Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Got a permit for that cellphone?

Early models big enough to be used as a weapon

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Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you, happy birthday, dear cellphone, happy birthday to you!

For those of you who have been in a coma or hiding in a drainpipe for the last four decades, you need to know the cellphone this week celebrated its 40th birthday.

It's true -- 40 years ago, on April 3, 1973, in front of a crowd of reporters on a New York street, Motorola senior engineer Martin Cooper hoisted a brick-like device that weighed more than a kilogram, measured 25 centimetres long and had a 20-minute battery life that took 10 hours to recharge and used it to make the world's first public call from a mobile phone.

He was immediately shot to death because, after all, it was New York City and, since he appeared to be talking into a brick, everyone assumed he was a dangerous lunatic.

OK, I am kidding about that last bit. In fact, he was only wounded. No, sorry, what I meant to say is Cooper made his historic call to the head of a rival company that had lost the race to create the first cellphone.

What did Cooper say to his rival? He didn't say anything, because no one had thought to invent the first cellphone network. OK, again I am lying. The truth is, I don't know what Cooper said back then, but if he was anything like the rest of us, I'm pretty sure it was something like: "NEENER! NEENER! NEENER!"

But that's not important. What's important is cellphones have come a long way since that first call, which is not necessarily a good thing.

The first cellphone was totally awesome. It was awesome for many reasons. First, it was literally the size of a (bad word) four-slice toaster, which meant it was almost impossible to misplace.

You (panicking): "YIKES! Where's my new cellphone?"

Your friend: "What's that toaster-shaped bulge in your pocket?"

You: "Whew! Thanks."

Also, let's say you were standing on the street back in the day yakking into your massive cellphone when, suddenly and without warning, someone attacked you. Would you promptly dial 911? No, it would be faster to just use your brick of a phone to bludgeon your attacker to death.

Just try defending yourself against anything more menacing than a ladybug with modern cellphones, which are getting smaller by the nanosecond. It is physically impossible to press the microscopic keys on a standard cellphone today unless your fingers are the size of (a) parrot beaks, or (b) as sharp as the point of a No. 2 pencil.

The other thing I really liked about the first cellphones is -- and you are going to find this hard to believe -- they had a special feature, by which I mean you could actually use them to make phone calls and talk to the person on the other end.

In contrast, current cellphones have features for texting, emailing, tweeting ("Just bought a bag of chips!"), taking photos of your private parts, surfing the Internet, doing your taxes, walking the dog and making a pot of coffee, but unless you have an advanced degree in astrophysics, there is no way you can figure out how to use them to make actual phone calls.

Instead, the main thing state-of-the-art cellphones are used for is annoying other people in movie theatres. There you are, sitting in the dark, waiting anxiously to see whether Lincoln will get shot in that new biopic, but you can't see or hear anything because the person in front of you is texting the plot of the movie to their "BFF" and using their phone's "flashlight feature" at the same (very bad word) time.

The other main use for smartphones is to ensure that checkout lines in supermarkets move at the same speed as a small jungle creature passing through the digestive system of a mature python. I think sane people can agree the death penalty should be mandatory for anyone who is standing in front of you in a checkout line longer than the Great Wall of China and, instead of paying for their groceries and picking up their bags, is pressing a phone the size of a stick of gum to their face and making vital comments such as: "Have you got a minute? I'd like to dictate the entire plot for that Lincoln movie. You'll never guess the ending!"

Anyway, I'm sorry if I sound like an out-of-touch old geezer, but I am having a hard time getting excited about the latest advances in cellphone technology.

I tried to use my fancy new phone to beat a loud talker to death in a movie theatre the other night, but the best I could do was send him "LOL" pictures of cute kittens. Where's a decent brick when you need one?

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 5, 2013 A2

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