Back in the Age of MS-DOS, I was working tech-support for a firm in San Francisco’s Financial District, trying to keep users’ PCs alive and maintain connections between dumb terminals and the super-powered boxes in the computer room. One day I was happily tangled in cables over by the patch-panel when one of our visiting techs arrived to perform his particular brand of voodoo on a big expensive box - some sort of AC-powered behemoth that only he could control.
To my amazement, he opened a briefcase, pulled out a telephone handset, and proceeded to make a telephone call. I was wide-eyed and slack-jawed - like a 19th-century farm-dweller gawking at his first horseless carriage.
“You mean you can just make a phone call from that thing without plugging it into the wall?” He affirmed that this amazing device could perform this then-incomprehensible voodoo.
Nowadays, I pull a hand-sized slab out of my pocket on the MTR and check out the Telecom Asia stories during my morning commute. Our magazine has reached its 25-year milestone, and considering most magazines don’t survive their first year, that’s remarkable. Considering how far we’ve come since the phone-in-a-briefcase days, TA’s longevity is a powerful testament to the staying power of a unique publication covering a unique market that has played a powerful role in the development of mobile despite (or perhaps because of) its diverse mix of geopolitics and infrastructures.
In the north we have Japan and Korea - countries whose communications infrastructure leads the world, particularly in the realms of 4G and, in a few years, 5G. Near the equator are sprawling archipelagos - Indonesia and the Philippines - where even national policies are logistically difficult to implement, never mind telco infrastructure. But mobile rules in both markets, and cellcos in each have developed some of the most innovative business models in the mobile sector, from mobile payments to social media deals.
We have wealthy city-states like Singapore and rural nations like Laos, yet countries like Cambodia and Myanmar (nations marginalized only a decade ago) see skyrocketing take-up of mobile in their capital cities. One Yangon cellco signed a million new subscribers in a three-week period last year. And Cambodian operator Chuan Wei recently announced a plan to deploy the nation’s first 100G fiber network (upgradeable to 400G).
Sociologists speculate endlessly on the generation currently growing up with smartphones and tablets. Will they be able to multi-task and process information like no generation before? Or will they have the attention span of gnats, only with marginal social skills?
No one knows for sure, but here’s one positive aspect of the computing power of smartphones: in-hand translation. It’s an evolutionary leap from voice-only mobiles to the latest models, which can translate speech-to-text into another language. Combined with in-app translation (baked into an OTT app like WeChat), you can have a text-based interchange with a person who doesn’t speak your language. It involves a bit of app-switching and the translation may not be perfect, but it’s possible, and that’s as close to science-fiction as I’ve seen so far.