What’s a phone?

THE first time I used a phone I wasn’t able to dial the number. I was in grade school and with a friend who was asked by his mother to call his dad at his office. We went to the emergency room at a nearby hospital, the only phone we could use at that time.

My friend and I had never used a phone till then. I dialed the number clockwise and couldn’t move the rotary face. He did the same. Try as we did, we couldn’t move the rotary dial. It’s not working because of the brownout, we concluded and then went home. When his mother corrected us that phones still worked even during a brownout, we returned the hospital to ask to use the phone again and were guided by a staff member on how to properly dial the number.

In college, I would line up at the payphone booths in the UP Diliman shopping center to call a trunk line in the company office in Makati City to be connected to my father in his office in Polomolok, South Cotabato. We were lucky we had this facility, my classmates had to spend a fortune (we’re talking enough money to pay unli-LTE for days today) to call long distance. Back then, you had to schedule phone calls ahead to make sure the parties were near the device to pick it up.

No more need to line up

Today, we no longer need to line up in front of payphone booths. We carry around our phones with us wherever we go. Before, we used to let the phone ring for some time, to allow for the person to pick up the receiver. Now, we cut off after just a few rings, knowing the person will see the “miscall” and return the call or send a message when he or she is available.

Rotary phone
Rotary phone. More than just for calling, today’s “phones” are a veritable portable computer. (Creative Commons photo by Flickr user Caselet)

Back then, you wouldn’t know who was on the other line when you picked up the receiver. Now, you’d know and decide whether to take the call. All of us have our own phone numbers, some with several.

Today, making calls is the least of the things we do in our phones. Often, it’s where we do social networking. As of last June, Facebook reported 654 million mobile daily active users.

Main e-mail device

For many people, phones are where we initially process e-mails. With apps like Mailbox, it’s so much easier to reply to, schedule for later, archive, file and delete messages. Phones are also great for note-taking and with apps like Google Keep, it’s so much easier to tap notes and to-do lists, with time-based or location triggers for reminders.

Phones are now our main cameras and photo albums. Phones have gotten so good in photography people are no longer buying stand-alone cameras.

Phones have also become our main media device: from viewing websites through their mobile versions or using apps like Flipboard to reading e-books using the Amazon Kindle app or any of the many similar options.

Processing power

Apple launched its new iPhones last week. Other manufacturers announced new models weeks earlier. And when you listen to them discuss the full technical specifications of the devices they are launching: it’s just astounding. The hardware specs of phones today are similar to what was then considered cutting edge for desktops and laptops a few years ago.

The processing power of today’s phones is more than that of the system that put man on the moon. Imagine that.

So what’s a phone today? It’s a device with which we make calls, sure, but it’s also our main camera, messaging system, database, gaming device, media device, reader, among many other uses. Soon, it will be our identity system and payment wallet.

Today’s phone is a powerful and portable computer.

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