A Nokia mobile phone from the late 1990s.

A telephone you can take with you
When mobile phones first appeared, adults used them as telephones. It never occurred to us that you would do anything else with them. Telephones were familiar and the new mobile technology allowed us to do a familiar thing better.

For 70 years we had telephoned a building and hoped the person was there. Suddenly, we could make a call direct to the person, wherever they were. It’s difficult to imagine how transformational that was. So why would we bother to look for anything else we might do with our new phone?

A Telephone Call with Words
Young people are always less blinkered by tradition and habit than adults so they always look at any new technology with fresh eyes. They quickly spotted that if you pressed the keys multiple times letters would appear on the screen instead of numbers.

This is because mobile phones are basically computers so letters are a sort of automatic extra that was just there and didn’t seem to have any purpose. If you'd shown it to an adult they’d have wondered why you would want to send letters to another mobile phone.

A Nokia phone screen showing a sentence written in "textspeak".

But teenagers immediately began to send text messages to each other and texting was born. 

They even developed a language which became known as “textspeak”. It kept messages short and also also economised on the number of repetitive presses needed. This was quicker and also saved money - initially texts cost 12p for each and every message of about 120 characters.

In February 1997 Chris Winter, advisor to BT, gave a keynote speech to the NAACE Conference. In it, he asked if anyone in the audience had heard of texting. All the parents of teenagers put up their hands. To everyone else it was completely new.

BT taken by surprise
He went on to explain BT, the global telecommunications giant, is perhaps one organisation you'd expect to be able to spot future trends. Yet texting took them completely by surprise.

He said, “We’d had 100 years of using telephones and we knew what they were for - you dialled numbers to make voice calls to other telephones and they were tied by copper wires to buildings. The great leap forward that mobile phones brought was freedom from wires. It meant that you could telephone a person rather than a building. It was new. It was breathtaking. It was exciting. We loved it and it never occurred to us to think they might do something else."

Looking back, texting did come as a surprise, even to BT, but it wasn’t dramatic enough to be called an ‘Unexpected Consequence. It was, however, the beginning of a communications revolution that no-one saw coming - and that did lead to unexpected consequences.

The Technology Evolves
Before long everyone was texting - young and old - but it was just the beginning. It may have been the forefront of innovation in 1997 but by the early years of the 21st Century messaging had moved on a lot.

Photograph of a Blackberry mobile phone/personal assistant.

The Blackberry device had made the mobile phone an essential business tool and had developed its own BBM Messenger service.

Mobile phone contracts had made texting cheap for everyone; also, making a voice call was becoming only one of the things you did with your mobile phone.

In the meantime, home computers were coming faster and connecting to the recently-open-to-the-public Internet using the old Dialup method. In 2000, BT launched a faster access called ISDN, and by 2002 ADSL and what we now call Broadband was being rolled out.

Mobile phones and home computers became more ubiquitous but it wasn’t until July 2007 that the first touchscreen smartphone (the Apple iPhone) appeared. This put voice calls, text messaging and Internet access into your pocket on one device.

At this point, one can probably say that the unexpected consequences started to appear.

Social Networking
Broadband brought what has been called “Web 2.0”, characterised by user-generated content. 

  • MySpace (2003), Facebook (2004) and Twitter (2006) allow communication on a global scale, way beyond one person speaking to another on the phone. No-one forsaw any of these.
  • Smartphones, tablets and wearables (such as the FitBit and Apple Watch) have made computers truly mobile and ubiquitous - a concept that would have been laughable in the 1990s.
  • Online shopping appeared, along with totally new retail concepts like Amazon and Comparison Websites. YouTube is possibly the biggest learning opportunity mankind has ever seen, and Wikipedia is the greatest collection of knowledge ever assembled - and it’s accessible to anyone anywhere (although some political regimes try to stifle it).
  • Carrier technologies have evolved into 3G and 4G fast data networks, familiar to us all now but beyond anyone’s best guess before the Millennium.
  • Developing countries are leapfrogging the Industrial Revolution, omitting copper wires completely. People in Africa have gone from no telephone network at all to global voice and data networks over 4G - and young men and women are starting successful Internet businesses.

In the late 1990s we couldn’t have imagined any of these developments. But are they just the technology evolving and maturing or are they real unexpected consequences? I honesty don’t know - what do you think?

One thing is certain - the future has not fully unfolded yet. It seems pretty certain that there is much to come that we can’t imagine. Here are two examples of things which we can identify as consequences, rather than technological developments:

- The first - the Arab Spring - has happened.
- The second - the End of the Job - may be coming.

Next: The End of the Job?

Alternatively, you might like to:
Find out how it came about that mobile phones send texts

© Brian Smith 2015