The Evolution of Mobile Phone Usage

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Fifteen years ago, we owned several different gadgets to help us through the day, each offering a separate function. An iPod for music on the way into work, a GPS system to navigate our travels, a calculator to solve our problems, a computer to search the web, a television to watch the big game and a chunky mobile phone or landline to verbally communicate with the outside world. Today, we aren’t carrying several gadgets with us at all times. Instead, we now only need one device to perform all these functions, plus more – and it fits right in our pocket.

The mobile industry is growing at a rapid pace. In fact, the United States is one of the largest smartphone markets worldwide. Tech juggernaut, Apple, has grown its stock value by over 15,000% since 2001, leading to a worth of $1 trillion today, and the number of smartphone users in the U.S. is now 256.9 million.  With millions using their smartphones nearly every minute of every day, it’s no wonder the way we use our phones has changed over the years. From pagers to T9 texting to touch screen technology, our phone usage has experienced a significant evolution and dramatically impacted each generation.

Understanding the past, present and future of the usage of our constant sidekicks will give us a glimpse into the history of the mobile industry and what lies ahead.

You paged?

Pagers and beepers, also known as portable mini radio frequency devices, allowed for instant communication. Throughout the 80s and 90s, pagers developed a certain kind of status. To have one dangling from your belt loop or constantly on your person made users feel exceptionally important – the kind of importance where you need to be reached at a moment’s notice. At the beginning of the 1980s, there were 3.2 million pager users, a number that climbed to 61 million by 1994.

In the midst of the beeper boom, the world gained its first glimpse of the cell phone in 1983 with the portable mobile phone from Motorola. It cost a whopping $4,000 and resembled a home phone that you could take with you – but size-wise, tossing it into your purse was out of the question. The phone allowed you to make calls, but that was its only function. Instead of a simple message like pagers, users could communicate anytime, anywhere, without the constraints of a landline.  At the time, that was okay! We had other devices to use for our daily functions. Though, as the Internet boom began to rumble in the late 90s and 00s, the mobile industry knew only offering calls was no longer going to cut it.

Texting? There’s an app for that.

As years went on, keyboards with T9 (Texting on 9 keys) texting capabilities became all the rage. Flip phones with keypads allowed users to click through numbers for access to letters, allowing texting to take place of our calls. Now, users didn’t need to communicate verbally, they could simply send a text-based message to share with a loved one. When T9 texting proved to be inefficient, full-on keyboards were added to cellphones. With its full keyboard and data capabilities, the Blackberry was marketed towards the constantly on-the-go businessman who needed to do more – draft emails, search Google, and share text messages – to name a few.

Throughout the 00s, the mobile data revolution required phones to have access to wi-fi and full web browsing capabilities. The Apple iPhone was introduced in June 2007, and with it, phones began to work smarter. The term “smartphone” was coined and with it, a new function for the mobile industry. Applications, or apps for short, were a necessary component of the iPhone. These apps gave users the chance to switch between a wide array of various phone functions, all with the touch of a finger. “There’s an app for that” became a universally popular phrase, adding to the idea that anything you could think of could become an app. 

Ready, set, stream.

With the exponential rise of streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu in the mid to late 2010s, phones became more than ever before. In fact, as of May 2019, Netflix remained the alpha of streaming services with 60 million U.S. subscribers; Hulu “trails” behind at 28 million. The “I want it now” attitude of younger generations paved the way for this type of video, TV and film content to be accessible wherever they want it, whenever they want it. With one-third of online activity spent watching videos, phone usage switched gears to stream content fast. And not just pre-recorded content – live streaming saw a boost in popularity with the creation of Facebook Live. In fact, 82% of viewers now prefer live video over social media posts. Additionally, 80% also prefer live video to reading a blog. With users demanding video content, instead of the once popular text-based content, a new era began its rise.

The growth of video streaming has also shaken up the travel industry. Instead of maneuvering a heavy laptop in the airport just to binge The Office, more people than ever simply need to bring one device – their phone. Travelers consider their smartphones to be the single most indispensable item they bring with them on their trip, ahead of their driver’s license, deodorant and toothbrush. Think about it: The last time you were on an airplane, how many people did you see glued to their phones for entertainment?

What’s next?

This year, the number of smartphone users in the world is expected to pass the five billion mark. For those five billion demanding more from their phones, what’s next for our devices? With internet video accounting for 80% of all consumer internet traffic in 2019, streaming will continue to grow exponentially. With it, our phones must adapt, and be capable of faster, higher quality streaming. A buffering YouTube video or a non-HD Game of Thrones episode is no longer going to cut it. As our phones have slowly evolved into our constant sidekicks, phones are no longer simply a tool to make calls or texts. Our devices are now branches of our own personality, each used for a different function based on an individual’s needs.

As pagers evolved to full keyboard texting which turned into video streaming, the mobile industry has experienced an incredible transformation in a short 30 years. As technology advances seemingly by the second, our smartphones might soon become smarter than us. All in all, the ability to adapt to change is necessary for the mobile industry to do more.

Matt Foley is the President and Co-Founder of Scooch.

  • Perspectives

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