The Decade In Review

I have said and written on many occasions that we are in the third era of mobile communications. The first era, the Personal Communications era, was about using phones without wires (1973 – 1995). The second era, the Personal Productivity era, was about using data-enabled mobile phones for web browsing, mobile email, scheduling and text messaging (1996 – 2006) The third era, the Personal Impact era, has been about using mobile phones to manage personal lifestyles, personal well being and personal entertainment (2007 present). As we go into this new decade, one can intuitively see that the Personal Impact era will have an even greater impact on our lives.

We are already starting the decade using a new breed of smartphones — ones that possesses everything but the kitchen sink (but then again, there may be an app for that too). These smartphones embody a mobile usage model that is radically different from that of ten years ago. We are using our mobile phones today to do thousands of things, including controlling and interacting with digital signage. This is vastly different from how used mobile phones at the turn of the century. In the year 2000, mobile phones were primarily used for two things: talking and, in very limited cases, texting.

It is sometimes easy to forget just how far we’ve come in ten years. It is also easy to forget our mindset of ten years ago. In this post, we’re going to take a look back at mobility at the turn of the century and discuss the key events that are allowing mobile technologies to play a major role in our lives going forward.

The year was 1999. I was working for EDS (a $22 billion IT services company which is now a part of HP) helping wireless carriers develop and support new services and products. The big thing at the time was helping paging carriers deploy two-way paging (remember pagers) and helping cellular carriers conceive/deploy new wireless data services (carriers were not sure how to sell wireless data at the time). The installed base of cell phones were divided among analog phones (principally used for voice communications) and the new, emerging digital phones that could support data services (e.g. web access, text messaging). There were no smartphones as we currently know them; however some European and Japanese manufacturers had versions that looked a little like miniature computers.

In 1999, the typical professional — particularly those who traveled — carried a cell phone, a pager and a PDA (typically a Palm Pilot). Some also carried a small digital camera and a MP3 player — both of which were fairly new product categories at the time. It was a time when we were overwhelmed with electronics and none of them worked seamlessly together. In fact, just carrying all these devices was such a problem, that I formed a company to manufacture a personal technology organizer (pictured above) that was designed to make the task of managing the devices just a little easier.

By the year 2000, many were talking about the need for a new convergent device — one that would combine a PDA, a cell phone, web browser, an email platform and a pager/text messenger in one unit (few at the time thought a camera would be essential to the package). The early part of the 2000’s played host to the first convergent device, which became known as a smartphone. Handspring, a PDA manufacturer, led the way with the Treo series, followed by RIM’s Blackberry phones, followed by devices from Motorola, Samsung and others.

Although the smartphone was cool, it was a niche product none the less. The Blackberry however was a game-changer in the smartphone segment vy virture of its seamless integration with email. But, by the time the Blackberry had become a well known brand, the smartphone segment had seemed to have come of age. Few, it seemed, were questioning ways to add value to the smartphone.

By the mid-2000’s, the smartphone was for all intents and purposes a mature product. It is my opinion that smartphone innovation would have permanently slowed had it not been for another turn of the century innovation. In 2001, Apple invented the iPod. The first iPod was cool for its time, but the real revolution came with Apple’s creation of iTunes. iTunes made it absolutely painless to capture digital content (e.g. songs) and move it to a media player (commonly called an MP3 player at the time). Prior to the iPod and iTunes, capturing music and moving it to a MP3 player was only for the technically savvy. However, when Apple added the music store to iTunes, the foundation was laid for a radical shift in the mobile paradigm.

As the iTunes store expanded its portfolio of digital content, e.g. songs, audio books, podcasts, movies, TV shows, the iPod became the undisputed leader in the mobile media player segment. In fact, by the mid-2000’s, iTunes and the iPod were so popular that many were questioning when Apple would integrate the iPod into a cell phone or vice versa. In 2007, the question was answered. Apple released the first iPhone. The iPhone was cool and offered a revolutionary user interface. But, it didn’t become a real game changer until Apple introduced the App Store. The App Store facilitated an innovation explosion. Suddenly the iPhone was a smartphone that could do it all. With the introduction of the App Store, the iPhone (i.e. the smartphone) was now allowing people to manage their lives. A far cry from smartphones of the past.

As we enter the new decade, more and more companies will adopt and improve upon the Apple model. As innovation in this segment flourishes, how, where and when people interact with one another will change forever. We’re seeing it happen today with text messaging, Twitter and Facebook, and it will happen again as new services and products come online. One thing I’d bet on thought… the future will be mobile.


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