There Was Life Before Smartphones, But Who Can Remember It?

Xconomy National — 

I’m lakeside this week in northern Michigan, hanging out with my extended family. It’s been interesting to observe my six-year-old nephew, who won’t go anywhere without a Power Rangers Megaforce robot in one hand and a Ty Monstaz plush toy in the other. They’re right beside him at the breakfast table, on the dock, at the beach, in the car, and in bed, like 21st-century security blankets.

It would be easy to chuckle at his attachment to the toys, if it weren’t so obvious that I have my own security blanket: my smartphone. Without it, I’m prone to feelings of anxiety and disconnectedness—an experience likely shared by hundreds of millions of other adults. It’s my compass, my map, my calendar, my camera, my news source, my emergency transponder, and generally the umbilical cord linking me to civilization.

While companies were already using the term “smartphone” in the late 1990s, the real arrival of these bewitching and now-ubiquitous gadgets can be dated to June 29, 2007, the day Apple released the iPhone. That was just two days after Xconomy went live on the Web, so in a sense the publication—along with many other online publications—has grown up right alongside smartphone technology. It’s hard to think of any other invention that has been embraced so quickly, so widely, and so wholeheartedly as the smartphone. Today we’re so accustomed to having the devices with us—at the breakfast table, on the dock, at the beach, in the car, and in bed—that we forget how new they really are, and how much they’ve changed our lives.

For the sake of perspective, let’s run through a list of activities that were somewhere between “tedious” and “impossible” on a phone before the summer of 2007.

Sending a text message. Before touchscreen devices with virtual QWERTY keyboards, texting required either a Blackberry-style device with a physical keyboard or the patience to multi-tap on a numeric keypad.

Listening to music. Between 2005 and 2009, Apple and Motorola worked together on an uninspiring line of phones called Rokr that could run Apple’s iTunes media player software. Other than that, it was pretty hard to download or store music on a phone, let alone play it.

Settling a bar-room argument, or looking up the name of that actor in that movie. The first few generations of Web-capable mobile phones couldn’t really handle HTML, so the mobile Web was ugly and slow. If you remember the Wireless Access Protocol, or WAP, then you can recall the minimalist numeric menus that, after much fuss, gave you access to a few news headlines or sports scores. Checking Wikipedia or IMDB, or figuring out what song was playing? Forget about it.

Taking a selfie. Before smartphones, cameras with front-facing displays (or displays with front-facing cameras) were rare. So you couldn’t properly frame a photo of yourself posing in front of the Eiffel Tower, the Taj Mahal, or the Miss Piggy balloon at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Sharing your selfies—with anyone. Before iOS and Android, there was no Instagram, no Snapchat, no Hipstamatic, no Path. It was only after engineers married cameras, phones, 4G wireless broadband, and photo-filter apps that photography emerged as a compelling form of social media.

Getting directions and navigating. If you were traveling somewhere new, you had to fire up a desktop browser before your trip, go to a service like Mapquest, and print out a map. If you forgot to do that, you were on your own. And even with the map, unless you had a passenger or a stand-alone navigation system, you didn’t have a voice reading turn-by-turn directions.

Playing Angry Birds, Words With Friends, or Infinity Blade. I’m old enough to remember a time when the pinnacle of entertainment on a mobile phone was a maze game called Snake. Thanks to Moore’s Law, the graphics cards in today’s smartphones rival those in the high-end game consoles of just a few years ago.

Taking the office with you. Farhad Manjoo had a nice piece in the New York Times last week about the benefits smartphones bring for busy professional parents, who can more easily mix work and family life. “Because you can work from anywhere thanks to your phone, you can be present and at least partly attentive to your children in scenarios where, in the past, you’d have had to be totally absent,” Manjoo pointed out. Of course, there’s also a certain cost to having an e-mail inbox that you can never really get away from. But overall, smartphones add greatly to our productivity, by letting us get things done without having to be at our desks.

And this list only scratches the surface. I’m on record predicting that there won’t be any more earthshaking changes in consumer computing technology until the early 2020s, in part because it takes such a long time for what I call “organizing innovations” like the smartphone to be properly absorbed and exploited. There’s plenty of room for smartphone designers to make the devices even more powerful and appealing than they are today, without wasting time exploring tangents like smart watches, smart glasses, or other wearables. (Smartphones are wearables: you wear them in your pocket, your purse, or your hand.)

You can take my laptop. You can take my tablet. But you can’t take my smartphone from me: it’s the centerpiece of my information existence, and yours, I’m betting.

It’s no wonder people bought nearly a billion of the glowing gadgets in 2013. They’re as irresistible for adults as Power Rangers and My Little Pony are for my nephew and niece.

And you can even use them to make phone calls.

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5 responses to “There Was Life Before Smartphones, But Who Can Remember It?”

  1. Curt Franke says:

    Wade, I couldn’t agree more with the sentiment of this article. Nicely done.

  2. Meredith Dow says:

    Great article Wade! I sometimes worry about what my cell phone has done to my ability to make decisions though as I called my husband from the store several times last weekend while grocery shopping. Before smart phone I would have just made the decision myself. Might be a good study for an aspiring psych student. LOL

  3. BethAnn3 says:

    I wonder if it’s an age thing. I have no desire to have a smart phone. But I do like having mobile web access through an 8″ tablet and 11″ laptop. I use WiFi on the go, but am thinking about getting a mobile hotspot for places that lack WiFi. My main problem with smartphones is the tiny font. I don’t like needing glasses to read the screen. So, I have my little Luddite flip phone for calls and texts, and my tablet for when I want to look at e-mails and the rest of the ‘net.

  4. Cullen Hanson says:

    Wade, I not only remember, but also preferred the “pre-smart phone” era. Nicotine seems less addictive than smartphones as evidenced by watching people walking through the streets and sidewalks with the ever present downwardly tilted head as they interact with their phones. Nervous tics would be a pleasant alternative. I’m sure it’s a function of my age, but man, do I wish they could put tat genie back into the bottle.

  5. Razvan C. says:

    I honestly can’t remember.

    It is not that I was born with an iPhone by my side. I was using a dumb phone as late as 2013. My first smartphone was a BlackBerry in 2011.

    However, things changed so much and we’ve became so reliant to technology that it is hard to remember when I did not use push email or Google Maps. In practice, this was just 6 years ago, for myself. Yet, that time seems like a relic from another century.

    To my defense though, I’ve been able to slowly break away from the hold of modern IT&C. I’m not on social media anymore, I can live with Skype notifications disabled and 80% of what I do with my phone is listen to audio-books. In the moment that you disable most of its uses (like Facebook), it becomes far less addictive. After all, smartphones are nothing more than a conduit. The apps themselves are what causes the addiction.

    I wouldn’t return to a dumb phone because it would be extremely inconvenient but I know there was a time when what’s the status quo now was unavailable.