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David Sable Headshot

Remember Cell Phones?

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Do you remember cell phones?

We used to use them to make calls....

Today we have smartphones. We use them to communicate, but also to take pictures, consume content, play games, buy and sell stuff, find our way, store data and get advertised to....

We pontificate on mobile -- it's here! Its time has come! It's the future... you know the drill.

Frankly, it's a lot of digibabble -- and I thought it might be interesting to do a little archeological digging and uncover the roots of this "new and amazing" trend, so that we can burst the digibabble and really get to its power and possibility.

Where to begin?

How about with this:


If you begin everything with the Bible -- the first mobility began with Adam and Eve getting thrown out of the Garden of Eden. You can imagine the scene:

God: Get out --

Adam (maybe Eve, not clear): OK big guy, but how are we going to stay in touch and find our way around? You try and get an iPhone out there....

For those with a more historical bent -- here is what Wikipedia says:

"Pre-historical migration of human populations began with the movement of Homo erectus out of Africa across Eurasia about a million years ago. Homo sapiens appear to have colonized all of Africa about 150 millennia ago, moved out of Africa some 80 millennia ago, and spread across Eurasia and to Australia before 40 millennia ago. Migration to the Americas took place about 20 to 15 millennia ago, and by 1 millennium ago, all the Pacific Islands were colonized. Later population movements notably include the Neolithic revolution and Indo-European expansion, part of which emerges in the earliest historic records."

And that was only the beginning -- there were great migrations in medieval times (despite the common thinking that there wasn't); there were the Ages of Exploration and Colonialism and, of course, we have seen the modern-day migrations to urban centers and then back out again and then back in again and then back... you get the picture.

We have seen the explosion of populations and commuting through traffic jams and work forces covering distances that were once prohibitive, and the advent of relatively cheap, safe and efficient travel (wishful thinking).

And all of the above suggests a mobility that is in our DNA -- core to our being -- part of the human experience and critical to what has shaped and will continue to shape the world.

In a paper written in 1997 for the MIT Center for Technology, Policy and Industrial Development and the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change, the following prediction was made:

"Today, world citizens move 23 billion km in total; by 2050 that figure grows to 105 billion."

INSIGHT -- Oh My God -- people are mobile, what an opportunity.

Now let's move on to devices. Whatever you call them.

Interestingly, car phones existed in the 1930s and anyone who has ever studied the newspaper and radio drama culture of the United States in the 1930s knows that the famous Police Detective Dick Tracy used a watch phone actually introduced in 1946.

However -- where you and I enter the story is on April 3, 1973, when Martin Cooper - considered the "father of the cell phone" - demonstrated the practicality of the device by making the first street call of its type ever outside the Hilton Hotel in Manhattan:

"As I walked down the street while talking on the phone, sophisticated New Yorkers gaped at the sight of someone actually moving around while making a phone call. Remember that in 1973, there weren't cordless telephones, let alone cellular phones. I made numerous calls, including one where I crossed the street while talking to a New York radio reporter - probably one of the more dangerous things I have ever done in my life."

It's a great story and worth reading - and it's equally interesting to look at the phone and its size - -like a brick -- and contemplate the issues of battery life. Some things never change.

The digibabble buster is simple -- Cooper changed the way we make calls because we now call person to person -- and not place to place. He didn't just stumble on this by accident -- he understood the human need and in an interview with CNN many years later, he said:

"...the personal telephone - something that would represent an individual, so you could assign a number not to a place, not to a desk, not to a home, but to a person. People want to talk to other people - not a house, or an office, or a car. Given a choice, people will demand the freedom to communicate wherever they are, unfettered by the infamous copper wire."

And there you have it -- the biggest insight of all -- written about today as if it's new and unique to our times and way too often linked to pronouncements and articles and unveilings of all kinds, most of which I'd argue miss the essential -- it's personal -- not as in I have your data and I can send you an ad -- but personal as in it's mine as a person.

Phones got smaller; batteries got better -- phones got bigger again; batteries got worse -- we added more features, more functionality, more confusion.

We call everything that can move "mobile," really meaning the phone and forgetting about everything else, but make little distinction between usage -- and talk screens, not "person."

The real mobile innovators, such as the Human Dynamics Lab at MIT, are using phone data to predict human mobility -- to help you know when you might get sick and to uncover deep physiological insights into behavior (they get it), and they use the term cell phone -- not digibabble..


"One should use common words to say uncommon things." -- Arthur Schopenhauer

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