RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:
On Mondays, we talk about technology. And this being the last day of the year, we asked MORNING EDITION's technology guru, Mario Armstrong, to pick his favorite tech innovation of the year. And let me guess - what could it possibly be?
MARIO ARMSTRONG: Oh...
MONTAGNE: If I were to say the word, i-fuh-fuh-fuh...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
ARMSTRONG: Look, I wasn't the only one. Time magazine also made this the, you know, they did the inventions of 2007. And the iPhone was number one on the front cover for a reason.
MONTAGNE: And talk to us about that.
ARMSTRONG: Well, there's, you know, the fact that, number one, it's touch screen - I mean, cell phones back in the day, you never thought about touching the screen. You don't touch the screen. So the iPhone brought that to reality. Visual voicemail - being able to see a voicemail before you actually need to listen to it, that's a huge advancement that we haven't seen in devices before. And then the integration of all the things like your digital camera, your movies, and with iTune software Apple really kind of - I think because they were outside of the cell phone industry, they brought a new excitement and new energy into the design of cell phones for the mobile industry.
MONTAGNE: You have brought in for our delectation some old technology.
MONTAGNE: Some cell phones from the past.
ARMSTRONG: That would take us back to about 1983. The actual first time that you could make a call on a device that you could buy was the Motorola DynaTAC 8000X is what it was called. Here's what it sounds like.
(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)
ARMSTRONG: And oddly enough, DynaTAC stood for dynamic adaptive - and here is the kicker, Renee - total area coverage.
ARMSTRONG: Yeah, can you imagine? Back in 1983, total area coverage? We can't get it today.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
ARMSTRONG: They were doing something better in 1983 than we are today. But this is a large phone. This is a brick phone, and it's very, very heavy - about three pounds. And when you put it up beside your face, it's much larger than the size of your head.
MONTAGNE: So it isn't the sort of thing people would be like waltzing down the street...
MONTAGNE: ...chit-chatting with friends.
ARMSTRONG: Not at all. And your talk time was only about 30 minutes.
MONTAGNE: Thirty minutes.
ARMSTRONG: Thirty minutes of talk time before your battery died.
ARMSTRONG: Today it's 240 minutes. So we're chatterboxes much more today.
MONTAGNE: Well, who bought this big log of a phone?
ARMSTRONG: This phone back then was just under $4,000 in 1983. So initially it was given to doctors, lawyers and executives that wanted to have that communication on the go. And as price started to come down, more and more people started finding reasons why they wanted one.
MONTAGNE: What was the next couple of things they could get?
(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)
ARMSTRONG: So this phone was your bag phone. This was like a small briefcase or a small purse. It weighs about five to six pounds. It also had a shoulder strap. And the speaker was on this other part of the bag. So you would hold the handset to your head, you would have a cord that would connect to this handle unit that you would carry with you. But you could also put it into your vehicle. Couple that with the price of $200 and we saw adoption starting to take off with mobile technology.
MONTAGNE: All right. So bag phones went away though by the late '90s. What did we have then for a while?
ARMSTRONG: Well, then we got rid of all the baggage - no pun intended. And now we just had a single device - a handheld device that we could carry with us. The device was about maybe four inches. And it was only about maybe two-and-a-half inches thick - lasted much longer in terms of battery life and talk time. And it was easier to conceal. So the Motorola flip phone became that icon for that era.
MONTAGNE: And put this in perspective. By now - we're talking of the late '90s - how many people are using cell phones?
ARMSTRONG: About 55 million were actually carrying cell phones in this time frame.
MONTAGNE: That's pretty amazing.
ARMSTRONG: That's still amazing, right? I mean that's only 10 years ago, but if you move towards 2007 - where we are today - we're at 250 million.
MONTAGNE: Which gets us back to the iPhone. Is iPhone going to be the pinnacle for a while?
ARMSTRONG: And we're also seeing remote control uses for cell phones - health monitoring. There are so many limitless ideas. It's really hard to gauge the crystal ball of what's going to stick and what won't.
MONTAGNE: What has been driving the technology? Is it consumer demand or one technology just leading to another because people are out there thinking it up?
ARMSTRONG: I think it's a mixture. I think you have both the consumer demand - people do want to connect more often. And I think they are also looking at new developments, things like GPS. That was really never available in cell phones before. So I think these new features, as well as just the consumer appetite of people wanting to stay in touch, it's almost become what you expect to carry. As Americans we pretty much carry three devices with us, Renee - our wallets, our keys, and of course our cell phones.
(SOUNDBITE OF RING TONE)
ARMSTRONG: I'm sorry. My cell phone is ringing. I apologize for this.
MONTAGNE: Hey, Mario. It's okay. Go ahead and take that call. And Happy New Year.
ARMSTRONG: Hello. Yeah, I'm on the air, on NPR.
MONTAGNE: Mario Armstrong is MORNING EDITION's regular commentator on technology. He also hosts the technology show ARMSTRONG'S DIGITAL SPIN on member station WEAA in Baltimore.
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