Monday, September 21, 2015

The Quiet Revolution

A quiet revolution has taken place in the last eight years, and many of us have hardly noticed it.  It is not that this revolution has literally been quiet.  Quite the opposite, in fact.  It has been in our face, on billboards, television commercials, in newspaper articles, and, for many of us, in our pockets.  No, it is not that this revolution has been quiet, but rather, most have not seen it as a revolution.

The revolution, of course, is the advent of the smartphone.  These little devices in our pockets have revolutionized just about everything in life for those who have participated.  It is hard for me to believe that the smartphone only came about in 2007 with the first iPhone. It seems like longer than that given how accustomed I am to reaching into my pocket to check the weather, email, sports scores, IMDB, and countless other queries I may have.

The reason I call this revolution "quiet," is because for many, no real revolution took place.  The smartphone was just the next incremental improvement in the cellphone market that has been making these incremental changes since the 1980s.  In that view, wireless phones went from being suitcase-size devices gradually getting smaller over the years until the impossibly small Nokia 8210
which I purchased through T-Mobile in 2001.  Then came the flip phones.  Then came the flip phones with color screens, and finally the flip phones with cameras.  Finally, a few bought Blackberry devices that had full keyboards and limited internet capabilities.  Again, in this view, the iPhone, and the subsequent smartphone market was just another incremental change in the continuing development of telephone technology. Here is an image depicting the evolution of the cellphone.
Here we see a smooth transition from the gigantic Motorola 8900X-2, gradually growing smaller, then increasing in size again to the Sony Xperia Z Ultra.  But I would contend that there should be a sharp break between cellphones and so-called smartphones.  Smartphones have more in common with desktop or laptop computers than they have in common with a pre-2007 cellphone. Here is a screenshot depicting my battery usage on my iPhone 6 for the past four days. The phone app is tied for 6th place with 4% of battery usage.  But notice, even that has the note "low signal" (I live in an area where I often only have one or two bars). So, my phone app usage was not even me using the phone, it was the phone trying to acquire signal.  This is telling.  My smartphone is not really a phone, or at least it is not used as one very often.  It is a computer in my pocket that also can make and receive phone calls when I have need of that function.

The reason this revolution has gone largely unnoticed is that we still call these devices "phones."  Whether we call it an iPhone, or a smartphone, we have kept the name "phone," and this is deceptive and does not allow us to realize that we are really dealing with something new.  In my next post, I want to talk about a few of the implications that arise from this revolution and the failure to truly see it as a revolution.

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