where the role of the teacher is elevated to counseling and customizing the education of students.
Wireless technology, the mobile phone, and all its derivatives will not be the sole catalyst for energizing these revolutionary advancements. Nor will wireless technology solve the social, legal, and regulatory barriers that must be overcome. It is our fervent hope, however, that the promise of a technological solution is so compelling that the bureaucrats and bigots will fall by the wayside and lawyers will actually facilitate progress. We further point out that the first phase of the wireless revolution took more than a human generation to evolve. It will take two or three more generations to achieve the full benefits we predict. But progress, as you will clearly observe in this journal, is already happening; it will be continuous and relentless, and there will be incremental benefits all along the way.
Some readers may find our predictions overly optimistic. I urge those readers to dive into and contribute to this Journal. We want you to become part of the revolution.
Finally, we cannot overemphasize the importance of the new form of collaboration the mobile phone engenders. It is now possible for people to communicate with each other in numerous ways, independent of location and time. Communications can be instantaneous or delayed. People can talk, text, email, Tweet, post on Facebook, Instagram, and video conference cheaply and conveniently. This is only the beginning. Most of these are crude, first-generation tools that will evolve and integrate into powerful facilitators of efficiency and productivity. It is our expectation and hope that this new journal of mobile-phone behavior will stimulate this revolution by enhancing the collaborative process. The result will be a cascading explosion of creativity that revolutionizes not only the mobile-phone industry but the way we do everything.
- Arlene Harris is a serial entrepreneur, inventor, and wireless pioneer. She started her career in the radio paging business, where she ran and created the business systems for the largest single city paging company in the world. She started or co-founded over a half dozen companies since then, including GreatCall, Inc. which marketed her invention, the Jitterbug cell phone, a device designed for those seeking simplicity. GreatCall was purchased by BestBuy in 2018 and has over a million subscribers. Among her accomplishments is the creation and introduction of the concept of prepaid cellular service, without which most cellular subscribers in the world would be unable to use cell phones. She is the Founder and Chair of Wrethink, Inc., a high-tech fixed broadband company focused on consumer privacy and helping families use technology to organize and manage personal information. Harris is a member of the Consumer Industry Hall-of-Fame and of the wireless History Hall-of-Fame.
Martin Cooper is a visionary, inventor, and entrepreneur who conceived of the first portable cellular telephone handset in 1973 and led the team that developed and introduced it. He is known as the “father of the handheld cellular phone.” Cooper is a member of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering from which he received the Charles Draper Award. He is a Marconi Prize recipient, a Prince of Asturias Laureate, and a Life Member and centennial medal awardee of the IEEE. He presently serves on the FCC Technology Advisory Council. Cooper has been widely published in the wireless field. He formulated the Law of Spectral Efficiency (Cooper’s Law) that supports his view that there is no scarcity of radio spectrum. He is an alumnus and life trustee of the Illinois Instituter of Technology.