A History of Mobile Tech at Work: Teletype to Tablets

The world is really big. I know that sounds silly, and you could argue that it is only big compared to, say, a car or a duck, and not compared to our solar system, but on a human level, it is vast beyond real understanding. And yet, despite that, we’ve managed to crush the concept of distance as a deciding factor in nearly every human engagement, except for long-distance relationships between college freshmen. From war to commerce, travel has made great spaces seem irrelevant. You can get in a metal tube, put on headphones and a sleeping mask, and wake up around the world, with barely a sensation of movement.

But flight, even supersonic flight, isn’t what truly shrunk the world. Communication technology made all sense of distance obsolete. Nowhere is this felt more strongly than in the world of business, where communication technology, particularly mobile technology, has made impossible workplace scenarios the stuff of the mundane everyday. We’ve talked before about how mobile tech can change where business goes, but let’s look at how it already has, and what came before.

Early mobile phone
An IMTS mobile phone in a briefcase… transforming work and looking classy.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Working from Home- Mobile Technology from the 1940s

There have always been people who could work from home: writers, artists, poets, idle rich botanists – but those career paths weren’t really obtainable for most people. Especially with the rise of modern office culture, working from home was somewhat disreputable and nearly impossible. But that didn’t mean work couldn’t be done outside the office, which is what paved the way for what we have now.

Mobile technology is older than a lot of people think. The first mobile call was placed in 1946. These were more like radios or walkie-talkies, but the principle is surprisingly the same. This allowed the office to communicate more easily with people working outside, perhaps on sales calls or at meetings, but it wasn’t really widespread until the 1970s. By then, conference lines and group calls had begun to make the idea of remote offices, even small ones, very feasible. A two-or-three man office in California began to make sense if they could communicate easily with corporate headquarters in Cleveland.

This wasn’t a direct path to working from home, but it did begin to change the idea of a traditional office and make it more acceptable for people to be away. Other changes made it more acceptable: email, and especially the rise of smartphones, made working anywhere possible. Other aspects made it virtually normal.

Video Calls and the Importance of Trust in Workplace Communications

In nearly any TV show or movie about business, politics, romance, or really any human interaction, someone will say something like, “I don’t trust him. We’ve never even met!” That’s a cliche because it is true. It’s hard to understand someone when you have never actually met them, seen them in motion, looked into their eyes.

For a long time this would not just inhibit business, but make it harder for new people to break in. You trusted who you knew. People you went to school with, did lunch with, played golf with. That is what formed bonds, and made upper levels of tech and society a very hard club into which to break.

Video calling has managed to change that. Video conferencing isn’t terribly new, but it is only in the last decade that it has become a real tool that is practical, efficient, and sensible. The implications are not just about ease. They open up a world. Someone with an idea can pull out their Galaxy S4 or their iPhone 6 and be looking into the eyes of an investor around the world. Relationships can be forged where once only the written word, so easily misunderstood, were used. Barriers were broken, and bridges gapped.

There is an argument that having work be available anywhere is a bad idea, but I think it will level out, and we’ll get smarter, and this mobile technology, which has changed the workplace, will finally permit us to have more free time. Time, after all, is the last real measure of distance. The more we have of the former, the more time we have to see things, the less distant the far parts of the world will seem.

 

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