Communicating by text or voice: what are our smartphones really for?

By Lisa Hancox, Head of Marketing

When car phones and cell phones that weighed as much as the contents of my handbag were created, the sole purpose was, whisper it, just for making and receiving phone calls in the car and on the move. Motorola’s DynaTAC 8000X phone first reached consumers in the Autumn of 1983, winning the race to sell the world’s first commercial cell phone. When Sir Charles Dunstone and David Ross founded Carphone Warehouse in 1989, prices reduced and the market was about to explode.

It would be almost 10 years before SMS technology arrived and revolutionised the way we could communicate with each other on the move, and whisper it, without talking to each other. In December 1992, a young UK test engineer used a PC to send a Merry Christmas SMS on the Vodafone network to a friend’s phone and we all fell in love with the text.

After this, innovations abounded, with multiple phone manufacturers, network operators, smaller phones and longer battery life. Everything almost changed in 1993, when Research In Motion launched the Blackberry, with email capability, SMS, a web browser and Blackberry Messenger functionality all built in.

Then, everything really changed. On 9 January 2007, Steve Jobs announced the first iPhone at the Macworld convention and on 20 June 2007, the first iPhone was released in the US.

Today we have the iPhones and Android smartphones that we know, and mostly love. A number of research studies all show that we spend significantly more of our time using apps, mainly social media apps, than we do making calls or sending texts. They are our cameras, our navigation tool and the way to stay in touch with everyone, whether it’s on WhatsApp, Instagram, Facebook messenger, VoIP calls or Twitter.

This week’s news that the walkie-talkie – first invented in 1937 – may be making a comeback because we’re impatient with poor mobile phone signal connections or the “coldness of texts”, may seem far-fetched at first. But, not when you realise it’s Apple backing the comeback and in a very 21st century way. Apple is launching a walkie-talkie app for the Apple Watch in the autumn, so you can tap, record and send instant audio messages to friends also with the watch. The receiver’s watch will chime and play the message when it suits them, with a tap option to respond. The concept takes the ‘voice note’ capability in WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger a step further, as both of these functions are more passive in the way they alert the receiver – and require the app to be open to play and send audio notes.

I wonder if, aside from not being an Apple Watch owner myself, the Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp and Apple Watch voice notes could be signalling a desire for more personal communication? After all, we’ve become so used to communicating by tweet, text and email, especially when you consider that for Generation Z this could be all they’ve predominantly known. Plus, whether you love or hate them, the likes of iPhone’s Siri and Amazon’s Echo Alexa are making some of us more comfortable with voice technology.

It all comes back to the tech industry’s current goal: building frictionless technology to help us find, do or buy faster and more easily. And voice has strength: it conveys emotion, reduces the potential for ambiguity and probably takes less time overall. For the moment, Apple Watch ownership is still not mainstream, but as always with Apple, it is creating the shape of things to come….