Recently I was thinking about the evolution of the telephone and its convergence with the Internet and 3G and 4G networks.
My children went through school having access to the internet at home and school, and a mobile phone in their pocket. When I was at school, this was the subject matter of science fiction.
The Home Phone
In my youth, every home had a telephone something like the one shown in the photograph above. The phone was usually in the lounge room and shared amongst all members of the household. Next to the phone was the “teledex” for looking up frequently used numbers. The white pages and yellow pages were delivered each year and we pushed our copies under the lounge chair. They were useful for finding numbers but we could call a directory assistance number if the books weren’t useful.
If I wanted to contact my friends, I would ring their home number. Sometimes I would have to leave a message so I would give my name and number and hope the other person (usually the mother) would pass on the message. It was really annoying when the phone didn’t get answered or the number was busy. I would have to keep retrying.
The only phone I could use when I was at school was a public phone box near Warrawee station. This phone was dysfunctional as it was possible to make yourself heard by yelling into the receiver. You can imagine the site of school boys yelling into the phone “MUM! Warrawee!” which was teenage-speak for “Could you please come and pick me up from Warrawee station”.
The Office Phone
When I started work, each desk had a phone somewhat similar to the home phone, connected to the office switch board. It was meant to be used for business related calls, but these were the days before mobile phones, so the phone would get used for personal calls. It was always a challenge to make personal calls at work without my colleagues over-hearing. When I called a school friend who was working as a solicitor in a small law firm, the receptionist would ask “And what matter are you calling about?”. My friend suggested I say “The murder trial”.
Organising my social life during this first few years of working required planning ahead by making phone calls in the evening to my friends at home, or calling them at the office during the day.
The next piece of technology was the answering machine for the home. These devices were usually too expensive for home use but I remember buying an answering machine that used microcassettes. I recorded a greeting and when I returned home I would replay the messages. It wasn’t too long before Telstra (once the exclusive phone company in Australia) offered a voice mail system for the home phone, so I threw out the answering machine.
The problem with a phone plugged in to a wall outlet is that you can’t take the phone very far unless you buy an extension cable (which I did). Cordless phones are a convenient piece of technology which we first bought probably eight years ago after we extended our house. Now I can cook while I talk on the phone or go outside.
The fax machine
We bought a fax machine for home for my wife’s translation business. She would print her work then send by fax. Now the fax machine is almost obsolete as her work would now be accomplished by sending a document as an email attachment.
The Motorola Brick phone
The first mobile phone I ever used was made by Motorola and looked like a small brick. It was very expensive and my wife had one from her company for a couple of days. This was probably in 1989. I will never forget the novelty of ringing my mother at home while we were driving through Northbridge . “Hi Mum .. I am calling from the car!”.
I remember buying a toy mobile phone that looked a lot like the Motorola. It was quite amusing to take it in my car and pretend to be making phone calls. A few colleagues liked that prank and bought some of these toy phones.
The car phone
In the early 1990s, portable phones were still too expensive and looked like something used by the US military in Iraq. However, the car phone was affordable for sales people at my company (Prime Computer). One salesman wanted to show off and I remember when we drove to a customer in Lane Cove. As we approached our destination he called the customer to say “I am driving in to your car park”. So what?!
I got my first mobile phone in 1997 when I was working as a contractor – a Nokia from Vodafone. It wasn’t much smaller than a Motorola brick. It had its uses but the primary use was voice calls and voice messages. As our daughters reached high school age we got mobile phones for them as they are very useful for the usual parental communication.
Mobile phones have almost made the home phone obsolete. No longer do we have to stay at home near the phone to received an important call. We can make calls anywhere and anytime but this has its downsides on society – where is it inappropriate to use your phone? How annoying to hear a mobile phone ringing during a piano recital or church service. A friend told me he was at a funeral and mobile phone rang. I could imagine the response (in a low voice): “Can’t talk now … at a funeral”.
The text message
Why speak when you can type? My primary use for my mobile phone is text messaging. I avoid making phone calls unless I have to, as it is much easier to convey information and much cheaper. Our family communicates with text messages (SMS) – “What time will you be home?”, “Please buy bread on the way home”.
I receive text messages reminding me of my dental appointments, car service, payment of medical benefits. Now school students receive their HSC results by text message. I went to the post office early in the morning to collect my results – now the communication is electronic.
I still think sending text messages overseas is cool. When my wife travels overseas we exchange text messages which overcomes the challenges of time differences.
The smart phone
Now that I have an Android phone, I have found that text messages can be sent in many ways. I often send messages using Facebook for Mobile, or the Whatsapp application. A text message is just a small chunk of text and can be delivered in many ways.
Who needs a home phone when you can talk to your friends using a chat program? I am great fan of using Gmail chat and to a lesser degree, Facebook chat. The communication can be as fast or as slow as you want.
I am not a big user of Skype but I have found it be a satisfactory alternative to the telephone. Adding the web-cam is a lot of fun and I have had video chats with a friend in Baltimore, USA. Seeing the other person creates a strong communication. Recently I made Skype calls to my wife in Beijing. My daughters and I were gathered around the web cam and when she said it was snowing we asked to see it. She help up her laptop and pointed it out the window. Cool!
I am sure the rate of technological change will accelerate. The home phone will probably become obsolete and smart phones will get even smarter. Our phones have become personal communicators as well as being a GPS, camera, video camera and games machine. I am sure phones will be used to make payments, and eliminating credit cards. What exciting new applications can be create for the phone.
Technological change does have its downside and we need to use the technology wisely. Before mobile phones, my social group would plan ahead and we wrote our events in diaries. Nowadays, planning seems to be more ad-hoc but it does allow flexibility.
Manners and etiquette need to adapt to modern technology. The boundaries for acceptable use of phones is constantly evolving and expanding. I used to frown on people playing with their phones in restaurants but I have changed my view as I do that myself.