A computer in your pocket

Published

Mobile phone technology has been radically transformed since the 1990s, thanks to the development of increasingly compact new microprocessors. No longer simply for making calls, our phones have become versatile computing devices that most of us can't imagine life without.

Daniel Hughes's phone, used to make a video call from the summit of Everest.

Daniel Hughes's phone, used to make a video call from the summit of Everest.

On 19 May 2013 the British explorer Daniel Hughes appeared on BBC News, wearing a red nose in honour of the charity Comic Relief. "This is the world's first live video call—never been done before—from the rooftop of the world," he told newsreader Adnan Nawaz.

Using Skype on his smartphone via a satellite link, Hughes sent live video images and sound from the summit of Everest to the BBC studio, and was able to respond to questions from Nawaz about his bid to raise money for the charity.

The event illustrates just how far mobile phones have come, from simple communications devices carrying voices and small amounts of text, to tiny computers able to roam the internet and send and receive data as complex as a live digital video.

A world of information at your fingertips

The smartphone has changed the way we live. From social networks to selfies, every form of digital interaction is now available while you are on the move, in bed or even up a mountain. You can watch TV, listen to music, time your run, pay your bills, check the weather, go shopping. You can keep up with your emails or check stock prices. You can even write a novel or compose a symphony on your phone.

The communications industry did not predict the enormous demand in both business and home markets for a single, universal device—the smartphone emerged as the dominant personal accessory and business tool as a result of the convergence of two different products. 

Multiple devices become one

In the 1990s consumers had a choice between mobile phones on which they could talk and send texts, or personal organisers to conduct business on the move. The costs of owning a mobile phone and paying for calls had fallen dramatically as more networks entered the market, affordable pay-as-you-go contracts became available, and the phones themselves became more competitively priced.

By the end of the 1990s, teenagers were adopting them as enthusiastically as they had previously embraced other portable devices such as personal stereos. Constantly hungry for the latest version, they greeted the first phones with integral cameras with delight. Now they could not only take a picture, but also send it to their friends attached to a text message. Phones that could store and play music were a successful next step.

Pilot 5000 electronic organiser, made by Palm Inc, Singapore, 1996.

Pilot 5000 electronic organiser, made by Palm Inc, Singapore, 1996.

Meanwhile, the business community adopted products such as the Psion Organiser or Palm Pilot (collectively known as PDAs, or Personal Digital Assistants). These provided, in one convenient pocket-sized package, calendars, calculators, spreadsheets, notepads and other business applications.

More advanced devices could connect to the internet and sync with their owners' desktop machines. Owning a PDA marked you out as a busy person who needed constant access to information.

 

Mobile phones get smart

It took two separate technological advances to bring about the convergence of these very different devices. The first was the development of the ARM microprocessor, originally designed in the early 1980s by Sophie Wilson and Steve Furber at the British company Acorn Computers. ARM chips very efficiently feed instructions to the circuits on the microprocessor, providing abundant computing power while demanding comparatively little energy.

Most smartphones are now fitted with ARM microprocessors. The low-power processor means that impressive computing can be fitted into a package with a small battery, and smartphones have become progressively thinner and sleeker, light enough to drop in a shirt pocket. At the same time they have acquired an ever-increasing array of features, such as touch screens and GPS receivers, in addition to the standard cameras and music players.

The next generation arrives

The second advance was the upgrading of mobile networks from second generation (2G) systems to the third generation, or 3G. 3G networks make it possible to transmit data at a rate high enough to send and receive video, making multimedia access a possibility.

When Britain's government held an auction in April 2000 to sell licences to operate 3G networks in the UK, six companies between them paid an astonishing £22.5 billion—four times the government's estimate. Although at first many were stunned by the huge expenditure, in the long run these companies have not regretted their purchase. Underpinned by 3G, the mobile phone became a portal to the web, capable of downloading text, images and video, sending emails and tweets, or browsing the Web.

iPhone 3G mobile phone, designed by Apple, assembled in China, 2008-2010.

iPhone 3G mobile phone, designed by Apple, assembled in China, 2008-2010.

Apple launched the stylish, desirable iPhone 3G in 2008. It was open to anyone with the skills to add their own creations to an enticing range of apps, from games to maps to heart monitors. Competitors quickly launched rival products, and smartphone sales took off. By the end of 2013, one in five people worldwide owned one.

Mobile phones, once simply tools for making voice calls, are now fully connected and versatile devices, putting all the power of a computer in your pocket. They have transformed the way we generate, consume and share data about ourselves and the world around us.
 


 

Information Age

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