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20 things killed by our phones in 20 years

Pricewatch: Mobile phones have sounded the death knell of many items we will never use again

When a spin-off of the company formerly known as the Post & Telegraphs started offering mobile phone services to well heeled and well connected Irish people in the mid-1980s, the idea that the devices it was trying, pretty forlornly, to flog would, within 40 years, bring about the virtual obsolescence of things – some of which had been part of our society for millenniums – would have seemed absurd to the point of madness.

For starters, hardly anyone owned the clunky mobile phones Eircell sold. That wasn’t much of a surprise, given they sometimes weighed as much as three kilos and cost the guts of €4,000 in today’s money. They could also do absolutely nothing more funky than make calls.

You couldn’t even play Snake on them.

By the mid-1990s, mobile phones became much smaller and slightly more advanced and you could play Snake on them, which was fun.

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They were cheaper too and – crucially – linked to phone packages so you didn’t have to pay through the nose up front for one. Mind you, the operators did quickly learn how to gouge us by charging scandalous sums for simple text messages. By the late 1990s, there were multiple operators in the space, the phones were getting a little bit smarter – does anyone remember WAP? – and almost everyone had one.

Text speak was also starting 2 b a ting 2.

Fast forward another decade, Blackberries had come and (almost) gone, while Steve Jobs had changed the world again with the rollout of his super-smart iPhones.

Since 2007, mobiles have only got smarter and have been busy replacing all sorts of stuff – the kind we will almost certainly never see again.

Here are just some of the things the mobile phone has killed or marginalised to the point of extinction or irrelevance in no particular order.

Cameras: Now, we know that cameras, both video and still, continue to exist. We also know that many people – including some very talented professionals – use old-school devices with proper lenses to take very high quality pictures and videos.

For the rest of us, however, cameras have largely ceased to be a thing. And as for camera film! The idea of taking pictures on film and bringing them to a shop to be developed and then, waiting several days for them to be returned to you, only to discover that all but one picture is terrible and fit for nothing more enduring than the bin, is simply laughable.

The quality of the pictures that can be taken with even the most basic smartphones today can be breathtaking, while the photo-editing software that is commonly available can turn us all into mini Annie Leibovitzes in a flash. The fact that we all carry these high-powered digital cameras with us everywhere we go means that virtually nothing goes uncaptured – which is, to be honest, a bit of a double-edged sword.

Physical music players: We’re talking CD players, tape decks and record players (and yes we know that vinyl has seen something of a resurgence in recent times and we think that is only fabulous). Resurgences aside, the conversion of music to ones and zeros and the streaming of it from the Cloud has meant that all those massive set ups with huge speakers, subwoofers (no, we were never entirely sure what they were, either) have largely disappeared.

Records/Cassettes/CDs: Again, we know that vinyl is doing okay but apart from the resurgence, there is no way music, in its gloriously physical form, will ever return to its halcyon days. How could it, when we have almost every single song ever recorded on our phones? And are we the better for it?

To be honest, Pricewatch is not convinced that we are and – while it might make us old-fashioned – we miss the days of going out to buy the music we really cared about and then spending days poring over the sleeve notes and marvelling at the artwork and the pictures. And then, making mix tapes to give to those who had stolen our hearts.

Phone books: These were the ultimate contact list for generations. They were also kind of insane, absolutely appalling for the environment and just a little intrusive, when you think about it. Once a year, millions of massive tomes made up of thousands of pages and hundreds of thousands of names and addresses would be delivered to every single home and business in the country – whether they wanted them or not.

Despite their size, the books would only ever cover the region in which you happened to live. So, if you were in Galway, you got the 091 phone book. If you were in Dublin, you got the 01 book. If you were in Cork, the 021 book. If you wanted to find a number for someone who lived in a different county, you were kind of snookered. Once upon a time, millions of phone books were printed each year but by the time the last editions were printed in 2019, the number had fallen to less than 2,500.

The Yellow Pages: This was completely different from the phone book in that its pages were – wait for it, now – yellow. The only numbers in it were business numbers and the companies making the really big bucks were able to pay for display ads.

Wallets: Not long ago, leaving a wallet at home before a night out or a day in work meant you had absolutely no means to get by and would have to stay sober or hungry. With the ability to upload our card details on to our smartphones and pay with either Apple of Google Pay, however, the need for wallets is diminishing. Soon, we won’t need them at all.

Money: We might not need physical money either. Phones haven’t killed it, yet, but with more and more people using phones to pay for everything, you’d have to wonder how long physical currencies will continue to exist, mandates by governments and central banks to ensure a steady stream of cash notwithstanding.

Getting lost: For many thousands of years, human beings used maps to work out how to get from A to B. Then, almost overnight, we just stopped. Why would we use fiddly maps when our phones could tell us where we needed to go and even talk us through the route as we travelled it in an accent of our choosing. It doesn’t matter where you are in the world, you can pretty much rely on your phone to steer you in the right direction.

You don’t need to ask anyone for directions either. You just take out your phone, type in your destination and you’re good to go. You don’t even need to know where you want to go either. You can just ask your phone for restaurant or pub recommendations and then have it map you to the ones that take your fancy. It is just perfect – at least, until your phone dies or has no signal. Or you – shudder – lose your phone.

Watches: They still have a place, even the ones that – hilariously – do nothing more than tell the time, while the smarter watches can track your every step, record every beat of your heart, alert you to emails and Instagram posts and a whole lot more – although most of them do need phones to work. For many people, though, the absolute requirement to carry a watch has long since faded to memory. And speaking of memory, can you remember the last time someone asked you the time on the street? No, we can’t either.

Alarm clocks: Every home had one and most homes had several. The phone has sounded the death knell for them all – the ones that woke you with a cacophonous tinny bell ringing, the clock radios that alerted you a new day by blaring out Hotel California or whatever soft rock was popular on morning radio shows back in the day and the more gentle buzzy ones. We don’t miss them.

Landlines: Yes, we know they still exist and, for some people, landlines are a lifeline but many others – including Pricewatch – have long since abandoned old school phones. Hand on heart, we can’t remember the last time we made or received a call on a landline. We also know that none of our children – and some of them are well into their teens – have never once used a landline and probably never will.

Pay phones: Whatever about landlines, we’re pretty sure the children of today will never experience the delights of queuing in the rain for a public payphone. At their height, there were more than 6,000 such things dotted around Ireland.

We checked with the people at Eir – who, until 2020, were charged with looking after public phones – and were told that the number currently in operation around the country is 287. And what is happening to the infrastructure? Well, sometimes the boxes are just taken away while 22 of them have been converted to digital kiosks where calls can be made and information services can be accessed. There are also plans to turn some others into charging stations for electric cars.

Address books: Everyone had one. Many people had one for personal use and then another one for the family. The family address books would sit by the phone and sometimes came with a spring mechanism that allowed users to twist or push a dial to make the book pop up on exactly the right page on which the required telephone number would be written down. It was just magic.

Video and DVD players: When VCRs appeared in our world in the early 1980s, they retailed for around £500 – that’s pounds in the old money. It equates to about two grand in today’s money. Can you imagine that? On top of the two grand, you’d also have to schlep to video shops and pay £2 a pop to rent out films and if you forgot to return the videos on time, you’d be hit with absolutely savage fines.

Concert tickets: There was a time when, if you wanted to go to a concert, you would have to go into a shop and buy a ticket. Then, our friends at Ticketmaster came along and changed the game. We were able to buy tickets online. They were still physical things that Ticketmaster printed out and mailed to us, charging us around six quid per ticket in administrative fees.

The game changed once again when Ticketmaster started emailing us out tickets asking that we print them ourselves. They still charged them same fees as before, even though we were doing most of the work. Now, we are sent tickets with QR codes on them which can be scanned from our phones. And yet, still we are being charged the admin fees.

Boarding passes: They have largely gone the way of concert tickets and while airlines do sometimes issue old school boarding passes, they are more often than not found on our phones.

Radios: They still exist but more and more people are streaming radio channels from their phones.

iPods: It is not just old fashioned audio devices like radios that have been made largely obsolete by phones. Some very new technology has also been killed by phones and few have been more high profile than the iPod. Last summer, Apple announced that it was scrapping the iPod.

When Steve Jobs unveiled the first iPod, at a comparatively low-key ceremony in California 22 years ago, he said the device would change the world. He was right on the money.

First, it created a legitimate market for music downloaded in MP3 format at a time when the world of digital music was a lawless free (literally) for all where pirates roamed. There was more, however. The iPod fundamentally changed how people consumed music and how charts worked and ultimately, paved the way for the smartphones and streaming services that are so key to our lives today.

Civility: We’re not going all Victor Meldrew “back in our day” now. People who give out about people being on their phones on public transport and not taking in the beauty of the world around them forget that the beauty of the world is sometimes hard to spot on a sweaty and steamy 46A trundling down the North Circular Road. As well as that, in the days before phones, many commuters had their noses buried in newspapers – good times – or books and were as caught up in their own little worlds as people are today.

When we say civility, we mean social media discourse. It can be brutal, rude, misogynistic, racist and stupid and, sometimes, all of them at once. We suspect that many such posts originate on people’s phones.

Time to yourself: There was a time when, if you were away from your home or office, you were completely uncontactable. You were not bombarded incessantly with text messages from scam artists warning you that fictitious tolls have not been paid or WhatsApp messages from the parents of children in your school who you have never met asking if anyone has seen a Peppa Pig lunch box. There were no work emails read while you were in the pub at midnight either.

Were we better off back then? We were certainly more at peace – we just didn’t realise it.

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