Was It Really Better Before?

I recently came across someone writing how the Nokia phones of old were completely indestructible and lasted for eternity, in contrast to the phones we use today that break if you look at them in the wrong way. More specifically the complaint was that today you need to replace the phone every two to four years just to keep it working without slowing down, despite doing the exact same thing you have always done.

But was it actually so good in the old days?

I started thinking back to my own history with phones. I'm old enough to remember when GSM and digital mobile communication was a new thing promising way better call quality than the old analog NMT system we used here.

The GH337

My first own phone was probably in 1997. The first pre-paid SIM-card had just been released here, and I got a second hand Ericsson GH337 from my brother. I don't know how old it was then, but the model was released in 1995 or so, so no more than two years old probably.

It was a pretty nice phone. The shell had been changed to an after-market one with nicer colours, the antenna had been replaced with a shorter one and you could change the little ring at the base of the antenna to different colours. As I recall there were actually gold rings for these phones for people who wanted to display their wealth. The display was text only, 3 x 12 characters, it had basically no features what so ever. It could not send text messages, only receive them. I was still quite happy just having a phone though. I bought a prepaid SIM card, and the number I got then is actually still the phone number I have today.

This phone, while not even having a calculator, did have one feature that phones today don't, and that people today like to complain loudly about. It did have removable battery. It did not have a headphone jack though, so it was quite ahead of its time like that. 😆

I had several batteries for it, and a separate charger for charging them. Thing is, the battery life was downright lousy. The batteries were NiMH (Nickel-metal Hydride) and even with a brand new battery the phone was not specified for more than 25 hours of standby. And that decreased a lot if you actually used it for calling.

There were two different sizes of batteries, a slim and a thick. I believe I had a few of both and probably bought a few new ones during the time I had the phone. A problem with NiMH back then was that they just didn't offer that many charge cycles, and with the low standby I had to charge the batteries daily so they just wore out.

I still loved the phone and even managed to hook it up to a serial cable to change some memory locations in it to activate a few hidden features. But it wasn't much more than that, a phone. I could call (at great expense) if I ever needed, or, more often, be called by others.

I used this phone until 1999 as I remember, so it got maybe two years of use by me, and maybe one year of use by someone else before me. By 1999 technology had advanced quite a bit though, and I upgraded to a Siemens S25.

The Next One

The Siemens S25 was a technical marvel. Released in 1999, a whole year before the legendary Nokia 3310, it was slightly smaller than the old Ericsson, a bit more rounded, it had Lithium battery and a display that could actually display three colours (badly). It had IrDA infrared communication for my Palm Pilot and supported circuit switched data (meaning you pay per the minute to dial up to the internet). It did have a primitive WAP-browser, but it was a version that was never used here, and thus did not work.

A very nice phone in so many ways, yet, technology at this time was moving incredibly fast, and phone manufacturers started innovating and making up new features. It seemed for a time like there was a new cool phone released every single month.

Every Two Years

In 2001 I changed phone again. Yes, just two years later. This time for the Siemens S45. Now things were getting advanced for real. The screen was black and white, but had a lot more pixels than the Nokias. It had new fangled GPRS packet data, meaning you no longer had to pay by the minute for internet and it had a WAP-browser that worked quite well. Does anyone remember WAP pages? It was an XML-based way of making simple web pages specifically for phones. I think very few people used it much, but there were actually a lot of fun services available. I even made WAP-pages of my own, and for some businesses.

The nicest thing about it though was that GPRS was actually free! My carrier introduced GPRS data as a sort of "beta" at first. They set the price at some outrageous sum per megabyte, but then said that during the testing period it would be free for all. Not that many people used it, and their testing period lasted for over a year as I recall.

This solved a big problem for me. I was still living with my parents, and our only internet was though dial up modem. Of course, this was pay per minute, and not only did I occupy the phone line every single night, but the phone bills were quite high. My parents were not very happy with that.

But this little phone had free internet using GPRS. I could just buy an RS232 serial cable, plug the phone into the computer and dial up to it like it was a modem. Speeds were comparable to modem speeds at 6 kByte per second or so. Only downside was that I could not charge the phone at the same time I was using the serial-cable, so I was limited to around six hours of being connected before the battery died. At which point it was usually time to go to sleep anyway.

More Phones

Anyway, thing is, even this fantastic little phone was quite soon outdated. My next one was the Sony Ericsson T610 released in 2003, again, just two years later. This one had larger full colour display, faster GPRS, a crappy camera, downloadable games written for the Mophun virtual machine and an actual web-browser with support for some but definitely not all HTML and CSS (no javascript).

Two years later, again, I was given my first "smart" phone by my boss at my then work. It was one he had got for himself but couldn't really figure out how to use fully, a Sony Ericsson P800. It ran Symbian UIQ, had resistive touch screen with stylus and could run primitive apps. There were of course no app store or anything, you had to download things on the computer and transfer to the memory card. It was pretty neat though.

Then in 2007, another two years later, the very same year the iPhone was released, I bought the successor, the Sony Ericsson P1i. It was pretty much the same as the P800, but more compact and the keyboard did not fold out. It was slow and annoying and I never liked it nearly as well as the P800, but the P800 was just worn out at this point, and quite ancient.

So, yeah, the first half of the naughties was a time of very fast development for phones. I changed my phone every two years or thereabouts, but I knew several people who got new phones way more often than that. There were just so many different models and new innovations coming out all the time. Cameras, better screens, music players, gimmicky ways of folding them, games, apps. Month by month, more and more things found their way into even cheaper phones.

I am of course a very "tech" person. There may very well have been many people who got the Nokia 3310 in 2001 and then used that phone until 2010 or so. As long as all they ever did was call, text message and playing Snake. No downloadable games. No camera. No colour screens. No music (except monotonic ring tones).

The Future Arrived

Apple released the iPhone 3G in the summer of 2008, the first one to be sold outside of USA.

It was just one year after I had gotten the P1i, but I really wanted the iPhone so much. I was still locked down in a two year contract for my old phone, and the iPhone was at that time exclusive to a different carrier anyway, so I actually got a separate subscription just for it, and carried two phones for a while. Luckily I had a salary that could cover it, and the phone subscriptions are actually relatively cheap here compared to many other countries.

Of course, that iPhone 3G was not fast, and it lacked a lot of what we take for granted in a phone today, but it had the brand new App Store and it clearly showed where things were heading. I had an app that played a "mooo" sound and showed a picture of a cow when you turned the phone around. Yeah. 😁

The very next year I upgraded to a 3Gs, because it was just so much faster and more usable. Again, being in the middle of my contract, I paid cash for that phone, blowing a large chunk of my savings, but for me it was worth it. I realise I'm quite privileged being able to somehow almost always get the things I want, even though I did have to make sacrifices.

But then that was it. No more new phones for me.

You know how long that iPhone 3Gs lasted me? Until 2015. That's right. Five and a half years.

Maybe I'm the weird one. Well I know I'm the weird one, but I had never before had a phone that lasted me that long, and that was usable the whole time. I did change the battery once or twice, and I did also replace the dock connector with one from a broken donor phone I was given.

I replaced the 3Gs with a second hand iPhone 5C in 2015. The 5C was one year old when I bought it, and I used it until 2019 when I bought a brand new first generation iPhone SE to replace it, so that was only four years.

Last year the SE was replaced with the 13 mini, yes, that was just three and a half years later, but the 13 mini being the last "mini" iPhone to be made and me not liking large phones weighed in to the decision. Plus all the advances in cameras and face ID just working so much better than touch ID for me.

I have no plans to replace the 13 mini until it is at least four or five years old now.

Rounding Up

So, yes, going back to the original thing I was reacting to, many people these days do replace their phones every two to four years. And while I never managed to crack a screen, despite dropping both my 5C and SE a few times, they are probably a bit more sensitive than the plastic phones of old.

But it was not really that much better in the old days. Even back then phones were not actually indestructible, and batteries did wear out. Anyone who says that the old Nokias (I never actually had a Nokia myself, but still) lasted for years and years probably don't actually remember what time spans we are talking about, because those phones were pretty obsolete within a year.

Yes, sure, if all you ever did was to call and text they were still fine, but the big thing is that our usage patterns are always changing as new technologies emerge.

You could argue that you still "do the same 'scrolling of social media' that you did ten years ago, so why are the manufacturers making it so that the ten year old phones no longer work?", but that is ignoring the fact that your social media back then was not a constant stream of live high resolution video, videos that use filters and overlays that require outrageously fast GPUs to make, nor were the games fully immersive high FPS 3D worlds.

I think the advances in technology drives development of new services and software that shapes our usage of our phones, and the new things simply require the newer phones. Of course, the manufacturers are more than willing to sell you a new phone every year, because they make money on that, but that's just the same as it was back when the Nokia 3310 was the hottest new phone you could buy. Sucks to be the one with the bulkier 3110 or 3210, when your friends get the sleek 3310 with their fancy replaceable colour shells and ringtones that you also had to buy. Nothing has really changed in this regard.

Yes, in many ways it's a bad development, phones get more and more expensive as they get more powerful. Software get more wasteful because the phones are more powerful. Manufacturers are struggling to sell more and more of them in a market where everyone already have one, so they need to come up with faster, newer and better things. Foldable phones are the lastest high end thing now.

On the other hand, there have never been phones as capable and affordable as there are now. Yes, the "flagships" cost months of salary, but you can find plenty of cheap phones that are still quite good. They do tend to not last as long however, and are generally not even worth repairing when they inevitably break, and of course, having margins that thin means the people actually assembling them don't get much pay.

This all is of course not really a good direction if we want a more sustainable society, I know, but it's really nothing new either.

I'm not saying anything is good now. I'm just saying it wasn't good before either.