1988 vs. 2008: A Tech Retrospective

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Cell Phones


The Motorola DynaTAC 8500XL.
1988: Motorola DynaTAC 8500XL

  • Price: $2500 ($4382 adjusted for inflation)
  • Technology: analog
  • Weight: 28 ounces
  • Talk time: 1 hour

The Apple iPhone.
2008: Apple iPhone

  • Price: $399 (with two-year service agreement)
  • Technology: EDGE/GSM quad-band
  • Weight: 5 ounces
  • Talk time: 8 hours

The Motorola DynaTAC 8000X, introduced in 1984, was the world's first truly portable cell phone (as opposed to a car phone) that didn't require a mobile operator to connect a call. It was a 10-inch tall brick--not something you'd carry in your pocket--and it sold for $3995. Nonetheless, its popularity took off among real estate agents, stockbrokers--and drug dealers.

By 1988, about 800,000 cell phones were in use in the United States, and roaming agreements had been set up that allowed service subscribers to use their phones outside their local area. McCaw Cellular Communications (which later merged with AT&T to become AT&T Wireless) was the biggest carrier.

Phone prices had drifted downward but were still very high, averaging $2300 for portable models. A typical monthly bill was $100 to $150, with charges of 50 cents per minute for both incoming and outgoing calls.

Phones and service remained very basic, with no voice mail, call forwarding, caller ID, or other niceties that we now take for granted; and Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, camera capabilities, touch screens, music and video playback, and Web access (all provided by the iPhone) were beyond the horizon altogether. The 8500XL did have an LED display and enough memory to retain 30 numbers. A few years later, however, Motorola introduced the StarTAC--the first clamshell flip phone--and the true pocketable phone was born.

What's next? Google's Android initiative, with working prototypes shown this month at Barcelona's Mobile Congress, promises an open smart-phone platform, which may end the era of carriers' stranglehold on handsets.

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