Your grandparents would probably recognize it as an archetypal scene from a science fiction book: Your protagonist, somewhere in the universe, pulls out a small handheld device, taps on it, and speaks. On the other side of the planet or spaceship upon which the action takes place, others receive the call, listen to the message, and begin to converse. It was not very long ago that wireless communication was the ultimate in futuristic high technology. As recently as 30 years ago, most people ’ s usage of telephones was relatively rare, costly, and short - distance. More importantly, it was utterly constrained by copper; you couldn’t make a call unless you were within a few meters of the handset. Only 15 years before that, most national and all international calls required an operator to patch calls through huge switchboard, cables and all.
In the late 1980s and 1990s, this started to change dramatically. Developments in radio and cellular technologies, coupled with the miniaturization and cheapening of computing hardware, enabled new possibilities: networks in which people could carry their telephone devices with them (or barely carry them, in the case of some of the early suitcase - sized models!), and, assuming they had sufficient radio coverage, place and receive calls while on the move.
Initially relying on analog technologies, and then through the creation and standardization of subsequent generations of digital technologies, these devices rapidly grew in number and fell in cost. At the same time, the cellular networks required to connect them grew in size, coverage, and interconnectedness. The cell phone became commonplace, even ubiquitous, and before you knew it, the constraints placed on where and when you could talk to friends and colleagues over the phone had been lifted.
Equipped with their miniature keyboards and screens, it was not long before other ways in which these small devices could be used started to emerge. The digital technologies used to transmit and receive voice were also perfectly capable of doing so for small amounts of data. Almost unintentionally, the GSM standard, for example, allowed users to send and receive short messages of 140 characters in length with their devices. By 2000, billions of such messages were being sent worldwide. Clearly the mobile device had the potential to be more than just a way to talk to others: It could be used as a device capable of sending and receiving data from other handsets, or indeed, central services.
The 1990s also saw the birth of the Web — a way in which computers could connect to the vast,
interconnected Internet and access pages of information residing on servers elsewhere, worldwide. Again, this had been an evolution from more primitive and simple technologies, but the Web burgeoned, thanks to factors such as the ease with which users could use browsers to navigate through content, the array of tools that made it easy for authors to create and publish content, and again, the decreasing cost and increasing power of computing hardware.
Buoyed by a dream of having the world ’ s knowledge and information formulated in an open way that humans could access it in dynamic and compelling ways, not to mention the prospects of being able to promote businesses and run commerce across the medium, the Web went from strength to strength, until by the end of the 1990s, it too was a powerful and familiar concept — at least in the developed world. With the benefit of hindsight, and noticing that two complementary concepts — the mobile phone and the Web — developed so significantly during the 1990s, it seems inevitable that at some point the telecoms and web industries would consider what it might mean to combine the two platforms.
For mobile networks and phone manufacturers, it meant the attraction of untethering people from their computers in the same way that they had been from their home telephones. For web and
software companies, reaching beyond the PC meant the opportunity to add hundreds of millions of new users to the Web. And for users, the idea of being able to access the vast array of information, content, and services — through their personal mobile device — would be the exciting realization of yet another chapter from science fiction. The idea, at least, of the mobile web was born.
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