Phones ain't what they used to be
“What was your first one?’ Time and again that was the rather personal question which just about everyone seemed to be asking each other at this week’s launch of the Mobile Phone Museum.
This collection charting the history of mobile communications is a purely online experience for now, but for one night only it was brought into the real world in an echoey white walled event space in Soho. There, many of the leading figures in the history of the UK mobile industry and a gaggle of technology journalists, young and old, gathered in nostalgic mood.
We had been brought together by the leading mobile phone analyst Ben Wood, an engaging figure who whenever we’ve met over the last 15 years has pulled out a whole array of devices from his backpack. Since starting work as a graduate trainee at Vodafone in 1994, he has been an obsessive collector of mobile phones and now he’s photographed and documented over 2,000 of them to share with us all.
Always On charts the smartphone era which I define as beginning with the unveiling of the iPhone in 2007 - and by the way Ben proofread it and pointed out where I had made mistakes. But his collection goes right back to the 1980s, and it was the older exhibits which really caught the eye.
The first phone I really coveted - though did not own - was the “brick”, the definitive yuppy status symbol as seen in the movie Wall Street. As a young BBC reporter in Cardiff in around 1987 I remember a network news reporter coming down for a story and producing one of these from her capacious handbag, to the wonder and envy of local hacks like me.
Of course, younger visitors to this week’s event were amused at the thought that anyone would carry such a weighty object around with them - but then they have never had to find a phone box and the right change to call the office or knock on someone’s door to ask to make a quick call.
There was a reminder too that the UK played a big part in the development of mobile phones. Among the guests was Nils Martensson, whose company Technophone actually brought out a much lighter more portable phone than the brick in 1985 - and manufactured it in Camberley in Surrey.
The Excell Pocketphone, as its name suggests, was the first mobile that you could really produce from a jacket pocket, an amazing British innovation that I confess I had never heard of until I met Mr Martensson.
Perhaps that’s because like so many innovative British companies, it fell quite soon into foreign hands. In 1991 Technophone, which had won four Queen’s Awards for Exporting, was sold to Finland’s Nokia.
At least it was merging with a European company that promptly became the world’s leading mobile phone maker. Ben Wood’s collection features dozens of Nokia phones, including the first phone he owned, the 2110. But the one that really caught my eye was the Nokia Communicator, a smartphone launched more than a decade before the iPhone.
This chunky clamshell device which opened up to reveal a proper QWERTY keyboard and a large screen seemed like something out of Star Trek when I played with it in 2000 at Nokia’s headquarters overlooking a frozen lake on the outskirts of Helsinki. But, just as I was never going to explore strange new worlds aboard the Enterprise, I could not imagine that I would ever own something as sophisticated and expensive as the Communicator.
How wrong I was. These days billions own devices many times more powerful than the Communicator and a lot easier to use, and Nokia has long since disappeared as a major force in mobile phones. The trouble is that for some years every phone has looked identical, a rectangular slab of glass - in Ben Wood’s words, a sea of sameness.
I wouldn’t be without my smartphone but part of me yearns for that period between 1995 and 2010, when every new mobile phone looked different. As a journalist it was a privilege to document a time when empires rose and fell, as the mobile industry emerged as a huge economic and social force. Now it feels as though the battle is over, Apple and Google have won, and everything in the mobile world is just a little bit dull.
Still, you can bet that some upstart tech company we haven’t heard of is even now planning a whole new take on mobile communication - a smart contact lens perhaps or a 6G chip you can have embedded in your hand. And when it comes along I am sure Ben Wood will make sure it has a place in his excellent museum.
Always On is available as a hardback, ebook or audiobook here.
And if you want to support your local independent book shop you can order it at Hive.
(This is probably the last edition of this newsletter in its current form - but stand by for exciting new developments. I’m hoping to relaunch it as a platform to talk about healthtech so if you are in that field do get in touch - I’m eager for tips, press releases, contacts etc. The easiest way to contact me is probably via a DM to my Twitter account @ruskin147.)
I think you can talk about whatever tech you like and we'll find it interesting!
The dominance of the black rectangle was something we used to rant about on Nokia Conversations, when the firm was the last, pretty much, to regularly launch with ultra-bright colours. Sadly, it was a little too late.