Why Don’t Cell Phones Have Dial Tones?

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Phones have come a long way since the old landline days. Our smartphones are light, fast, and have more computing power than NASA used to put a man on the moon.*  Some advances came not by adding things to the phone, but by taking things away. Noticeably missing for anyone of a certain age is the dial tone. What happened to it?  We don’t need it anymore. Or, at least the phones don’t.

Back in the early days of telephony, a switchboard operator would answer when you picked up the handset and connect you with whoever you were calling. When operators were replaced with an automated system that connected calls in the late 1940s, the dial tone was created so that callers would know that the phone was connected to the system, the system was live, and they could place their call.

For most people, this was helpful, but it threw President Dwight Eisenhower for a loop at first. Ike had never had to use a rotary telephone and had never heard a dial tone before (he had a dial-less phone in the White House that connected him to a switchboard). When he retired in 1961, he had to deal with both in an embarrassing incident witnessed by a Secret Service agent. According to the Eisenhower National Historic Site, “Upon lifting the receiver and being confronted with a dial tone, the President began to repeatedly press the dial tone button. When that achieved no results, he hung up and began turning the dial as though the phone were a safe. He finally gave up and turned to the agent for assistance.”

Ike eventually mastered the rotary phone, and decades later, Bell Laboratories was ready to move the telephone world forward another big step: supplementing, and, for some people, replacing, landlines with cellular mobile phone technology. Tech guy Dan Goldin was reading The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation when he met the man who killed the dial tone. He quotes the book:

Meanwhile, Phil Porter, who had worked with [Richard] Frenkiel on the original system, came up with a permanent answer to an interesting question. Should a cellular phone have a dial tone? Porter made a radical suggestion that it shouldn't. A caller should dial a number and then push "send." That way, the mobile caller would be less rushed; also, the call would be connected for a shorter time, thus putting less strain on the network. That this idea—dial, then send—would later prove crucial to texting technology was not even considered.

The phone could do what it needed to without a dial tone, so why keep it around? That Porter’s dial-and-send idea, called “pre origination dialing,” and decision to leave the dial tone off the mobile network also did us the favor of paving the way for text messages is a nice bonus. Goldin wonders, “How many other technologies and businesses are built on top of SMS that wouldn’t have existed without this decision? I’m sure an SMS-like technology would have come along regardless of this decision but it still makes me wonder how significantly past technological decisions influence us in the present.”

For all the good its death did, some people still miss their old dial tone. The company Jitterbug capitalized on this with a  mobile phone and service—including a dial tone—that appeals to baby boomers and old folks. [Via Dan Goldin, via Gizmodo]

*I forget where I heard this or who first made the observation, and I wonder how accurate it is. That’s a post I should totally do, right guys?

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April 23, 2013 - 9:30am
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