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The Phone Company

I had the good fortune this week to spend a few evenings with my grandmother, Shirley, who is currently in the middle of a rare visit from London.

In addition to the thrill of getting to have a couple of four-generation-spanning dinners, I also greatly enjoyed the opportunity to gain some perspective on technology and how it impacts our lives, through the eyes of someone much older than myself.

Now, I use the term “technology” to describe this, but as my mother was quick to point out — and as I’ll illustrate here — it’s only “technology” to you if it was invented after you were born. If it already existed when you came along, it’s just part of the world to you. A corollary to this rule is Isaac Asimov’s assertion that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” — or as the folks behind Apple’s products like to boast, “it just works”.

Nowhere is this more apparent to me, than it is when I watch my seven-year-old twins operate a phone with a touch screen. Born two years before the original iPhone, they have quite literally never not known a touch-screen device. They figured out how to swipe-to-unlock mom’s phone in a matter of minutes the first time they got their four little hands on it, and it’s been downhill ever since.

This past Friday, Apple released their newest iPhone. A marvel of technology, it builds upon the design and execution of the previous models.

Apple has added a much more powerful and sophisticated camera that can take slow-motion videos, a significantly more powerful processor, and, most notably, a fingerprint scanner built discreetly into the single button on the front of the phone so that only the rightful owner of a given phone can turn it on (and Apple was quick to clear up that only a *live* finger would be able to unlock it, hopefully putting to rest any gruesome thoughts of creative ways of gaining forced entry to someone else’s phone).

So this phone is truly a wonder, but at what cost? The unsubsidized retail price of the new iPhone is an astronomical $650, but few customers ever pay that much.

The vast majority of iPhone users have the bulk of their phone’s cost subsidized by their network carrier, who builds a small amount of cost paid back to the manufacturer into each month, in return for a commitment to two years of service before the phone is truly “yours” without strings attached.

Now, if this sounds like a 21st-century method of shifting the increasing cost of technology onto the consumer, and disguising it as a discount, that may well be true. But oddly, it’s not really anything new, as Shirley’s experience will attest.

My late grandfather discovered a small town called Sorrento on the coast of Downeast Maine almost fifty years ago, and decided to buy a summer house there. He eventually traded up to the Queen Anne victorian overlooking Frenchman Bay where I would visit in the summers as a child.

The village had very few of the amenities of 1980s America — beyond a dock, post office, and fire department, we were more or less on our own, and the cottages were all similarly sparsely appointed. Almost no one owned a television, there was no internet service — even after broad public adoption of the internet — and the phones were, as you might expect, rather *quaint*.

They were, of course, all rotary dial phones — for those of you too young to have ever seen one, a rotary dial phone involves a rotating disc with finger holes corresponding to particular numbers. Aside from requiring above-average dexterity to operate with any sort of speed, these phone also tended not to support any of the more interesting — to teenagers like us, mind you — advances in telephony technology like call waiting and voice mail.

Needless to say, in Sorrento, no one had touch tone, let alone an answering machine.

On the bright side, you only had to dial the last four numbers if you were calling within the village’s 207-422- prefix — there were few enough phone lines in Sorrento that one prefix could more than serve the whole village.

Indeed, not only were there not multiple lines into a single house, there were frequently not enough lines to go around, leading to a tendency for phones in the village to be on what used to be known as “party lines”. When a call came in on one of these lines, it rang at all of the houses assigned to that party line, with a special ring associated with each party-line participant.

You have no idea how frustrating it was to hear — as an unpopular teenage boy — how many calls other houses on our partly line received. Or, for that matter, how much restraint it took to resist the urge to answer someone else’s ring, and listen in, or worse.

So, despite being rather ho-hum by today’s standards, the phones in our village actually featured a number of especially useful innovations, which were remarkable in the time that they existed. In fact, the party line sort of predicted the development of the now-popular group-text-messaging feature, where many customers can all be on the same thread of text messages together. This is wonderful unless you happen not to be available for the social event that your friends all decided to plan using mass-texts.

But party lines are not the only way in which the quaint rotary phones of yesteryear were similar to the iPhones that so many modern customers will line up around the block to wait for — remember those carrier subsidies I mentioned? Where the cell phone company subsidizes the cost of the equipment for wireless subscribers? Well, it turns out that the not-fancy-at-all phone on the wall of my grandparents’ vacation house was actually, technically, the property of the phone company (also, coincidentally, AT&T in this case). In a scheme not unlike the carrier subsidies currently used, the monthly phone bill included a small lease fee. Technically, they could ask for the phone back. Local lore suggests that no on had ever had their telephone repossessed, however — at least not that we know of.

My grandfather leased this piece of vintage equipment from the phone company for many, many years — likely paying for the original retail cost of the phone many times over. When she took over my grandfather’s affairs late in his life, my mother took issue with this lease fee, and when they held firm on charging it, she challenged the phone company to come and take their phone back if they wanted it They never came around to claim it.

We like to think of technology as something new, and that this new iPhone in particular will do something to revolutionize our lives, and perhaps it will. However, stripping away the “magic” of a seamless phone that “just works”, we see many of the same challenges — both business and social — being addressed in similar ways, even fifty years later (or longer!). And when those new ways of solving old problems become familiar enough to us, we won’t even think of them as technology — when was the last time you thought of a rotary dial telephone as “technology”?  We won’t think of them as technology, but as something that is simply a part of our lives — and here to stay.

Panel Discussion at Innotech

A quick heads up: I’m appearing on a panel at next week’s Innotech conference here in Portland, as part of the Innovation in Motion series.  The topic is “Where should innovation start?”, exploring the relationship between data, design, the development process, and tech innovation.

It should be a lively discussion, moderated by the always-entertaining Kevin Long.

Details: http://www.meetup.com/Innovation-in-Motion/events/94947372/

See you there!