Mobile phones ring up 40 years of keeping the world in touch

A 1930s drive to encourage the use of phone boxes. Today the mobile rules supreme, making land lines seem antique. Picture: Getty
A 1930s drive to encourage the use of phone boxes. Today the mobile rules supreme, making land lines seem antique. Picture: Getty
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WHEN Motorola engineer Dr Martin Cooper picked up the world’s first cellular phone and made a call, he had no way of knowing that, four decades later, that simple act would be replicated about 12.4 billion times a day.

Cooper made the call in New York 40 years ago this week on a Motorola DynaTAC, a phone dubbed “the brick” due to its substantial weight of more than one kilogram.

It was also nine inches tall, contained 30 circuit boards, had a talk-time of 35 minutes, and took ten hours to recharge.

“Joel, this is Marty Cooper, I’d like you to know that I’m calling you from a cellular phone,” he said, greeted by silence at the end of the line. The recipient was Joel Engel – a rival engineer – who had to resign himself to the fact his rival had beaten him to making the first mobile call.

While the size, weight and limitations of the device are laughable by today’s standards, mobile phones are now firmly embedded in the 21st century life of consumers.

Ernest Doku, telecoms expert at, says mobiles are now so integral to daily life that people feel naked without them. “Handsets are now so multi-purpose that calling and texting are merely basic requirements,” he says.

“They now do everything from e-mail and instant messaging to taking photos and making movies, to organising our social and work calendars. They also give us access to thousands of apps that will do just about anything from online banking to editing photos on the go.”

Yet the rise of the mobile can’t be attributed to convenience alone, he adds:

“It has also been made possible by fierce competition 
between networks and manufacturers. Price wars have benefited consumers globally, and now even high-spec smartphones are affordable.”

Such is this affordability that during 2012 six billion mobile subscriptions were registered, when the world population was just seven billion. In the UK, 92 per cent of adults own or use a mobile phone – totalling 81.6 million mobile subscriptions – according to Ofcom.

From walkie-talkie-sized bricks to sleek aluminium devices, the mobile has come a long way and revolutionised more than a few lives. But given its stratopheric rise, what does the next 40 years hold?

The mobile’s evolution from a mere communications device to a lifestyle accessory has created a worldwide telecoms industry with annual revenues of £800bn. The sheer speed at which the industry has developed renders phone models from only five years ago practically neolithic, enabling companies to reinvent themselves and charge appropriately, and in the case of Apple and Samsung, engage in some bitter patent lawsuits along the way.

Dr Mike Short, former president of the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) and mobile industry veteran, says the coming years will see mobile innovation continue.

He adds: “Since its first use 40 years ago, the mobile phone has completely changed our lives. The first decade was a research or a ‘demonstrator’ phase, rapidly followed by analogue networks deployed over ten years from the early 1980s largely based on car phones and used in business in the developed world. This soon led to the digital decade, mainly between 1993 and 2003, when consumerisation and globalisation of mobiles really took off. This led to a further data adoption phase with the arrival of 3G and during 2003-13 access to the internet and the wider use of smartphones became a reality.”

This wider use has resulted in a quarter of adults and almost half of teenagers in the UK owning a smartphone, according to a 2011 report by Ofcom.

Indeed, so many people now own mobiles that the market has reported a loss for the first time as fewer new users come on stream. IT monitoring company Gartner Research recently said sales fell 1.7 per cent to 1.75 billion during 2012. During the past 40 years, the mobile has gone from a zero per cent stake of the global market to saturation point. So what are the ­mobile giants doing to satiate the appetite for increasing connectivity and new gadget kudos?

February’s Mobile World Congress showcased prototype new technologies designed to integrate mobile phones into our daily lives. Our phones will soon buzz with messages from the fridge telling us to buy milk, the vacuum asking for repairs or the dishwasher wanting emptied. These devices are expected to seamlessly communicate the needs of domestic appliances, which, in the future, will all be internet-enabled for ultimate 

Another expectation is that, in the next few years, phones will evolve from handheld devices to wearable accessories. Apple is developing a wristwatch-style device dubbed the iWatch to compete with Google Glass, a wearable computer with head-mounted display, touted for release by the end of this year.’s Doku claims that the incredible rise of the smartphone is down to its deployment of accessible, reasonably affordable technology.

“In the last ten years alone, what was considered cutting edge home computing power can now fit in the palm of your hand and video games which were once a technical tour de force can now be played on a smartphone waiting for the bus.

“With Google Glass marking a huge milestone in the advent of wearable technology, it’s possible that ‘embedded’ gadgets that are on us – or even part of us – could become commonplace in future.” He added: “Barriers between us and our technology will continue to fall. Just as the touchscreen has given us a more intuitive and tactile method of interacting with our smartphones, voice and sight-activated controls could one day lead to us being able to call or text simply by thinking about it, powered by brain impulses.”

But it is not all about high-end development. Nokia used the congress to launch its 105 model, costing a mere £13 before taxes, and which lasts an entire month on a single battery charge.

Featuring a colour screen and a built-in FM radio, the device may be basic, but it is expected to conquer the Eastern markets of India and China due to its ­ultra-low entry price.

Over in the West, experts believe mobiles will replace the laptop as the internet-enabled device of choice, as demonstrated in January when social media giant Facebook announced that for the first time more people were accessing its service on ­mobile phones than on PCs.

Gartner predicts sales of one billion smartphones throughout 2013, compared with the 675 million units sold last year – an increase of 49 per cent, while the PC market is predicted to 
decline by 7.6 per cent.

Carolina Milanesi, research vice president at Gartner, said: “As consumers shift their time away from their PC to tablets and smartphones, they will no longer see their PC as a device that they need to replace on a regular basis.”

The inexorable rise of the mobile phone is an almost unparalleled phenomenon and with UK consumers paying an average bill of £439 per year, is an increasingly lucrative industry for service providers.

Ernest Doku says: “Mobile phones were once so bulky they covered half your head, and in terms of size they’ve gone almost full circle. While they might not be bricks any more, the popularity of bigger screens means they are now approaching roof-tile size, blurring the boundary between smartphone and

“Technology is moving at such a tremendous rate that it boggles the mind what could be achieved in another 40 years.”