These days our "phones" aren't really phones in the dictionary sense ("an instrument for reproducing sounds at a distance"). And soon enough, if the CEO of AT&T is correct, they won't even involve namesake capability anymore. Looking at current communications trends, AT&T CEO Randall Stevenson predicts phones will soon no longer do the phone part of equation. "[I'd] be surprised if, in the next 24 months, we don't see people in the market place with data-only plans," he said at an investor conference, suggesting that cell phone plans will soon come without minutes with which to talk on the phone. As as the leader of one of the biggest and oldest telephone companies in the world, we trust his premonition more than the average predictor. Our phones are barely phones, anymore.
It's been some time since the general population used cell phones primarily for phone calls. As of 2009, all of our other phone functions -- texting, data, streaming video, email and streaming music -- surpassed calling, reported the New York Times's Jenna Wortham in May 2010. "Originally, talking was the only cellphone application," said Dan Hesse, chief executive of Sprint Nextel. "But now it’s less than half of the traffic on mobile networks." Smartphones have only gotten more popular since then. As of February 2012 Nielsen found that almost half of all phones owners have smartphones that have a lot more capabilities than just calling. Another Nielsen report found that text messaging has "exploded" and the research firm expects texting alone to surpass talking within the next three years in terms of usage.
All this data matches the anecdotal evidence we're seeing. Beyond our own habits, we found this New York Times article from over a year ago, in which Pamela Paul describes her detachment from talking on the phone, these days. "Nobody calls me anymore — and that’s just fine," she begins. "I don’t think it’s just me. Sure, teenagers gave up the phone call eons ago," she continues. "But I’m a long way away from my teenage years, back when the key rite of passage was getting a phone in your bedroom or (cue Molly Ringwald gasp) a line of your own ... In the last five years, full-fledged adults have seemingly given up the telephone — land line, mobile, voice mail and all."
People don't phone with phones anymore. But we still call them phones because they have that capability and at times, calling someone makes sense. Yet, soon the wireless carriers will follow the natural trend and kill the phone part of the phone altogether. The definition of "phone" Merriam Webster gives includes "speech," and all the others we found mention a vocal component. "A speech sound considered as a physical event without regard to its place in the sound system of a language," it reads the one from Merriam Webster. Voices must be involved. A phone can't accurately be considered phone without the speaking part. So we need a new word. Tricorder? Äppärät? We're open to suggestions.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.