Mobile phones basically haven't progressed since the Nokia 1110

It's the pinnacle of phones. Why try harder, asks Jacob Strauss.

There is a woman looking at me. I see her in the corner of my eye as I browse through t-shirts in a clothes shop. A glance over to her tells me that it’s not me but the thing in my hand that is inviting this attention. Her tone is of callous sarcasm; “nice phone”.

I may not be used to hearing this from complete strangers, but the general sentiment of this comment is often directed at me and my Nokia 1100. People regularly offer remarks when they see the strange old-fashioned device, usually something along the lines of how this isn’t the ‘90s anymore.

Like most phones from that early era of mobile technology, the Nokia 1100 does not have many of the features that we expect from something that fits in our pockets today. It doesn’t have a camera, access to the internet, a music player, a GPS, a touch screen or even a colour screen. But while smartphones boast all of these things and much more, I still think that the classic Nokia represented the peak in development of mobile phones.

The universally recognisable Nokia 3210, released in 1999, was the first mobile not to have a visible external aerial on the handset. This feat of technology may seem unimpressive now, but it created a phone that was actually “mobile”. We now had a pocket-sized device with which we could make phone calls and send text messages. Since this day – the golden age of mobile phones – all other technological advances have only really equipped the archetypal Nokia model with unessential extras.

The classic Nokia may not be able to do everything a modern phone can, but it does what it does very well. Firstly, they are incredibly reliable. When smartphones crash, they crash hard. A friend recently spent a whole day trying to bring his new Nokia Lumia back to life after it decided to stop working, but even after two separate trips through the washing machine and countless drops onto hard surfaces, my Nokia is still in a perfect working condition.

On top of this, classic Nokias have amazing battery lives (I charge mine about once a week), all the necessary apps (Calculator, stopwatch, alarm clock and reminders. You don’t need any others), and, for entertainment, Nokias offer the best game there is: Snake.

That list may appear small in comparison to what a smartphone offers, but I can’t see how much, if anything, the mind-blowing technology that has been piled into our phones has done to improve our lives. In fact, they’re worse than nothing: smartphones have an actively negative influence.

Smartphones make communication and entertainment so easy that real-life social interaction becomes the hard option and thus declines. And, as we can all testify, even when a smartphone-owner is reluctantly drawn from the virtual world into a social situation, their attention is constantly sucked back by beeping alerts and flashing lights.

Despite this dependence, outside the dark recesses of today’s youth, there aren’t many who would argue that their smartphone constitutes a necessity for life. When I present my argument against the superiority of the smartphone to people, their response is generally something like “but it just makes life easier, doesn’t it?” This, to some extent, I can see. Why carry around a camera, an iPod and a phone when you could own one device that operates all these functions? Who needs to own and know how to read maps when you have something in your pocket that will direct you anywhere? What could be more useful than having the internet – the entire accumulation of human knowledge – at one’s finger tips at all times?

So yes, maybe smartphones do indeed make life easier. But how easy do we want life to be? The day when we can fulfil all human activities – eat, sleep, earn, shop, reproduce and excrete – without leaving our high-tech toilet chair is not a day towards which we strive. Without some challenges, there isn’t much left.

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Is Google Maps discriminating against people with disabilities?

Its walking routes are not access-friendly.

“I ended up having to be pushed through a main road in London, which was really scary.” Three weeks ago, Mary Bradley went to London to visit her daughter Belinda, who is just finishing her first year at university there. Her other daughter joined them on the trip.

But what was supposed to be an enjoyable weekend with her two children turned into a frustrating ordeal. The apps they were using to find their way around kept sending them on routes that are not wheelchair-friendly, leading to time-consuming and sometimes frightening consequences.

Bradley has been using a wheelchair – when having to go longer distances without a vehicle – for over a year, due to a 45-degree curve in her spine, severe joint facet deterioration in her back, and other conditions.

She lives in Weston-super-Mare in Somerset, and has made the trip up to London to visit her daughter a handful of times. Each visit, they use Google Maps and the transport app Citymapper to find their way around, as neither of them know London particularly well.


Belinda and Mary Bradley. Photo: Belinda Bradley

“It was just horrible,” says Bradley of her most recent trip to the capital. “We’re following the maps, and we go along, then find we are faced with a footbridge, and realise there was no way I was going to get over it, so we had to go back the way we’d come. At one point, we were faced with a strip of narrow pavement the wheelchair couldn’t go down. That was something we found all weekend.”

While Google Maps did highlight accessible Tube stations, they found that once they had alighted to do the rest of the journey to their destination on foot, “it took us three times as long, because the route that it takes us just wasn’t passable”.

They ended up having to try different routes “having no real idea of where were going”.

“It meant that it took so much longer, the girls ended up having to push me for longer, I got more and more embarrassed and frustrated and upset about the whole thing,” Bradley tells me.

At one point, her daughters had to take her down a main road. “Being pushed on a road, especially in London, is scary,” she says. “It was scary for me, it was scary for the girls.”

When they returned home, Belinda, who is a 19-year-old Writing and Theatre student at the University of Roehampton, was so furious at the situation that she started a petition for Google Maps to include wheelchair-friendly routes. It hit over 100,000 signatures in a fortnight. At the time of writing, it has 110,601 petitioners.


Belinda's petition.

Belinda was surprised that Google Maps didn’t have accessible routes. “I know Google Maps so well, [Google]’s such a big company, it has the satellite pictures and everything,” she says. “So I was really surprised because there’s loads of disabled people who must have such an issue.”

The aim of her petition is for Google Maps to generate routes that people using wheelchairs, crutches, walking sticks, or pushing prams will be able to use. “It just says that they’re a little bit ignorant,” is Belinda’s view of the service’s omission. “To me, just to ignore any issues that big needs to be solved; it needs to be addressed almost immediately.”

But she also wants to raise awareness to “make life better in general” for people with disabilities using navigation apps.

Belinda has not received a response from Google or Citymapper, but I understand that Google is aware of the petition and the issue it raises. Google declined to comment and I have contacted Citymapper but have not received a response.

Google Maps does provide information about how accessible its locations are, and also allows users to fill in accessibility features themselves via an amenities checklist for places that are missing that information. But it doesn’t provide accessible walking routes.

“There’s no reason that they couldn’t take it that bit further and include wheelchair accessible routes,” says Matt McCann, the founder of Access Earth, an online service and app that aims to be the Google Maps for people with disabilities. “When I first started Access Earth, I always thought this is something Google should be doing, and I was always surprised they haven’t done it. And that’s the next logical step.”

McCann began crowdsourcing information for Access Earth in 2013, when he booked a hotel in London that was supposed to be wheelchair-friendly – but turned out not to be accessible for his rollator, which he uses due to having cerebral palsy.

Based in Dublin, McCann says Google Maps has often sent him on pedestrian routes down cobbled streets, which are unsuitable for his rollator. “That’s another level of detail; to know whether the footpaths are pedestrian-friendly, but also if they’re wheelchair-friendly as well in terms of the surface,” he notes. “And that was the main problem that I had in my experience [of using walking routes].”

Access Earth, which includes bespoke accessibility information for locations around the world, aims to introduce accessible routes once the project has received enough funding. “The goal is to encompass all aspects of a route and trip,” he says. Other services such as Wheelmap and Euan's Guide also crowdsource information to provide access-friendly maps.

So how long will it take for more established tech companies like Google to clear the obstacles stopping Mary Bradley and millions like her using everyday services to get around?

“You can use them for public transport, to drive, you can use them if you’re an able-bodied person on foot,” she says. “But there are loads of us who are completely excluded now.”

Sign Belinda Bradley’s “Create Wheelchair Friendly Routes on Google Maps" here.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.