14 September 2012

Phone futurism

I'm fond of telling a story about how fifteen years ago I read an article about how cellphones were much more prevalent in some East Asian country (Singapore? South Korea?). Something like 95% of the population had a cellphone. But the proliferation of phones didn't strike me so much as another statistic: apparently half of those phones had never made a voice call. Instead, people used their phones for SMS, little games, and PDA functions.

I prophesied then that in 2050 everyone would have a little computer in their pocket which they would call a “phone”, but few people would even remember where the name “phone” came from.

The emergence of the ubiquitous Little Pocket Computer has come faster than I expected. The iPhone assumes that one does not want a phone that also does other things; one wants a pocket computer which has “telephone” as one among many functions. The other smartphones have drifted the same way.

Alexis C. Madrigal at The Atlantic has canvassed a bunch of folks about The Phone Of 2022. It seems that this transition to “phone” not meaning telephone has taken hold in everyone's minds. Indeed, the article quickly becomes a discussion of computing interfaces.

“It's not clear to me that there is any such device as the phone in 2022. Already, telephony has become a feature and not even a frequently used feature of those things we put in our pockets. Telephony as a purpose built device is going away, as it's been going away for the TV and the radio,” Clay Shirky said to me, when I asked him to speculate. “So what are the devices we have in our pockets?”

The article contains the usual windy futurism. I don't mean that as a criticism; I love me some windy futurism. But more than any of the technologies it talks about, I find it interesting that even a journalist with column inches to fill assumes now that telephony does not define a “phone”.


David Wiegleb said...

Back around 1992, when I was working on X.400 (!?!?) messaging systems at Digital for one of the big telcos, we were working with the office in Germany, who had a project with Deutsche Telekom for this thing called "Short Message Services". Why in the world, thought I, would you want to no longer be able to send long messages when you can already send short messages? I certainly missed the boat on that one.

I was reminded yesterday of the old Kaypro (~1983) < s>portable< /s> "luggable" computer, which was 29 pounds, 64K, two floppies, no network, and ASCII-only graphics. The latest iPhone weights only as much as five quarters, fits in your back pocket, and has inconceivable computing power in comparison. My have things changed in 30 years! (And only a few years earlier it was punch cards and paper tape.)

Jonathan Korman said...

I have to confess that I missed the boat on the value of SMS, too. Why not just connect to email?

And now I am an SMS enthusiast.

Alan Armstrong said...

One issue with "telephony" and voice communications is the issue of what is called "dial-tone reliability". Compared to IP-based communications, analog landline infrastructure seems to be far more reliable. I dunno. I conduct voice interviews for a living. It's important to me to have low-latency, real-time conversations. Inflections, tone of voice, breathing ... these are all important. As they are for many business or relational conversations. I admit that my use case is an edge case, but this idea of dial-tone reliability (5 9's?) is something I haven't seen in other forms of verbal communications.

On the other hand, I have heard that in Asia, the cell phone network is far better than the landline infrastructure; in fact the quality there is the opposite of what we find here.

It seems somehow, though, that IP, with its asynchronous nature, is not optimized for voice communications. This, IMO, is one of the key challenges for evolving the telephone.


Tori said...

The devices in our pockets are trackers.