Image of three devices side by side (telephone, cell phone, and a smartphone) on a multicolored background

Telephone: Extraordinary ordinary things

In an exuberant song from Lerner and Loewe’s delightful musical comedy “Paint Your Wagon,” the principal character sings: 

Where am I goin'?
I don't know
Where am I headin'?
I ain't certain
All I know
Is I am on my way

When will I be there?
I don't know
When will I get there?
I ain't certain
All that I know
Is I am on my way

If this sounds like a cavalier approach to life, it really isn’t, especially for professionals in computer science, computer programming, and knowledgeable laymen. Virtually any mass-manufactured and globally distributed product today depends on computing and will most likely continue to do so in the near, medium, and long-term future. However, computing itself is changing so rapidly and influencing so many things that, not surprisingly, computing professionals feel much the same way about their future.

It is also posited that “if you don’t know where you came from, you can’t know where you are going.” This is disputable. The past does not always have lessons for the future. For example, people had been toasting bread over fire for millennia. The invention of the toaster occurred through progress in understanding and applying electricity, not from anything learned about bread or fire. Lessons learned from the past are relevant in many circumstances (perhaps most), but not all.

To put first things first, this essay about the “extraordinary ordinary thing” known as the telephone will initially examine educated thoughts about where it may go from here, and then complete the story by looking at where it came from and how it has affected society up to now.

Telephone of the Future

Picturing the world today without the telephone is virtually unthinkable. Imagining how the telephone will change and the effects it may have on the world of the future, is a risky business. Looking out over the next 2–5 years may be reasonably certain. But beyond that— 20, 30, or 40 years down the road—would seem to be a fool’s errand. Nevertheless, people are venturing guesses. And the fact that they are doing it may help to shape that future rather than simply describing what might unfold.

According to the words of one of the songs in Rogers and Hammerstein’s seminal musical comedy “Oklahoma” (set in 1906), “They’ve gone about as far as they can go.” The singer was referring to a seven-story “skyscraper” he had just seen on a recent visit to Kansas City. Imagine how he would react to today’s skyscrapers, many of them soaring over 100 stories high, with one reaching even 160 stories. Modern cities with skyscrapers, multistory commercial buildings, apartment houses, etc., simply would have been impossible, and probably even unimaginable, without the invention of the humble elevator.

The same thing may turn out to be true of the smartphone. The changes in these instruments over the past 20 years or so have been breathtaking. But apparently, we’ve only just begun. Thinkers and developers are hard at work imagining what smartphones will look like in the future.

In a 2021 article published in The Verge, the authors make the following observations.

The most likely story, as always, is iteration. Absent some breakthroughs, we’ll likely have much more impressive versions of the things we can buy today. Nearly every time somebody says that there will be a massive breakthrough in five to 10 years— be it self-driving cars or augmented reality—the safest bet is that they’ll be making the same prediction five years later.

It’s easy to underestimate how important iterative changes can be. Even with iterative updates, smartphones will be radically better than they are today, and they’ll be different in some ways, too. The screens will be brighter and fold in different ways, the cameras will be so advanced that they’ll threaten to obviate even higher-end SLRs, and the digital assistants inside them will be smarter.

It’s easy to underestimate how important iterative changes can be. Would Instagram have been born if the original iPhone camera hadn’t been kind of junky? Would it still exist if that camera hadn’t become so good it has destroyed entire categories of products? OLED is just a new way of displaying pixels, but it can flex and uses very little power, so now our phones fold in half, and we take calls on our wrist computers.

The last sentence of this excerpt may be particularly prescient. It suggests the time is near when the terms smartphone, iPhone, mobile phones, or any other device using the word “phone” will disappear. Already today these so-called phones are in fact extraordinarily compact internet-connected computers, of which the ability to make telephone calls is only one attribute.

An article from Lauren Goode, which appeared in Wired in March 2023, also gazed at the near-term future of the smartphone. From the commercial point of view (sales), the near future did not seem very rosy.

The mighty smartphone is facing a reckoning—at least from a sales perspective. During the 2022 holiday season, smartphone shipments declined more than 18 percent from the same period the year before. In general, last year had the lowest annual shipment total since 2013. Research firm IDC said this was due to “significantly dampened consumer demand, inflation, and economic uncertainties.”

While attributing the decline to macroeconomic factors (notably inflation), Goode attributes part of the decline to the smartphone itself.

One needs only to do a double-take at their grocery bill to feel these pressures, but macroeconomics aside, the smartphone itself probably deserves some of the blame (or credit) for our waning interest. Smartphones are, actually, amazing devices. That’s why we’re so addicted to them and why, in so many places around the globe, most people have one. You don’t even need to spend a grand anymore to get a premium phone. Have you used a $300 or $400 phone lately? They’re pretty darn good. Phones are also becoming more repairable; why buy a new one when you can just swap in a better battery? The used or refurbished market is growing too.

She then poses the question, “So what’s the future of the phone itself in this era of slowing sales?” To answer the question, she calls on the knowledge and insights from technologists, builders, designers, analysts, and futurists to look 10 years down the road.

Some focused on the form factor. Others said sophisticated silicon will help us identify “real” media versus fake or AI-generated facsimiles. And a few predicted that actual phone calls will fall by the wayside. Still, almost all of them believe that the smartphone is something we’ll continue to carry with us, both literally and metaphorically. The smartphone market may never see the same meteoric rise that it did in the 2010s, but the all-powerful pocket computer is here to stay.

If we look somewhat further out in time, say as far as 2050, we see a whole lot of amazing things in the forecast. Some of these may see the light of day in the near future, even over the next 10 years, but their real impact will probably not become evident until succeeding decades. However, before enumerating some of them, we need to understand what just what forecasting is and isn’t.

According to the technical definition, forecasting is a technique that uses historical data as input to make informed estimates that are predictive in determining the direction of developing trends. But we should always bear in mind the wry comment, “Forecasting is extremely difficult, especially when it concerns the future.”

Here are some of the most interesting forecasts offered by numerous computer professionals.

Technical Developments

Full encryption

The connection between the pixel one sees and the CPU and the graphics cores will be fully encrypted. Currently, encryption takes place during transit from the device to the server or in storage. In the future, encryption will take place between chips and between input-output. Why? To ensure authenticity. When a photo, video, or voice is captured, it will be processed through a specific core, and stamped to attest that it is not a deepfake, or that it has been doctored, photoshopped, or filtered.

Power in headsets

More computer power will be embedded in headsets. This will allow users to have a natural conversation, unencumbered by always having to use a phone in your hand and using the keyboard.

Under-display cameras

Today, most smartphone cameras require some kind of representation on the device, taking up space on the screen. Future devices will almost certainly use so-called “under-display cameras,” requiring no space on the screen, leaving the saved space free for other purposes.

Zero ports and wireless charging

Wireless charging of course is nothing new but currently, it is still not sufficiently practical for most smartphone users to rely on. However, wireless charging speeds are dramatically increasing, virtually ensuring that over the next few years, wired charging will become a thing of the past.


For ease and comfort of use, the screen of smartphones must be big enough for easy viewing. However, this minimum size means that most models are too big for people to easily carry around with them. Most people have gotten used to this inconvenience and probably don’t think too much about it. However, if the screens could be unfolded when needed and folded up again after use, this inconvenience would rapidly disappear. And of course, they can. Smartphone models with foldable screens already exist. However, their current high price and doubtful reliability keep potential buyers at bay. Once these drawbacks are resolved, which does not seem to be too far from now, the rigid screen will probably quickly disappear.

Educational Applications

Some people already quip, with admiration or disdain, that for young people the smartphone is no longer a technological device but an extension of their arm. They are real-time, live, and internet-connected. Given this indelible relationship between young people and the telephone, the implications for education must not be overlooked.

As a tentative start, an increasing number of educational institutions are already using smartphone text messaging to remind students of upcoming exams, announce changes in room assignments, announce special events, etc. And, in a less salubrious sense, to inform parents of truancy (failure to attend school) or involvement of their child in misbehavior.

Eco-friendly Smartphones

Although it may not be immediately obvious, ecology (eco-friendliness) and smartphones go hand-in-hand. The mining, refining, manufacturing, and shipping of the complex components of smartphones have a larger effect on the world’s fragile ecosystems than it might at first appear. Therefore, companies are increasingly seeking ways to reduce their ecological footprint.

Two key targets of the effort are using more sustainable materials and cleaner ways of charging the finished product in use. Various companies involved in designing, manufacturing, and maintaining smartphones have committed themselves to achieving to achieving net zero status by 2050.

Another trend taking shape is the resurgence of refurbished phones. Once considered the “poor man’s phone,” refurbished devices have largely brushed off this pejorative epithet. A “refurbished phone” is not the same as a “repaired phone.” People buy refurbished phones as a cheaper way to update the phones they already own that have become somewhat dated. It’s the same sort of thing as buying a late-model used car rather than buying a much more expensive new one.

Refurbished smartphones have a significantly smaller impact on the environment than new ones since they produce no new emissions before reaching the shops. Refurbished phones already rival new ones for quality and longevity, but of course do not incorporate all the latest features that smartphone snobs would find off-putting.

Beyond the Horizon

When we move beyond the very near term (10 years or so), speculation about the future of the smartphone runs from the sublime to the ridiculous. Or seemingly ridiculous. Constant advances in computer science, computer design, and computer components would suggest just about anything that can be imagined can eventually be achieved. Here are a number of suggestions for the next 30-odd years. You decide which ones you think are sublime and which ones are ridiculous. Then fasten your seatbelts, because you will probably be seriously wrong.

Portable office

For some years now it has been a common sight to see people working on laptops in coffee shops, laundromats, or other convenient out-of-the-office locations. This is because laptops have become increasingly lighter and more powerful. A similar evolution may be in store for smartphones, which will continue to become more lightweight and powerful, with features that will make them more useful. Moreover, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, people have become used to working independently rather than congregating in offices. If this mindset is sustained, the move to portable offices, using devices specifically designed for the purpose, would seem to be not only possible but inevitable.

Disappearance of the smartphone

At least one observer (and perhaps others not yet ready to voice the idea in public) predicts that in 2050, people will no longer be using smartphones at all. Instead, their brains will be directly connected to the internet via advanced brain-computer interfaces. To access information, call a friend, turn on an appliance, order goods and services online, etc. It will be necessary only to think about it and it will be done. AI algorithms will run alongside normal brain functions. In sum, “The cloud will become an extension of each person’s brain, much like our smart phones are today, except all the information will be seamlessly integrated into our conscious awareness of the world around us.”

Failsafe encryption

Today, when we say something is encrypted, tacitly we mean encryption from the device to a server, with encryption taking place in transit or in storage. In the future, things will be encrypted between chips and input-output. Why? Because when you are working with a voice, or a photo, or a video, you will want to be assured that it is real and not a figment of AI’s or some other yet-to-be-imagined technology imagination, i.e. a “deep fake.”

Integration into the environment

The devices known as smartphones today could entirely disappear as a distinct entity. Rather, they could be built into products and devices used in everyday life, e.g. a pair of glasses that displays a digital overlay on top of one’s physical surroundings.

To round things off, I consulted with members of the Ubiquity editorial board concerning their views of these prognostications. Although not experts in telephony, they are experts in computer science, so their thoughts on the future of the telephone are prescient and of significant value.

They were most succinctly summed up by Ted Lewis. Ted is a retired professor of computer science interested in network science, social media, and emerging technologies; author of more than 30 books on topics ranging from personal computing to complexity theory.

"I don’t believe the future phone will be extensions of existing technology. Instead, next phones will be as different from iPhones as iPhones were different from Blackberrys and desktop sets.

"The recent spin-out of Apple by Jonny Ive et. al. suggests the future of the smartphone is an AI-enabled communicator à la Star Trek. They demoed a wearable "badge" that projects a display on your hand or desktop. The interface, obviously, is chatGPT-like. No buttons to push, voice commands, etc.

"Even this seems naive to me given the IOT frontier that is just unfolding. Phones may disintegrate into watches, sensors, medical devices, digital assistants, brain implants, etc. We already experience this with the Apple Watch, which is Dick Tracy’s wristwatch realized.

"I also think prognosticators) underestimate the impact of the communications infrastructure on global comms. For example, 10 years from now it is highly likely that we will have quantum communications with associated security. How will this impact form factor and applications? I can think of radical implications for automobiles that are extensions of smartphones. The surveillance society will be on steroids!

"Furthermore, augmented reality and haptics as a big part of future "phones". In 10 years the smartphone may be an AR cloud surrounding its wearer such that reality and AR are indistinguishable. A good part of communicating may be done through emoji images rather than spoken words.

And we can forget about privacy! Er, no privacy anymore! Don’t get me started on that!"

The Telephone, Yesterday and Today

At the start, we argued the future of the telephone is likely to be radically different from its past. To drive this point home, I would like to summarize the history of the telephone so that you can see why its future cannot confidently be extrapolated from its past.

A few months ago, I was watching television when some surprising things happened. One program was a film from the 1960s that revolved around two people having difficulty sharing a telephone party line. A second program was a police drama in which a detective visiting a witness asks if he might use their telephone to make a call back to headquarters. To make the call, the detective has to slowly dial the number on a little wheel rather than simply pressing the numbered buttons.

For those of you who don’t remember the 1960s, a party line was when different people in two different locations (usually next-door neighbors) shared the same telephone line, such that when one of them was on the line, the others could not receive and make a call. Perhaps worse, if party 2 picked up the phone while party 1 was talking, party 2 could overhear everything. Inconvenient, and sometimes embarrassing, but certainly better than no connection at all.

The concept of the party line emerged with the introduction of the first commercial telephone services in the United States in 1878. At that time, all calls had to be made by first contacting a Bell Systems operator, who would then route the call to its final destination via other operators. Direct calls were simply not possible.

In the 1920s, when telephones in the U.S. were becoming generalized, there was insufficient infrastructure for each person to have a private line, however much they might have wanted one. Thus, telephone lines had to be shared, usually by people who didn’t know each other. When one person was on the line, the others who wanted to make a call had to wait until the current call was finished. The necessity of sharing a telephone line with a total stranger was the plot of “Pillow Talk,” a 1959 romantic comedy starring Doris Day, Rock Hudson, and Tony Randall.

Today, the idea of a party line is unheard of (even unthinkable) when virtually everyone not only has a private line, but also a personal telephone that they carry around with them wherever they go.

I also remember in 1999 when the first cell phone with a built-in camera was introduced. I couldn’t help but gasp. “What a ridiculous idea! What possible use could anyone have for a telephone with the built-in camera?” I thought. This shows just how wrong a first reaction can be. The fact that virtually everyone has their own telephone and that virtually all such phones incorporate a camera (and numerous other previously undreamt functionalities) has literally changed the world.

Quotations About the Telephone

You can often gain unexpected insights into a topic by looking at what people say about it. Here are several pithy quotations about the telephone that prove the point.

“Telephone, n. “An invention of the devil which abrogates some of the advantages of making a disagreeable person keep his distance.”—Ambrose Bierce

“The telephone gives us the happiness of being together yet safely apart.”—Mason Cooley

“The telephone is a good way to talk to people without having to offer them a drink.” –Fran Lebowitz

“People used what they called a telephone because they hated being close together and they were scared of being alone.”—Chuck Palahniuk

“At the end of every year, I add up the time that I have spent on the phone on hold and subtract it from my age. I don’t count that time as really living. I spend more and more time on hold each year. By the time I die, I’m going to be quite young.”—Rita Rudner

“The Internet is a telephone system that’s gotten uppity.”—Clifford Stoll

Let’s leave the final quotes to Alexander Graham Bell. In a nutshell, they demonstrate just how accurate and often how wildly inaccurate trying to predict the future of telephony (or any other technology) is likely to be.

“The telephone will be used to inform people that a telegram has been sent.”

“One day every major city in America will have a telephone.”

“The great advantage (the telephone) possesses over every other form of electrical apparatus consists in the fact that it requires no skill to operate the instrument.”

“The day will come when the man at the telephone will be able to see the distant person to whom he is speaking.”

And of course, the immortal: “Mr. Watson—come here—I want to see you.”

The first words spoken on the first telephone.