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A new breed of computers emerged a decade ago. They can fit in a palm of the hand but still perform, almost, like their big brothers. We call these computers smartphones.

Statistics show there are close to five billion mobile phone users across the globe, and seventy-three percent of them are smartphones.

With smartphones, numerous technologies like video, radio transmission, or the Global Positioning System (GPS) are made small in size and squeezed together in a box to perform in perfect harmony. This tool has become so important that almost one in two people on this planet owns it. Twenty years back, before the smartphone era, these technologies were spread out in stand-alone devices that were hundreds of times bigger than a mobile phone.

It is this radical reduction in size, achieved with a successful combination of several useful pieces of technology, that has made the smartphone the most popular technological device.

Starting with a popular technology — the radio. Today you can listen to the radio on a mobile phone (digital radio) but before it was a device on its own (terrestrial radio). There were shops dedicated to selling radio sets. The most popular way of tuning to terrestrial radio is F.M. (Frequency Modulation). It still exists as a channel, but it is facing a fierce new competitor which offers more options: the World Wide Web, or the Internet. With more and more people subscribing to the Internet, radio has managed to secure its place in a digital space alongside other technologies like its cousin, the video.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, what is a moving picture worth?

Video is becoming the most popular medium humans use to consume — or, should I say, to interact with information — because of its intuitive nature. Today most videos are watched via mobile phones. Youtube is the most popular channel, if considered as T.V. By Twenty-twenty-two, eighty-two percent of the global Internet traffic will come from video streaming and downloads.

There was a time when the only ways to access video was through the traditional analogue T.V. or a VCR (Video Cassette Recorder) connected to a T.V. screen. VCR is like a C.D. player but here the C.D. is called “tape” and it is quite huge. There was a time only middle- and upper-class homes could afford a video kit. Now, almost all mobile phone users have access to video on the go.

Today we have to keep track of time in order to perform tasks, so we wake up to an alarm from our mobile phone. Not so long ago, alarms were sold as fully mechanical stand-alone devices. We constantly get custom notifications from calendar applications and reminders. The traditional calendar is a print — hanging on your wall or sitting on your desk — and it cares less about your specific agenda. The migration of clock technology to the digital space has dispensed with papers on walls and watches on wrists. Could this be the beginning of the end of the material world?

When it comes to transmitting and receiving information via electromagnetic waves, the antenna is an important component. A mobile phone transmits and receives information, so it needs an antenna. Contrary to original mobile phones, modern versions do not have an apparent antenna. Its size has shrunk small enough to become invisible, but God knows how size matters when it comes to antenna performance. On the other side, technology is moving against size but wants to gradually increase performance. It’s like a boxer who wants to punch harder while cutting off his weight.

Being able to reduce the size of these technologies and pull them into a single box has been a major achievement. Smartphones are now spreading faster than any other technology in human history, and it is having a huge impact on the cost. Today, we can make a high-definition image sensor for just ten U.S. dollars — that means the camera gets to be used in so many different fields, like agriculture and education.

There is no doubt about the fact that a smartphone is a general machine that manages our digital lives: a marvel of human ingenuity; a modern catapult of human thoughts with surgical precision; a friend without which we feel impaired. It is our brain on steroids.

This article is part of a series on technology. In the next piece, the author will explore the nature of sound.

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