Thirty years ago, the first Motorola Brick cellphones weighed two pounds, were as big as your shoe, and cost $4,000. The first ones were owned by four different groups of Leading Edge Adopters: status seekers, business people who spent a lot of time out of the office, the super-rich, and in South Florida, cocaine dealers. In the 90s, handset prices came all the way down to free because the real money was in ongoing airtime fees, not in one-time device sales. As handsets got smaller each year, prestige was determined by size, and the smallest were the most desirable and the costliest.
Computer ownership and usage were growing at the same time. The forerunner of today’s computers was ENIAC. Introduced just after World War II, it weighed 30 tons and took up floor space equivalent to four or five of today’s studio apartments.
Fast forward twenty-five years to the first IBM compatible portable computer, the Compaq. We had three at our offices. They weighed thirty pounds and were as big as suitcases. By the end of the nineties, laptops appeared, and sizes and weights continued to come down. Within a few years, laptops outsold desktops.
Around this time we were Million-Milers, crisscrossing Asia, Europe, and the Americas, conducting face-to-face interviews to learn about the attitudes and behaviors of computer and cellphone users. Everywhere we went, people loved their computers, but wished they were smaller and lighter and easier to carry around, like cellphones. They loved their cellphones, but wished they could do more with them, like computers.
Twenty years ago, one American in three owned a cellphone. Ten years ago it was two in three, and now it’s more than nine of ten.
As technology improved, engineers packed more features in smaller spaces, and cellphones grew beyond the telephone function. First was a small window with a line or two, then three or four lines. Over time, tiny screens grew into 5 and 6 inch viewing areas. In 2013, more smartphones were sold than cellphones.
We’ve all heard that today’s smartphones have more power than the spaceship that went to the moon. True or not, they do have the power to surf the InterWeb, make movies, store thousands of photos and songs, and watch live television. And now that they can perform all the functions a computer can, three out of four Americans have one, and computer ownership is declining.
But just as we found in our research twenty years ago, small sizes have their own shortcomings.
One is that screens have excellent resolution, but are about 1/100th the size of the screens on the televisions we have at home. Sure, we can watch anything we want, anywhere we want, but it’s not the same experience. We are trading size for portability.
Another drawback for some is there is no room for a real keyboard with full-size keys and tactile feedback. Instead, we have tiny virtual keyboards that we tap with one or two fingers. They are harder to use than the tiny QWERTY keyboard BlackBerrys we carried around the world as dedicated email devices in the 1990s.
With room for only two fingers or thumbs, we called mini-keyboarding “chipmunking,” where people hunch over devices and peck away.