Phone aaya, phone aaya! – Part 4: App-solutely yours! (2005-now)

For a brief period of time Motorola Razr V3 took the mobile handset market by storm. A flip top phone with a thin profile it had striking looks, was a success and seemed destined to sell well for a long time. And then the iPhone happened and Apple took the mobile phone market by storm with its smartphone. A beauty with brains it combined great looks with smarts. It whet the appetite of legion of Apple fans by letting 3rd party developers develop Apps for various uses. Along with the catchy line “There is an App for that!”. With Google releasing the Android OS not long after that the mobile handset landscape changed forever. In the meanwhile IP telephony transformed the landline business as the technology improved enough for businesses to adapt it.
Personally The Raj had graduated to a Blackberry as other users graduated out of it and were on to the iPhone/Android devices πŸ˜€ The move to a Blackberry was necessitated by a need to use texting for personal and business use increasingly. And Blackberry with its full keyboard seemed to be an obvious answer. Later on moved on to iPhone as Blackberry RIMmed out of the smartphone market unable to adapt fast enough to catch with up with developments in iPhone/Android space. What The Raj had not reckoned with the smartphones was the autocorrect feature. Boy oh boy, was that a pesky feature? You betcha πŸ˜€ No sentence could be completed without the smart device suggesting some change. I dare not doth complain loudly about this “feature” lest my wife remind me gently “Now you know how I feel when you keep correcting me all the time” πŸ™‚ If there is critical mass of people needing a support group from “autocorrect abuses” I intend to start one quietly. Just let me know πŸ˜€ Being old school I used to, till not too long ago, print directions in mapquest/google maps when we were driving long distance prompting my son to laugh and say “Dad, no one prints driving directions now. Use the GPS instead”. One of the funnier moments in life is hearing one’s progeny wondering about the old-fashioned way of doing things by parents and people of earlier generation πŸ˜€ Smart devices led to smart virtual assistants. If one was wary earlier of Big Brother watching all the time, now one had to contend with lil Sis’ Siri, Alexa or Cortana giving “thoughtful” suggestions πŸ™‚ Anyways heeding advice of my son and wife I started using GPS for driving directions. The GPS lady was kind and offered useful tips about road accidents and cop cars scanning for speeding drivers along the way. But The Raj could use with some love from the GPS lady. She has a temper and is always shouting at me for missing exits. When that happens I go “Calm down lady, I understand your concern for my safety and reaching on time. You can do it, just take a deep breath. Given this old man’s tendency to get lost in thought and stray off occasionally cut me some slack!”. Of course son and wife laugh a lot when I have such one-on-ones with the GPS lady πŸ˜‰ Anyways over a period of time I have built up my “smartness” quotient enough to use some of the smartphone features. Alliz well!

Phone aaya, phone aaya! – Part 3: I am mobile and I am here to stay! (mid-1990s – mid 2000s)

It’s said necessity is the mother of invention. Mobile phone technology took off early in Finland and part of it was due to necessity and rest of it due to spirit of invention and enterprise. The terrain in that country made it difficult and more expensive to lay cable/lines under the ground. The solution: Cellphones with the cell towers above ground! Gave rise to innovative handset makers like Nokia in Finland, Ericsson in Sweden and other companies specializing in mobile switching center technologies. The mobile wave made its way to India in the mid-1990s. Circa 1995 when I was supporting databases I was assigned to a project with one of the earliest service providers of mobile telephone services in a major metropolis in India. At this time the Government was handing over licenses to at least 2 service providers in every market to ensure competition and prevent monopoly. The project I was working on was interesting. Involved one Baby Bell, one Europe based company doing mobile switching center work, one British company responsible for billing software. The back end of the billing software used the DB my company was supporting at that time and I did a bit of development work and provided DB support for the billing system. That was my exposure to mobile telephony and standards like GSM. I used to pull leg of one of the English consultants who was on site by saying “When you stop inventing products, you start inventing standards” or trash talking English cricket. Nothing more fun than needling those stiff upper lip Brits, right? πŸ˜€ It was all in good humor, nothing more to it πŸ™‚ What struck me most was how expensive it was to use a mobile phone at that time. Apart from cost of the handset which in itself was quite expensive the calling rates were ridiculously high. It was equivalent of 35 cents/minute during peak hours (8am-6pm on weekdays), 18 cents/minute during off-peak hours (6pm-8am on weekdays) and ~ 9 cents/minutes during weekends. India and the USA were probably the only countries that were charging customers for incoming calls too 😦 The coverage was spotty too as the infrastructure was being built and not quite ready yet for prime time yet. I used to wonder how it would ever take off in India. What I had not thought about were 2 things: #1 – The strength in numbers which resulted in fast adoption rate and the calling rate/minute going down as well with companies eager to gain new customers and #2 – The fact that countries that had not buried (literally πŸ™‚ ) lot of money in landlines could leapfrog other advanced countries that were a lot more invested and trying to recover that money. Sometimes it is easier to leap straight when the technology and industry is more mature obviating the need to go through multiple iterations. Initially it was a bit of status symbol to carry a mobile handset, it was just a matter of few months before it was a common sight. As the calendar turned from 1996 and 1997 and The Raj traveled to the Golden City of the Golden State in the US for work it wasn’t unusual to see folks in India calling friends and family from just outside their building to avoid climbing couple flight of stairs πŸ˜€
Meanwhile, in the USA, the Baby Bells and other upstarts were duking it out for customer $ in the landline business even as mobile service providers were angling for a bigger piece of the pie. Calling card companies were probably leasing/renting some excess capacity from established operators to offer calling services at competitive rates. What about the voice quality of mobile phones and calling cards? Initially not very good and it was like robbing Peter (landline service providers) to pay Paul (remember “Can you hear me now?”. Imagine a caller asking that to the person being called πŸ˜€ ) as the technology was still developing and mobile service providers were expanding their network to improve coverage. I also remember carrying pager for on-call support at times. I have almost forgotten how those things worked. It was like a love-hate relationship with those pesky little things. You always want to be alerted when something breaks and needs immediate attention (those batch jobs running at night always find a way to break, don’t they? πŸ™‚ ) but also pray that thingy never rings. The pagers were like nagging spouse who expects to do all the talking and expects one to hear silently πŸ˜‰ For a short while Palm Pilots were the in thing and many sales guys liked to show off their electronic rolodex by flashing out those devices and using the stylus to record or retrieve contact information. That gave way to Blackberry as accessing corporate Email securely by phone was getting necessary and convenient and texting with a full keyboard was increasing in popularity. By the mid-2000s mobile telephony reached everywhere and we were just getting started for the next wave: the advent of the iPhone!

Part 4: App-solutely yours!…To be continued

Phone aaya, phone aaya! – Part 2: Winds of change (mid-1980s – mid 1990s)

Winds of change started blowing in the mid-80s with the first PM of India who grew up post-independence. The erstwhile PMs, having grown up before India gained independence from the British, were wary of forging close business relationship with companies based out of India. Understandable as the English gained entry into India as the innocuous East India Company only to stay entrenched and colonize the country 😦 The scars were deep and fresh for those who witnessed or took part in the struggle to gain freedom. What that resulted in was building a manufacturing base within and creating educational institutions (to supply engineers and workers) for reducing outside dependence. That provided a measure of self-reliance. Challenge was in taking it to the next level. The new PM, unencumbered by such burden of history and being exposed to technology advances when studying abroad, realized the need to open up for modernization of communication systems. The Government of the day decided it was not their business to decide who should own what and began by deregulating a bit. Return of tech-savvy folks who had worked and made a name for themselves abroad aided this quest to improve. With focused effort the wait for a residential telephone reduced drastically to single digit years! If you paid a higher deposit money the wait could be shaved off by couple of years too. With more pay phones targeted for installation mom and pop stores could also make some money on the side by managing pay phones installed outside their shops.
With the introduction of H1 visa by the USA, to attract more tech trained folks, the # of Indians traveling to the land of opportunity increased significantly. In the USA – Ma Bell, which had been ruling the roost for the better part of 20th century, attracted the attention of the regulators. A private monopoly, which is not good either, they were stymieing competition and were free to charge as they pleased as long as there was no viable competition. I clearly remember how steep the calling rates were for international calls especially as I was personal witness to that. My brother was in the USA for higher studies and a good chunk of the stipend he got for his TA was spent in calls to family back in India. While we had applied for a telephone it was still a few years away from being delivered. Every weekend he would make a call to a neighbor and by the time we reached their place few minutes later for speaking to him AT&T folks were already laughing all their way to the bank to the tune of ~ $2.50/minute 😦
We got our own phone connection in due course of time and along with new handset that my brother had sent with touch buttons, message and other nice features. It was an occasion to celebrate! Those were the days caller ID, call waiting etc were not widely available. The obligatory calls to friends, relatives and co-workers followed along with request to them to make a note of our telephone#. Calls from work or other places outside to home just to keep the phone running like a well oiled machine πŸ˜€ It was fun to call those initial days just because we could πŸ™‚ Of course new developments in voice technology were about to make their presence felt and they were just around the corner: The cellular technology and the mobile phone!

Part 3: I am mobile and I am here to stay!…To be continued

Phone aaya, phone aaya! – Part1 (mid 1970s – mid 1980s)

This is the age of ubiquitous smartphones. Carrying one on person has become almost as essential as breathing. Not too long ago having a telephone was not considered necessary. Back in the 1970s and early 80s in the India I grew up in very few homes had landline phones. Phones were something that belonged to the workplace primarily and very few homes felt the need to have one. The service provider was State owned and the phones were those clunky rotary types. Mainly those in the upper echelons of management in private companies or working at the highest levels of Government or the really well to do had phones at their residence. Supply was scarce, Government was deciding what was necessary for people as well as owning and running many businesses. When that happens you know what is generally the result πŸ˜€ State monopoly, lack of competition and build up of inefficiencies. Companies that knew how to grease the wheels got their lines and others Government deemed important enough got theirs without too much sweat. For the ordinary folks the wait was interminable. I thought it took something like 5 years to get a landline after applying for it. A family friend said it was more like 10 year wait to get a landline 😦 The telephone lineman gained outsized importance. He had to be kept happy lest the instrument become deaf and mute witness to history πŸ˜‰ The rotary phones themselves had a certain mystique about them. My earliest memories are of seeing gloved kidnappers in movies dialing in the telephone# to make a call demanding ransom for safe return of the kidnapped πŸ˜€ Only the dialing hand and the instrument would be visible in those filmed scenes. The sound of each # being dialed in created an atmosphere of excitement and suspense πŸ™‚
When supply is limited it’s understandable whatever is in stock has to be issued and used judiciously to ensure the business survives and at the same time the quality of service is maintained at an acceptable level . But when scarcity and non-affordability is a result of faulty policies and process inefficiences it’s time to take a relook. That’s what happened next.

Part 2: Winds of change…To be continued