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Mobile Design and Development by Brian Fling

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Chapter 1. A Brief History of Mobile

I like to compare the history of the mobile industry to the work of Umberto Eco: you get what is going on, but it makes your head hurt in the process. The evolution of mobile networks, the devices that run on them, and the services we use every day have evolved at an amazing rate, from the early phones that looked more like World War II field radios to the ultra-sleek fashion statements of today.

If there is one basic principle about mobile, it is that everything is the way it is for a reason. It might not be a good reason, but a reason exists nonetheless. It is the history, or the context, of the medium that gives mobile designers and developers the patience and passion needed to deal with the frequent issues they face in the mobile ecosystem. The mobile industry is a difficult one to jump into without patience and passion.

This chapter briefly discusses the evolution of the mobile medium from the perspective of the device, the most universally identifiable facet of the mobile ecosystem.

In the Beginning

For those of us who are older—that is, over the age of 30—when we think of what a telephone is and try to picture it, we might think of the phone illustrated in Figure 1-1.

The telephone is undoubtedly one of the greatest inventions of mankind. It revolutionized communications, enabling us to reach across great distances and share thoughts, ideas, and dreams with our fellow man, making the world a much smaller place in the process. In fact, the telephone is probably one the most defining technologies of the twentieth century and the most commonly used electronic device in the world today.

For the vast majority of people around the world, the perception of what a “phone” is and what it can do hasn’t changed from this iconic image—something you hold up to your ear and talk into—but when those under the age of 20 picture a telephone, they might think of an image similar to the one shown in Figure 1-2.

The traditional telephone

Figure 1-1. The traditional telephone

A modern mobile phone

Figure 1-2. A modern mobile phone

Although the modern mobile phone is a distant cousin to the telephone, it is a communication and information device. It is nearly always connected to the Internet, even if you don’t have a web browser open. You can send and receive voice and text messages. You can purchase goods and services without opening your wallet. Plus, it can locate which street corner you are standing on and tell you what is nearby all in a fraction of an instant. Oh, did I forget to mention that you can talk to people, too?

In fact, the modern mobile phone is capable of doing nearly everything you can do with a desktop computer, but with the potential for more meaningful relevance to our daily activities. The mobile phone is not merely a telephone. In fact, modern mobile devices deliver on the long-overdue promises that technology will make our lives easier, but without the cable clutter that drives someone like my wife nuts.

Thinking of mobile devices more as personal computers and less as telephones is a difficult shift in perception. The mobile industry of today has somewhat of a split personality—each side with its own conflicting interests: the first half being the telecom infrastructure and the people who run it, required for everything to work but only focused on the network; and the other consisting of the devices we carry, focused on how and when we interact with the network. And yet a third personality is the Web, the repository of the world’s knowledge that we seek to use in the context of our daily activities.

Even the Web is divided within mobile, consisting of the “regular” or desktop web and the mobile web. The desktop web is made up of the sites and web applications designed for a browser running on desktop or laptop computers. In other words, the desktop context involves information that we access typically while stationary and sitting at our desk. The mobile web contains the sites and web applications designed for mobile devices, or the mobile context, which we can access anywhere at any time.

Technically speaking, it is all one Web, at least in terms of the technology that we use to publish information and knowledge. But these two mediums are very different and offer different value to the end user, based on their context—something we will talk about in more detail in Chapter 4.

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