40 years of cellphone calls: An alternate history

The brick-sized phones and the networks that supported them are long gone, but they leave an important lesson about the pace of adoption in Canadian enterprises today

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There’s something about a milestone like the 40th anniversary of the first cellphone call that brings out our innate smugness. It’s easy to laugh at the brick-sized handsets of that era, and how clumsy they seem in comparison to the sleek, pocket-sized iPhones, Galaxy S4s or BlackBerry Z10s people are carrying around today. But maybe, just maybe, the joke’s really on us.

Consider the trajectory cellphone technology has made in the time since that moment on April 3, 1973, when Motorola’s Martin Cooper called up a rival at AT&T. The digital networks that now handle smartphone calls can allow data connectivity and other features that would never have been possible on the old AMPS analogue networks of the past. Prices have come down to the point where devices no longer need to be corporately issued, necessarily, and a demand for greater choice is driving a move toward bring-your-own-device (BYOD) policies. Thanks to app stores, we do a lot more than make cell phone calls in 2013. And yet I am willing to bet that for many people, when they first got a glimpse of the Motorola DynaTAC, the first reaction was something along the lines of, “Who’s going to use something like that?”

Much like the advent of personal computers, the Internet and almost everything else in IT, cell phones were by no means quick to be factored into business strategies. That it has taken 40 years to see more organizations consider “mobile-first” approaches to serving customers should embarrass us far more than the sight of a brick phone.

Let’s pretend for a minute that the reverse happened. What if, after that first legendary phone call, the corporate world sprang into action? What if early IT departments looked closely at the technology of mobile phones and considered the key challenges facing their fellow employees, clients and other stakeholders, and used mobility as a way to solve problems and gain a competitive edge? What if, instead of handing out the same beige bricks to a few selected (usually senior) employees, phones were distributed more widely with optional colour schemes and patterns to see how knowledge workers might have made use of them?

The idea of having to make a “business case” for a cell phone today would seem ridiculous. So might many of the advanced network technologies that we’ll see take root in the enterprise over the next 40 years, whether it’s unified communications as a service (UCaaS), software-defined networking or even cloud computing. Some of these things might seem too back-end or technical for the average person to care about, but the same might have been said of the earliest computers and cell phones.

Instead of gloating over what a long way we’ve come since that first cell phone call, why not use this anniversary to consider how much farther we could be going? What are the “brick phones” of 2013 that will one day be nothing less than critical to the way we work and live?

Take a look at what the future holds by tuning into our next Webinar: Changing the Boundaries of Collaboration: UCaaS featuring Cisco and Allstream.

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