Why don't cell phones have a dialtone?

12 April 2013

While reading The Idea Factory, I came across an interesting passage that explained why cell phones don’t have dialtones:

Meanwhile, Phil Porter, who had worked with [Richard] Frenkiel on the original system, came up with a permanent answer to an interesting question. Should a cellular phone have a dial tone? Porter made a radical suggestion that it shouldn’t. A caller should dial a number and then push “send.” That way, the mobile caller would be less rushed; also, the call would be connected for a shorter time, thus putting less strain on the network. That this idea—dial, then send—would later prove crucial to texting technology was not even considered.

It’s amazing that although this suggestion was made in 1971, we’re leveraging it more than 40 years later with text messaging. How many other technologies and businesses are built on top of SMS that wouldn’t have existed without this decision? I’m sure an SMS-like technology would have come along regardless of this decision but it still makes me wonder how significantly past technological decisions influence us in the present.

An additional meta thought: this is an example of one of those things that gladly lives in the subconscious that has no reason to bubble up to consciousness. I’m sure if someone were to ask me point blank to compare dialtones between landlines and cell phones I’d immediately get it but but without a push I never would have thought of it. I wonder how many other connections there are stuck in our heads waiting for a spark to bring them into our consciousness.



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