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Topic section: Unpredicted failures
Unpredicted failures
Did you buy one of the 3G (third generation) phones? They certainly seemed to offer plenty of features – the ability to send videos and pictures, play games, surf the net, read e-mails. Only time will tell whether people will think such
Picture: 02_10437810.jpg
The next generation of phones with the ability to take pictures.
Credit: Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library
 functionality is worth the increased cost. Once users try the suggested applications, and have experimented with uses of their own, they may decide to reject the technology and 3G phones will join the list of unpredicted failures that are dotted throughout the history of the telephone.

Failures often arise when manufacturers think they have a sure-fire improvement on the phone. Remember the videophones of the 1960s? Probably
Only time will tell whether people will think such functionality (3G) is worth the increased cost
 not – they certainly didn’t take off in the way that manufacturers expected them to. Not that you can blame the manufacturers. On paper, videophones seem to make sense. One of the main ways we communicate is through our body language and facial expressions, which can tell us as much about someone as their tone of voice or choice of words. Yet people didn’t seem to want to see the people they were talking to – and they certainly didn’t want to be seen themselves. Are we now prepared finally to accept the videophone in the form of a 3G mobile? Perhaps.

An earlier failure was the Electrophone, which started a regular service in London in 1895. The degree of failure can be eloquently illustrated by the fact that there were only 600 subscribers after twelve years. The Electrophone was a kind of broadcasting system, a telephone which would allow people to listen to the latest performances at concert halls, theatres, churches, etc. It is interesting to contrast the failure of the Electrophone with the success of a similar system in Budapest. What did the Budapest system have that the London system did not? The deciding factor appears to be that the Hungarian system broadcast the news.

Picture: 02_10305424.jpg
Jones 50-line switchboard made in Cincinnati, USA.
Credit: Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library
Entrepreneurial failures were not just in the realm of new products, but also in the way the telephone system was set up and run. Nowadays most switchboards are automatic, but for much of the phone’s history switchboards were operated by people. Their job was simply to connect two users who wanted to speak to each other. Initially, the telephone companies employed young men as operators. After all, they already worked well at the telegraph office. But the employment of young men was short-lived. They were found to be rowdy and restless, and seemed to delight in crossing wires, insulting callers, and playing all manner of imaginative pranks. What young men lost, young women gained. They were more composed and patient – and they also cost less to employ.

Innovators and manufacturers did not predict that young men would make bad operators, nor did they predict the failure of the Electrophone or the videophone. In spite of the sophisticated evaluation methodologies available today, the success of a technology still remains hard to predict.

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Topic section: Unpredicted successes
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It is often hard to predict which groups will benefit most from new technologies. Early telephone manufacturers did not realise that farmers would be keen to use their products, and today mobile phones are even used by activists to depose presidents.  > more

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Topic section: Unpredicted consequences
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The telephone has affected our everyday lives in many ways. It has changed how we shop, how we write English and even how we use our thumbs. However hard we try to predict its consequences, we cannot completely forecast the impact of the telephone on our lives.  > more
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