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Naveen Albert

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The term "cell phone" is a misnomer

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“Phone” used to be just short for telephone. Telephones were phones and phones were telephones. Today, that is not the case. "Telephone" adheres to the denotation of the word, whereas the connotation of "phone" has changed. Think about it: the word “telephone” is generally only used to refer to corded fixed-line phones. Today, all telephones are still phones, but not all phones are telephones. Mobile phones and cordless phones are generally never referred to as “telephones”.

In fact, a dictionary definition of telephone says it is “a system that converts acoustic vibrations to electrical signals in order to transmit sound.” Neither cell phones or Voice-over-Internet-Protocol phones fit this definition. Only standard analog landline phones fit this definition, although VoIP phones are often called “telephones” because they are corded, not cordless.

But there’s an even bigger reason behind this. Today, most “phones” are not phones at all. They are computers, albeit inferior ones, imposters at the very least. VoIP phones are packet-switched and use Ethernet cables to send and receive data. Packet-switched? Ethernet cable? That’s not a telephone – that’s a computer. It only looks like a phone because that’s how it was designed. VoIP “telephones” are no different than Skype or Google Hangouts – which are obviously not telephones either. So, nowadays, even if a phone is corded, that does not necessarily make it a “telephone”.

Cordless phones and mobile phones alike no longer use analog signals either. Most cordless phones are of the DECT variety these days and send digital data to the base station that may then be connected to your landline telephone line, or substitute phone service. Apart from the fact that DECT phones are extremely bad for your health, the advantage of using a landline for sound quality is diminished. Mobile phones have not used analog signals either for quite some time, and much of mobile phone traffic today is Internet-based as well. And of course, neither cordless phones nor mobile phones are capable of transmitting electrical signals, because they do not have cords. That pretty much sums it up.

Perhaps the term “phone phreak” may soon need to be changed, as the connotation of phone has changed considerably since the term was conceived. The term was coined when phones and telephones were the same thing, but today, they have diverged drastically and continue to do so. We phone phreaks have no interest in being associated with the inferior fads of the “modern world”. We have no interest at all in addictive technology or poor sound quality. We demand only the best in phone service – a demand that can only be met by analog landline service. That is to say, we are obsessed with telephones, not the gadgets that pass for phones these days. What gives? Well, admittedly, “phone phreak” does have a nicer ‘ring’ to it (no pun intended) than ‘telephone phreak’. Perhaps the term will remain unchanged, a holdout from the era when every telephone was a phone was a telephone.

Europe has already caught on, or perhaps they were just smart in naming the damn things to begin with. They are called “cell phones” on this side of the ocean, but “mobiles” on the other. Mobile phones are, well, mobile, and calling them a “mobile” with no mention of the word “phone” at least attempts to do justice to the situation.

It’s always hard for Americans to follow a different country. We pride ourselves in our independence, our luster, our quirks. But the term “cell phone” is antiquated. They are referred to as “phones” for short, and that does great injustice to Alexander Graham’s invention. True, I mentioned that not all phones are telephones, and indeed, we say that Bell invented the telephones, not the phone. But it is time we stop referring to these ridiculous sorry excuses for paperweights as if they had any connection with Bell’s invention at all. Technologically, there are absolutely no similarities between telephones and “cell phones”, or “mobiles” as they should more properly be known as. Bell would be sad indeed to see how quickly his invention changed the world – and then quickly faded from it thereafter. Indeed, it is poetic injustice to pretend that his invention lives on, when in fact, it does only in the 50% of American homes that retain a landline. But appreciation for Bell’s invention these days is all but gone.

It’s time that we stop pretending that “cell phones” bear any relation to the telephone. We’re only kidding ourselves, and we’re not fooling anyone. I can make Google Voice calls from my PC, but does that make my PC a telephone, or even a phone? Certainly not – a term “soft phone” has been developed for software, like Google Voice, that performs functions of a “phone”, but this is just another attempt to continue tracing any sort of voice technology in today’s world to the “phone”. We may as well call ham radios “phones” if that is the intention.

Cell phones are an embarrassment to us phone phreaks. When people think of “phones”, they think of cell phones – of smartphones – but rarely of Bell’s invention – and of course, we have no interest at all in having any association with the device that has all but ruined humanity. We may need to coin a more accurate term for VoIP phones, as they are not phones anymore than Skype is. But in the meantime, we should stop fooling ourselves, and follow Europe’s example. In the good old days, these devices did not exist at all. Perhaps in the future, this fad will have disappeared – either that, or we will have gone extinct first. But right now, we can make a conscious effort to be more “correct” and disassociate mobile phones with the term “phone” completely. Mobiles will continue to be used by hundreds of millions for the near future, but at least us phones phreaks may have our dignity.

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