1988 vs. 2008: A Tech Retrospective

AOL launched in 1989, signaling the death of videotex services, and the Web arrived in 1993. In comparison to 1988's, today's high-speed broadband service seems practically free.

Cable modems took the early lead, but this year DSL households are expected to overtake cable households for the first time ever, largely due to deep discounting by AT&T and other carriers. AT&T's basic service starts at just $20 per month, and the 6-mbps Elite service is priced at $35, with no contract required. AT&T even throws in free Wi-Fi service at McDonald's and Starbucks locations.

The future is personal broadband access that goes with us everywhere: Home and cellular broadband access will become one service.

Modems

1988: Hayes V-Series SmartModem 2400

  • Price: $399 ($699 adjusted for inflation)
  • Speed: 2400 baud
  • Interface: serial
  • Standard supported: v.22bis

2008: Motorola SurfBoard S5101 Cable Modem

  • Price: $60
  • Speed: 38 mbps down/30 mbps up
  • Interface: ethernet and USB
  • Standards supported: DOCSIS 1.1 and 2.0

In 1988, one of the first questions you'd ask a new computing friend was, "How fast is your modem?"

If the person said 300 baud, you'd nod sympathetically; 1200 or 2400 baud got them a friendly smile; and 4800 or 9600 turned you green with envy.

By 1988, the price of the industry-standard 2400-baud Hayes V-Series SmartModem had plummeted from its original $1000 to $400, and clones could be found for $100--a pittance compared to the $6 to $12 per hour you had to pay for online fees.

You'd also have to invest $50 in terminal software like Smartcom, which sent dialing commands to the modem.

Today, few broadband users even know the brand of their modem, much less its model number or speed. You might be able to say whether you have 6- or 12-mbps service, but the modem itself has been reduced to a fungible commodity, often provided for free by your ISP.

The Motorola SurfBoard is a common carrier-supplied cable modem that supports up to 38 mbps, though most users won't achieve that speed due to various limitations in the service they pay for.

The next frontier for modems and connection speeds will likely involve a new pipe to your house, such as fiber-optic or high-speed wireless service. Verizon is building FIOS as fast as it can, and consumers are snapping it up. Wireless will be the answer in rural areas where stringing new cable is too expensive.

 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.

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