The warmth is sweltering and embracing. It is the summer of 1996 on Wall Street in New York City and I just departed the cool comfort of the office to wade in the sauna of a City summer decked out in the standard garb of the stock broking district, a suit and tie. Its lunch time and my colleagues and I merge seamlessly in the crowd of suits. A unified mass of discomfort lunging forward in wave upon wave of humanity with but one singular purpose, sustenance.
In a New York minute we are planted at a table, food at hand, merrily discussing the instabilities of Windows when a buzzing momentarily pauses the conversation. The vibrations are coming from my beeper, I look down, make a mental note of the number displayed, drop some cash on the table and excuse myself. The restaurant has no phones, and cell phones, while they did exist, have not yet taken hold with the lower rungs of the corporate ladder. And so, I had to once again step forth into the sauna of New York and seek out a vacated public phone. Finding one, I fumbled around for a quarter, dialed the number and addressed the emergency, which happened to be my boss requesting I pick something up for him on the way back to the office.
The beeper was the first step in mobile communication, and while it was able to get a message to the wearer wherever they were, it needed two things to be effective. One was that the intended recipient of the message had the beeper on his or her person. The second was ready access of said recipient to a phone. In my experience, the entire concept didn’t really facilitate better communication. In fact, it brought about more frustration than anything else, but corporations bought into the idea of being able to get a hold of key employees at critical moments of any given project. They envisioned an increase of productivity and the bottom line, whether those visions were fully realized is an entirely different topic of discussion.
For employees, the face of communication didn’t change drastically with the onset of beepers. If anything they were a badge of honor. A symbol of ones importance to the company, but ultimately communication was handled by email and the desk phone, and even the most important of people had to be tethered at their desks to make any effective use of those tools.
Over time technology advanced, as it has often done, in a linear progression. One way beepers gave way to two-way beepers. Those further advanced with larger screens, slide out mini-keyboards and the ability to even access email. Over this same period, cells phones were also advancing, getting smaller in size and larger in functionality, but most importantly, finding an increasing adoption rate amongst the most average among us. Despite all of these advances however, the work place generally remained the same. Each company maintained their own data center and staff to manage it. The Telecom group was of a different lineage than the IT/Networking group, and the two rarely crossed paths, stumbling upon each other only in those rare instances when they were installing their respective productivity devices into some new employee’s office.
So, while people were communicating in varying mobile manners, mobility was still very much a foreign concept and the technology had yet to reach a phase where it was truly disruptive. People were communicating better, faster and more effectively at work with the emergence and progression of mobile phones and beepers, but when that work day drew to a close, so too did the communication.
Read Part 2 here