Andrew Vine: Chimes at midnight... and another mobile new year

THERE will be a blizzard of good wishes sent on Thursday to mark the start of the new year in the seconds after midnight chimes.

Calls, text messages, emails and tweets will fly around the world, as people instinctively reach for their mobiles to wish their friends and families the best for 2015.

Whether the people busy on their smartphones realise it or not, all their expressions of affection and optimism will mark a milestone – the 30th anniversary of Britain’s first mobile phone call.

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It was on January 1, 1985, that the call was made – and it seemed no more than a novelty. There was little sense that a revolution in the way the country communicates had begun.

A faint air of jokiness hung around the whole event, as if an eccentric boffin was revealing a technological toy which whilst intriguing wasn’t to be taken too seriously.

That feeling of the mobile telephone being a passing fad was bolstered by the call being made by comedian Ernie Wise, incongruously dressed as a Victorian toff, complete with stovepipe hat.

The call was brief, from St Katherine’s Dock, in London, to the headquarters of Vodafone, in Newbury, Berkshire, which hardly less incongruously was situated above a curry house.

This seemed to be a plaything for that most characteristic symbol of the 1980s – the well-heeled yuppie. One of the new-fangled phones would set you back £2,000 – a hefty sum in a year when the average annual wage was £11,700.

The phone was pretty hefty, too. It weighed as much as a car battery, and anyone fancying showing off their ability to make a call on the move had to be quick about it because its charge was exhausted within 20 minutes.

Even Vodafone itself added to the general sense that mobile phones were destined to be a niche product. It estimated that the market for them would not exceed two million people, a fraction of the UK population of 50 million.

How very far off that New Year’s Day now seems, so remote that if the pictures of Ernie Wise smiling as he made the call were sepia-tinted it would not come as much of a surprise.

A new, state-of-the-art mobile phone was in a young relative’s Christmas stocking, and I couldn’t help smiling as his grandmother told him how people once managed by using telephone boxes, standing there on a freezing night shoving loose change into the coin slot, with the pips going periodically to warn that credit was running out.

He listened with impeccable politeness, but plainly thought she was either pulling his leg, or if this was for real, talking about an ancient age of primitive communications not far removed from connecting two tin cans with a length of taut string.

Like many households now, his does not have a conventional telephone. The mobile is king, an estimated 83 million of them in use in the UK, far more than there are people. If in the years after that first call, only a tiny fraction of the population owned one, the position has swung so far the other way that now those who do not are a very small minority.

It’s no exaggeration to suggest that the mobile phone, from those quaint beginnings, is the technological advance that has had the most profound effect on the way we live since television sets became widespread in the early 1950s.

Mobiles have changed the way we do business, relate to our families and friends and with the rise of texting, how many express themselves.

Parents can keep more closely in touch with their children than ever before, a valuable safeguard, and mobiles have been a boon for the vulnerable or frail who have the security of knowing that they can call for help wherever they may be.

There are downsides as well. Having the means to be contacted 24 hours a day has blurred the distinction between working hours ending and leisure time beginning, and those issued with a mobile as part of their jobs can feel that they are never completely off duty.

It’s possible to mourn the loss of a world where the air wasn’t rent by incessant ringtones and any journey by public transport didn’t involve listening to one side of somebody else’s conversation, but we’ve all had to become acclimatised to such annoyances.

It’s doubtful if many people foresaw the central role that mobiles would come to play in modern life on that New Year’s Day 30 years ago, let alone imagined that the technology would develop to the point where the device in pocket or handbag would not just be a phone but a powerful computer. How they evolve over the coming three decades is anybody’s guess. But it would be foolhardy to bet against the mobiles of 2015 being used to send New Year greetings one day looking as quaintly old-fashioned as Ernie Wise in his stovepipe hat.