A couple of days ago, the mobile phone turned 40. The response to this milestone was perhaps surprisingly muted, as though people were slightly confused about how to respond to it. Most of the responses limited themselves to nostalgia trips built around the obligatory photo of Martin Cooper holding the phone with which he made the first call. Considering that the mobile phone is the most socially transformative technological development of modern times, it seems strange that not more of a fuss was made.
The reason for this perhaps stems from the mild dissonance produced from the idea that the mobile phone can possibly be 40 years old. Windows 1.0 is 27 years old, Windows 95 (the first ‘recognisably modern’ operating system) is 18. The idea that the mobile phone is more than twice as old as Windows 95 is an oddly uneasy one, and shows just how dramatically the smartphone has reinvented the mobile device.
We don’t care that the mobile phone is 40 because that piece of information doesn’t reflect the reality that we have experienced. Not commercially available for 10 years after the first call was made, and not made widely and cheaply available until much later than that, the age of the mobile phone feels like it has been read off a doctored passport. Anyone who owned one of the primitive early smartphones (anyone else have a Samsung Omnia?) will know how frustrating and poorly designed they were. The best thing about them was appreciating the beauty of their external design – but only while the phone was turned off and couldn’t trouble you with its completely unintuitive UI. The historical moment to be cherished is not 40 years, but the year of the first iPhone (2007). While much has changed since then, it is useful to remember that it was dubbed ‘the god machine’ when first released – such was its near-miraculous disruption of the market.
It is only since then that the mobile phone began to challenge, not only the landline, but also the personal computer in terms of widespread utility and popularity. The story of this decade so far is the extent to which mobile Internet is replacing the desktop, and to think of the mobile phone as 40 years old throws that narrative into confusion. The African (non-smartphone) mobile revolution is also a relatively recent phenomenon – and fits with the idea of the mobile as a phenomenon truly born within the last 10 years. Yes, the first mobile call was made 40 years ago, but the first 25+ years of its commercial evolution were so slow that it seems almost unbelievable. If you’re wondering why so little fuss has been made (especially in comparison to the 20 year anniversary of the text message), then perhaps it is because it doesn’t fit in to the narrative arc of the PC’s demise and mobile’s ascendancy.