The Evolution of Portable Media Devices & Cell Phone Technology

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  • 0:02 Portable…
  • 0:31 Early Devices
  • 2:19 Phones
  • 4:10 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we discuss the development of portable media devices and cell phones in the 1980s, 1990s, and 21st century, and how the smart phone may trump them all.

Portable Communications Devices

No matter whether it's your phone, computer, or other electronic device, it always seems out of date a few weeks after you buy it. As soon as you've got your iPhone 5, Apple seems to introduce the iPhone 6 or something else entirely. Indeed, technology, perhaps more than anything else in the world today, seems to move faster and faster. So hold on, as this lesson gives you a crash course in the relatively short, but diverse, history of portable communications devices!

Early Devices

Before there was the iPhone and the Macbook, there were far lower-tech devices which allowed people to send basic communications to one another. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the pager (or beeper, as it was sometimes called) was one of the earliest forms of portable communications device. Each device was generally about the size of small wallet, with a numerical screen (similar to the face of a calculator) on top. Each pager had a phone number, which could be called if someone wanted to get in contact with the owner. When a pager received a call, it 'beeped,' hence its nickname.

Early models displayed only the phone number of the caller on the numerical face, asking the owner to call that number back as soon as possible. Later, pagers could receive rudimentary, short messages as well as phone numbers. Though beepers are largely obsolete among the general public, they are still used in some specialized occupations and workplaces, including hospitals.

Another device that is out of date today, but was widely used in the 1990s and early 2000s was the personal digital assistant, or PDA. The personal digital assistant was a handheld device that was essentially a working person's calendar, address book, email, Internet portal, and many other options all rolled into one. Some versions could even recognize handwriting, allowing the user to take down addresses, phone numbers, or notes in a meeting by hand before digitizing the script. PDAs were widespread in the business world as they could organize several file cabinets' worth of business contacts and business portfolios into a single, handheld device.

The addition of communications platforms, such as email and Internet, made these devices all the more important to the business community of that period. Though PDAs still exist and can be bought, they have generally been made obsolete by more powerful tablet computers or smart phones.


Though the first true portable, cellular phone was introduced in 1973, cell phones did not gain widespread popularity until the late 1980s and early 1990s. The earliest models were enormous by today's standards and many were only available in cars or limousines. They generally had little to no battery life - or indeed, were permanently attached to the car itself - and service was unreliable at best.

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