After just 25 years, cell phones own us

On Oct. 13, 1983, the first commercial cell phone call was made from Chicago to Berlin

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If you would like an object lesson about the impact of technology on culture, try this: The next time that you go out, whether it is to a supermarket, a mall or a movie theater, count the number of people you see with cellular phones.

Then think about this: The first commercial cell phone call in the U.S. was made 25 years ago. It was on Oct. 13, 1983, that Bob Barnett, then president of Ameritech Mobile Communications, placed the first commercial wireless call from inside a Chrysler convertible at Soldier Field in Chicago, to the grandson of Alexander Graham Bell, who was in Berlin, Germany. Oddly, none of the journals reporting on the event at the time named Mr. Bell's grandson.

The breakthrough had been a long time coming. Ten years earlier, Martin Cooper, widely regarded as the inventor of the cell phone, made a demonstration phone call to Joel Engel while walking the streets of New York. Mr. Cooper was then the general manager of Motorola's communications systems division; Mr. Engel was his counterpart at rival AT&T. But only in 1983 did the FCC approve mobile phones.

The first cell phone to market, the Motorola DynaTAC 8000x, weighed 28 ounces (thus its nickname, "the brick") and had a retail price of $3,995. Little wonder, then, that in his 1987 film "Wall Street," Oliver Stone illustrated corporate raider Gordon Gekko's wealth, freedom and power with a scene in which Gekko stands on a beach, phone in hand, giving a rapt description of the sunrise to his disciple, Bud Fox.

In 1987, large numbers of the well-to-do had car phones, console-based affairs that gave one the unprecedented ability to conduct business while driving. But a phone that was not attached to anything at all -- well, in 1987 that was a billionaire's toy.

Now, cell phones are ubiquitous, so much so that one might sometimes wish there were fewer of them (for instance, when surrounded by them on a bus). There are more than 262 million wireless users in the U.S. alone, and the industry's annual revenues have topped $140 billion. An entire generation has grown up using cell phones, an increasing number of consumers use them exclusively, going without a land line, and not even Superman bothers looking for a phone booth in which to change anymore.

Instead of a nearly 2-pound brick, today's cell phone weighs as little as 3 ounces. And the price? Phones often can be had for free, with the purchase of a service plan.

Perhaps more importantly, today's cell phones are not just for conversing. They take photos, capture video and browse the Internet. But what they mostly do is transfer text messages. Indeed, from a user's perspective, it may well be described not as a telephone, but as a voice-enabled telegraph.

According to Nielsen Mobile, text messaging overtook talking as the primary use for cell phones in the fourth quarter of 2007, when the average mobile customer sent 218 text messages a month and made 213 phone calls a month. Since then, the gap has grown -- in this year's second quarter, the average user sent 357 text messages in a month, but made only 204 phone calls.

The gap is strongest among teens, who averaged 1,742 text messages a month, versus 231 phone calls.

But it disappears completely among users 45 and older, who still use their phones primarily for the archaic purpose of talking to other people.

A casual lunchtime survey in Market Square illustrated the degree to which we have become dependent on cell phones.

Laurene Corrigan and Keith Schneider, who both work for PPG, reported varying levels of use. Ms. Corrigan said that she spends "a couple of hours" on her phone each day, while Mr. Schneider only uses his for "20 or 30 minutes" a day.

Calvin Upshur, of East Pittsburgh, falls closer to Ms. Corrigan's end of the spectrum.

"I hang on that phone," he said.

What if, for some reason, there were no more cell phone service and we all had to go back to land lines?

"The world would be in trouble," he laughed.


Elwin Green can be reached at egreen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1969.


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