The Evolution of Wireless Technology

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Ten years ago the average person would probably have turned up his or her nose or indulged in a little “Technology? What now” type eye rolling if someone had forecast the widespread use of cell phones. Now, those same people have at least one cell phone and can often be seen doing that crazy, talking-to-themselves thing on the street while jabbering into an unseen ear piece. Wireless technology has evolved considerably in a relatively short period of time. No more do we concern ourselves with issues of functionality, the network or exorbitant roaming fees. Now, it’s all about ring tones, Razr phones and getting the most minutes for the least money.

“In the early to mid-’80s wireless telephones were bulky, very big, huge battery, could weigh several pounds to half a pound. We didn’t have a portable mobile device,” said Rene Link, vice president and CIO, inCode. “Everything was either a car phone or was so gigantic that you had to lay it on top of something to make a call. You couldn’t carry it and walk around and be truly mobile.”

The biggest brand at that time was Motorola, which had started to develop and sell wireless hand sets that evolved from the push-to-talk, walkie-talkie type radios they’d been selling for decades. Devices were typically three-watt handsets or car phones that resembled large bricks. They didn’t have screens, simply showed the number that you had actually dialed, and they all came in black, like the Model-A Ford, Link said. “We started evolving, and true mobility came when these devices started to get smaller. People weren’t willing to walk around with these giant bricks in a briefcase or a strap phone that used to hang on your shoulder or a car phone.”

Link recalled that his favorite device in the late ’80s was the Star Trekky Micro Tac phone from Motorola, the first flip phone to ever come out. “It was very forward, very innovative and small enough that it fit in your hand, and for the first time it was truly portable. It had all kinds of nifty features, all along the lines of making voice calls. It was only voice. There was no data. All you cared about was the ability to send and receive calls. Data emerged when Motorola put in voicemail.”

Complaints about the small size of the Micro Tac buttons had to be dealt with, and other user interface concerns met up with application issues when mobile-phone users experienced problems moving from one market to another, even within the same metropolitan area. If dropped calls drive you batty now, imagine continually crossing invisible lines en route to wherever. You’re dropped from a call and charged high roaming fees to reinitiate it. “The network wasn’t developed to a point where the call carried or was handed over to another cell site automatically or seamlessly,” Link explained. “And it was analog back then. Now we’re digital. The analog call would start making a lot of noise, and the call would either drop or you would disconnect by pressing the end button. We evolved and networks got so intelligent on the back end that it allowed you to make that transition from one cell site to another seamlessly. That was called the hand off.

“Today when you roam from one state to another or from one carrier to another or within the carrier, all of that is done seamlessly on the back end. The user interface evolved to make a call, receive a call, go anywhere you want, do voicemail and all kinds of fun stuff. Your user interface has a calendar, alarm clock, calculator. You can change your settings, change your ring tone. In the old days you didn’t have that. In the old days you didn’t have a screen,” Link said.

Caller ID advanced from a tiny screen that only captured the phone number you dialed to one big screen inside the phone to two screens, one on the inside and one on the outside. From an application perspective, phones went from being strictly voice on an analog network, which was very crackly especially when you had poor coverage, to great quality call service and second and third generation, fully digital networks. Data capabilities are more prevalent and more diverse. “Data is clearly making a bigger impact year after year because of the development of the network. From a service and pricing perspective, clearly pricing has come down,” Link said. “Long distance used to be an additional charge, and that’s gone away. No matter where you call air time and long distance are all inclusive. It’s part of your bucket of minutes. We’ve gone from big to small to too small in terms of device size, now I think things are getting a little bit bigger again because we got too small.

“In the old days a mobile handset was strictly to make voice calls. It evolved and they’re not called handsets anymore. They’re called devices,” Link explained. “They take pictures, play games, you can watch videos. The processing power is also applied more to the handsets as well. The processing power in a wireless device is almost as big as PCs were a year and a half ago. Battery life has also been interesting. We went from having big fat batteries because the technology required and consumed a lot of power to today when you can get lots of talk time off of batteries that are very thin. You used to have to charge portable handsets every 20 to 30 minutes. Now you can go for days without recharging it, and talk times are five, six, seven, eight hours where they used to be 20 or 30 minutes.”

Who knows what’s next? Maybe wireless technology will advance to the point where it screens your calls beyond caller ID. Why not deploy wireless technology so intelligent the device could distinguish whether or not you should be talking to a person at all! “This is your cell phone. You are one call away from officially becoming a stalker. This call has been disconnected for your own good.”

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