1988 vs. 2008: A tech retrospective

Think the iPhone is pricey? The cool cell phone of 1988 cost $4382 in today's dollars. A 150MB hard drive? $8755. Take a trip with us down memory lane, and you'll never whine about the price of a gadget again.

Cell Phones

1988: Motorola DynaTAC 8500XL

Price: $2500 ($4382 adjusted for inflation)

Technology: analog

Weight: 28 ounces

Talk time: 1 hour

2008: Apple iPhone

Price: $399 (with two-year service agreement)

Technology: EDGE/GSM quad-band

Weight: 5 ounces

Talk time: 8 hours

The Motorola DynaTAC 8000X, introduced in 1984, was the world's first truly portable cell phone (as opposed to a car phone) that didn't require a mobile operator to connect a call. It was a 10-inch tall brick — not something you'd carry in your pocket — and it sold for $3995. Nonetheless, its popularity took off among real estate agents, stockbrokers — and drug dealers.

By 1988, about 800,000 cell phones were in use in the United States, and roaming agreements had been set up that allowed service subscribers to use their phones outside their local area. McCaw Cellular Communications (which later merged with AT&T to become AT&T Wireless) was the biggest carrier.

Phone prices had drifted downward but were still very high, averaging $2300 for portable models. A typical monthly bill was $100 to $150, with charges of 50 cents per minute for both incoming and outgoing calls.

Phones and service remained very basic, with no voice mail, call forwarding, caller ID, or other niceties that we now take for granted; and Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, camera capabilities, touch screens, music and video playback, and Web access (all provided by the iPhone) were beyond the horizon altogether. The 8500XL did have an LED display and enough memory to retain 30 numbers. A few years later, however, Motorola introduced the StarTAC — the first clamshell flip phone — and the true pocketable phone was born.

What's next? Google's Android initiative, with working prototypes shown this month at Barcelona's Mobile Congress, promises an open smart-phone platform, which may end the era of carriers' stranglehold on handsets.

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Becky Waring

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