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When cell phones were a “hot new industry”

August 20, 2020, 1:43 PM UTC

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Good morning. Newsletter editor Karen Yuan here, filling in for Adam.

Tech predictions—they’re fun to make, but can either be eerily prescient or wildly off-base. 

Take Phaedrus’ classic argument against the invention of writing: Plato says that putting words to paper (or papyrus) is dangerous because “if men learn this, it will implant forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written.”

The 1984 Fortune classic “Mobile phones: Hot new industry,” makes for another amusing retrospective. 

In 1984, only the wealthiest could afford a mobile phone. They cost $2,500, but analysts saw the promise of the budding wireless networks, or, as the writer Colin Leinster puts it, a “cellular explosion.”

The experts he interviews imagine a brave new world: “When you fly from New York to Washington, you’ll be able to take your phone with you,” one marvels. They envision a national network—“a universe unto itself” where cell phones would share a single area code. 

But, Leinster says, lots could go wrong. “Prices won’t drop fast enough to make a phone in the car as irresistible as it sounds,” he writes. “Another grim possibility is that cellular might prove so popular that emerging systems would be temporarily swamped, driving potential users away.”

That’s not the case with today’s smartphones, of course.

Leinster actually speculates about super-phones of some kind that have functions beyond mere calls. “Mobile phones will be able to link up with computers to receive information on stock movements, inventory availability, sales orders, and other data.” Burglar alarms could even be hooked up to phones, he continues. 

It sounds like he’s getting at something, but then the prediction becomes quintessentially 80s: “These services could be provided as hard copy, using printers or facsimile machines.”

As phones get more and more advanced, “competition will be especially tough because there is little to differentiate products,” Leinster also says. “Salesmanship makes the difference.”

Yes and no—what no one could have predicted at the time was the obsession with smartphone design that Apple would kick off. 

Leinster does write that some customers may pay almost any price to get fancier and fancier phones. He describes a quaint version of today’s enthusiasm over new drops: When one cell system got approval in New York, hundreds of early-bird fans began to line up. “Everybody’s got to be first. Me. Me. Me,” one seller told Leinster, exasperated.

It seems like one thing stays consistent, especially in tech: hype. That “hot new industry” may stay hot for a while.

Karen Yuan


This edition of Data Sheet was curated by Aaron Pressman.


Just drop off the key, Lee, and get yourself free. The strong tech IPO market is attracting bigger and bigger companies. Now one of the white whales of the unicorn scene, boy, that's a terrible of the longest-horned unicorns? In any event, Airbnb says it filed confidentially to go public the old-fashioned way, using Wall Street brokers to sell a bunch of shares at a set price. Another prominent unicorn, Alex Karp's Palantir, did not file for an IPO, as many anticipate it will soon, but is leaving Silicon Valley and moving its headquarters to Denver, which is kind of like Elrond leaving Rivendell and moving to the Shire.

A lot of zeroes. Speaking of the stock market, Apple became the first U.S. company in history to reach a stock market value of $2 trillion on Wednesday morning (and I won my bet from last year that a tech company would overtake the world's first $2 trillion company, Saudi Aramco). The stock slipped a bit later, however, and closed at something like only $1.979 trillion, alas. That didn't stop the hot takes predicting that the "next trillion won’t come so easily." How about the next $0.021 trillion?

Alexa, join my Zoom meeting. In a power move to solidify its lead in video conferencing, Zoom announced it was adding apps for smart displays like the Amazon Echo Show, Facebook's Portal, and the Google Nest Hub Max.

Cloudy with a chance of GPUs. Investors in Nvidia's stock have already doubled their money in 2020, so perhaps they shouldn't get greedy. The graphic chip leader announced its second quarter revenue jumped 50% to $3.9 billion (in part thanks to its Mellanox acquisition), better than analysts expected. Nvidia shares, previously up 106.35% in 2020, lost 1% in pre-market trading on Thursday. Shares of rival Intel, scuffling to a 19% loss so far this year, gained 4% pre-market on news of a new $10 billion stock buyback program. You know that old lawyer's saying about if you don't have the facts or the law on your side you pound the table? Stock buybacks are the table-pounding of business.

How’s that for a slice of fried gold? While we're on the topic of zombies, oh wait, we weren't on the topic of zombies? Even after AMC released some scary photos of the upcoming sixth season of Fear the Walking Dead yesterday? Well, we should be because a company named OnwardMobility has obtained rights to the BLACKBERRY phone brand and they're going to make a new phone with a keyboard. Wall Street Journal tech columnist Joanna Stern is kvelling. Also, people are trying to sell used Apple iPhones with now-banned app Fortnite already installed for like $10,000! I'd rather be stuck with a Blackberry.


Way before Slack and Reddit and pretty much anything online, people used to swap information about technology and computers by meeting up in real life. Tech writer Esther Schindler has a great deep dive at Ars Technica into the history of computer user groups.

Back when the microcomputer industry was smaller, it was easy to get access to the movers-and-shakers—often before they moved or shook anything. User groups gave everyone the opportunity to learn about technology, often from the people who invented it.

Harry McCracken attended Boston Computer Society meetings beginning in 1979, and he recalls its Q&A sessions with fondness. “The questions were so tough,” the longtime tech journalist reminisces. “There was no hero worship, just smart computer users asking sensible questions.”

“Microsoft, WordPerfect, and Adobe were the headliners,” recalls a 1980s member of the Oklahoma City PC User Group. “They gave presentations that drew hundreds and provided wonderful giveaways of full versions of their software. You could always expect that the introduction of new versions of their products would be a big event, much like the way Samsung and Apple launch new hardware today.”


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Many bad things are going on in the world today, but the residents of Olten, Switzerland, awoke to a sweet surprise in the sky on Wednesday. Due to a ventilation system malfunction at the local Lindt factory, the air was filled with cocoa powder raining down like snow. What did they say about Willy Wonka?

Who can take a sunrise
Sprinkle it with dew
Cover it with chocolate and a miracle or two
The Candy Man

Aaron Pressman