x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Can you hear me now?

Like so many life-changing inventions, the mobile phone started as fantasy in the Thirties comic strip detective Dick Tracy.

In little more than a generation the mobile phone has transformed itself from a gadget to a lifeline used by 60 per cent of the world's population.
In little more than a generation the mobile phone has transformed itself from a gadget to a lifeline used by 60 per cent of the world's population.

Like so many life-changing inventions the mobile phone started as fantasy with the Thirties comic strip detective Dick Tracy barking out instructions through his wrist-radio. And like the fictional Tracy, the earliest users of something like a mobile phone were also trying to stop crime. As long ago as 1928 police in the US city of Detroit had a radio fitted in a patrol car - though it needed a boot-load of equipment to pick up and transmit messages.

Soon, radios made by the Chicago firm Motorola were given to other police forces and then produced for troops in the Second World War. In 1940, a Handie-Talkie two-way radio was developed for the US Army Signal Corps, followed two years later by the Walkie-Talkie. The mobile phone's first walk-on part was in the 1954 Billy Wilder film Sabrina in which Humphrey Bogart makes a call from the back seat of his limousine. And when Martin Cooper, general manager of Motorola, used the first modern, if rather bulky, handset on April 3, 1973, to call his rival at Bell Labs, the revolution was on its irresistible way.

In little more than a generation the mobile phone has transformed itself from a gadget to a lifeline used by 60 per cent of the world's population. According to a report last week by the UN's International Telecommunications Union, there are approximately 4.1 billion mobile phone subscriptions taken out each year. A separate report shows the UAE has the highest number of users in the Middle East - in fact, on average there are two mobiles phone for every resident.

The first generation of mobiles launched by NET in Japan in 1979 were the size of a briefcase and they did not become, well, mobile, until the 1990s with the birth of the second generation. This was smaller, had higher frequencies and introduced the world to SMS texting. The third generation or 3G, introduced in 2007, has moved the device way beyond its use as a simple communicator. It is now an organiser, entertainment centre, payment device and source of security - a Swiss Army pen knife for the 21st century.

The phone is now the voice and ears of the world, a way to publish and receive pictures, e-mails, texts, Twitters, and blogs. There is no escape. Some feel it creates an inward looking world where the need for face-to-face contact has disappeared. It is intrusive, they say, many still irritated by being forced to listen to other people's one-way inconsequential - or worse, consequential - chatter and by those who set their mobile on a restaurant table or check messages during a theatre performance.

On the other hand it can be liberating - instant contact with anyone absolutely anywhere. It can save lives - many a mountaineer stranded on a peak has been saved because their mobile signal was picked up. Criminals have been traced by the trail of their mobile calls. It can even transform citizens into media players - a fan with a mobile can snap a celebrity, or a passer-by can capture great dramas such as the landing of a jet on the River Hudson in New York in January.

Pictures from a train crash in the remote north of England taken on a passenger's mobile were being shown on national television before the emergency services had arrived on the scene. This week on Britain's Radio 4 current affairs programme Today both the interviewer - a non-mobile user - and Tom Standage, an expert, agreed there was no downside to the mobile phone. Their verdict: everyone wins. Certainly the mobile companies have made fortunes. Even the Finnish giant Nokia, which reported a 69 per cent fall year-on-year in profits for the fourth quarter of 2008, made 12.7 billion euros (Dh58.8bn) over the 12 months. Sunil Mittal, the Indian tycoon who owns the Bharti phone company, is worth $3.3bn and Mexican Carlos Slim of Telmex a massive $68bn.

Much of this wealth is due not just to the need for people to have a chat but to the influence the mobile has on the way people trade, fight wars, and organise protests. For the world's poor countries with potholed roads, few landlines and no postal service, the mobile has revolutionised work. In fact, some estimates claim that an extra 10 per cent of people using a mobile phone increases GDP by six per cent.

Mr Standage cited the example of fishermen in the Indian state of Kerala who phone before they land to see which market needs their catch, how much it requires and where else they can sell their fish. It means less time is wasted and more money made. Information that was once beyond their reach is now at their fingertips. In Afghanistan, that kind of access to information does not suit the Taleban which has destroyed four transmission masts.

No doubt they are aware of the political potential. When President Joseph Estrada of the Philippines went on trial in 2001, protesters used text messaging to arrange mass gatherings. Mobiles played a key role in the co-ordination of Britain's environmental protesters, Germany's anti-nuclear campaigners and Mexico's revolutionary group, the Zapatistas, as well as anti-capitalist activists in Seattle, Prague and Quebec.

More alarmingly, the mineral tantalum, which is an important element in the electronic components of a mobile, has been one of the causes of the bloodshed in the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo, where thousands of civilians have died since June 1999. As the price of tantalum increased the fighting intensified. And then there's texts ... and sex. Thanks to "txt msgs" a new lexicon of words and shorthand has gone into the language across the world.

Such constructions as "Str8" for straight, "2G2BT" for too good to be true, "LOL" for laugh out loud and "ROFL" for roll on the floor laughing, are now common currency. Some argue this trend debases the language and breeds illiteracy, particularly among young people. Others take a more tolerant view, arguing that language is evolving over time and across the globe. But if it is "kewl" - in text speak - to discuss a boy or girlfriend, the availability of more salacious content is an increasing concern, with China, for example, launching a war on the pornography available via the mobile. On the other hand, BBC World Service Trust's Aids campaign in India has introduced ring tones with a safe sex message.

With improved technology, the opportunities for war, peace, love and a smarter lifestyle will be revolutionised. Already, the phone we hold in the palm of our hand is about 10 times more powerful than the PC you had on your desk eight years ago, and William Webb, the head of research and development at the UK regulator Ofcom, forecasts that "in the nicest, most helpful and useful of ways, your mobile will guide you through life".

There will be higher resolution touch-screens, more effective speech recognition and greater memory and storage capacity. Increasingly intelligent software will be able to learn the owner's behaviour, predict needs and integrate with an increasing number of databases. Instead of a train company sending a text merely to tell of delays, the mobile will analyse the message and modify the traveller's plans.

Instead of relying on traffic reports from a single helicopter, the information will be culled from the numbers of phones in the traffic jams itself. Having checked out any traffic problems in advance, the phone will wake the user up earlier if necessary and choose the best route into work. It will be used increasingly as a payment system on underground systems and as a credit card in shops. It will help take the strain out of cooking with a meal-planning service that sends daily suggestions for an evening meal based on previous selections and the likely contents of the refrigerator.

It is already an entertainment centre but within 15 to 20 years it will be analysing your music or programme collection to find suitable choices and download them as a podcast. Imagine being in a tricky business meeting - a phone could direct calls to voicemail and provide a text summary with crucial information. No, there will be no escape. Hardly a detail of day-to-day life will remain hidden, hardly a move made, a conversation had, without detection. So on the way to work - avoiding the traffic - the driver might ponder whether he is at the mercy of the mobile, his privacy invaded, his every moment monitored, or whether he has liberation at the touch of a thumb.

Martin Cooper had no doubt: "Wireless is freedom. It's about being unleashed from the telephone cord and having the ability to be virtually anywhere when you want to be. These phones do make people's lives better. They promote productivity, they make people more comfortable, they make them feel safe." Or as we say today: "2GTBT." * The National