It's fun to admire new technologies, but every once in a while, it's good to take a step back and appreciate the milestones we've achieved so far.
It has been 50 years since the first wireless cell phone call was made. Let's recollect the story behind it, see how far the industry has come, and learn from the inventor's speculation about the future of mobile technology.
The World's First Wireless Cell Phone Call
Picture this: it's April 3, 1973, and you're Motorola engineer Martin Cooper walking down the streets of midtown Manhattan about to make the world's first cell phone call and pioneer the age of wireless networking. Who do you call? Your family? Friend? Coworker? Nope.
You call your nemesis Dr. Joel S. Engel of Bell Labs in New Jersey who has been working with AT&T to pursue the same breakthrough, gloating that you beat him to it—all while a journalist, photographer, and several onlookers on the street witness you making history.
"There was a silence at the other end. I suspect he was grinding his teeth," Cooper reminisces about the historic call in a 2011 BBC interview. It's hard to fathom just how revolutionary that call would turn out to be; many compare it to the first telephone call ever made by Alexander Graham Bell in Boston on March 10, 1876.
The device that made this possible was an early prototype of what would later become the DynaTAC 8000X, the world's first wireless cell phone. Before it, people used wired "car phones" introduced in 1946 that, as Cooper put it, had you "trapped in your car."
Suffice it to say, the DynaTAC was a true engineering marvel—and it was priced like one too. On March 6, 1983, the phone was made commercially available in the US on a 1G network for $3,995 (around $12,000 in 2023), offering just 30 minutes of talk time for 10 hours of charging. This was also the time when voicemails became popular.
2G was first rolled out almost a decade later in 1991. Soon after, in 1995, we saw the introduction of VoIP which helped people save money on long-distance and international calls by allowing calls over the internet instead of a cellular network. In 1999, the Japanese Kyocera VP-210 became the first camera and video phone.
The Smartphone Era and the Internet
Today, 50 years after the first cell phone call, there are twice as many phones than there are people. And thanks to Moore's Law smartphones have become so powerful that we now use them not just for communication, but also for entertainment, work, navigation, education, fitness, translation, data storage, and a lot more.
This progress was aided by the mainstreaming of the internet in the 1990s and third-party mobile apps in the late 2000s when Apple introduced the iPhone and the App Store.
Cooper's Vision for What's Next in Mobile Tech
Many feel that technological growth has slowed down and that smartphones have peaked since they all look mostly the same now. While that's true to some degree, there's actually more to look forward to than you might realize.
"We are still in the infancy of what we call a cellphone and personal communications," Cooper states in an interview. "Think about how unnatural it is to want to talk to somebody and hold this flat piece of material up to your head. Doesn't make any sense at all," hinting towards implantable tech under the skin.
"The concept of the app is wrong. If you really had good artificial intelligence, you would have a servant, hopefully one that's smarter than you are, figuring out what you need and coming up with solutions. We call those solutions 'apps', but instead of us looking for the app, the app ought to find us."
Cooper's vision of the future is one of "obsoleting the app, by having something that creates the app for you," pertaining to a world where technology blends into the background of everyday life. Calling someone should be as simple as having a thought, for example, and not require opening an app, dialing a number, and pressing a button.
And with the advancements in 6G , mixed reality, smart glasses, and Web3, that future may no longer be a matter of science fiction but something we can achieve in the next 50 years.
The Next Mobile Revolution Is Not Too Far Away
It's easy to take for granted how far we've come as a society. The modern smartphone is already millions of times more powerful than all of NASA's combined computing power used for the Apollo 11 mission that put man on the moon in 1969.
To those unaware of the progress happening behind the scenes, it can seem that innovation has stopped. But those working on it know that the next mobile revolution may not be too far away.