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20 years ago today...

I was 23 years old in 1998 believe it or not, and at that point I’d already been in the telecoms industry for six years – which shows my age a bit.

I’d started out a few years earlier as an installation engineer, installing car phones, fax machines, alarm systems, all kinds of things really. I was basically an auto-electrician, although it was mainly focused on car phones and car kits.

For those that know me, it may come as I surprise that I had originally planned to get into the RAF – potentially as a pilot or engineer in avionics. I was a member of the air cadets as a young boy and really enjoyed aerobatics.

My favourite trick was a Noddy Stall, where you fly a Chipmonk training plane vertically until the engine stalls - then you’d point the plane slightly to your right, dive the other way and this would eventually start the engine again. I’m not sure they’d let a group of 14 year olds do this now!

Leading up to 98, I’d just come back from a holiday in Ibiza and was about to finish my college course in Digital Electronics and Computing – I was looking to obtain my Youth Training Services (YTS) qualification, which is now called a City and Guilds BTEC.

It was around that time that I started looking after mobile data for the first time, in what was its earliest form. The speeds would be laughable these days – it was slower than a 56k modem, which is what some people may remember as being the ‘first internet’ - dial up modem style.

What I was working in was even slower, as it was over a mobile phone, but it did enable you to do things like send faxes and basic text messaging. Each text in those days was about 10p, which might be quite a shock to any youngsters reading this. And no, there wasn’t any social media back then.

In terms of phones at that time, I remember the Sony CM-H333 – the so called Mars Bar, as it was literally the size of said snack. It was tiny, or it was in those days at least.

But the biggest ‘new thing’ was the clam shell form factor - and the hottest handset on the market was the Motorola StarTAC. They were fantastic. If you had one of those, you looked like you’d made it.

Bear in mind these were analogue phones – the ones that used to hiss and crackle, as digital phones hadn’t come out then as far as I remember. When the digital era came in, it brought about a boost to security as the analogue phones could be cloned.

It’s difficult to remember back to 98 as most of my big ‘life events’ didn’t happen until later on but I do know that there was a lot of going out on the town in those days, as you can imagine from a 23-year-old.

I went out locally in clubs like Time in Cheltenham and I also remember the Gas and the Fez club, which was made to look like Ibiza inside as it played dance music.

I was also a big computer games fan around that time and put in more hours than I care to mention into a game called Wolfenstein, which nowadays would look a bit like Minecraft but with guns.

A few years later, I started working at Bamboo (or TTL as we were at the time) and had my first introduction to the world of BlackBerry. This was the world’s first proper business mobile, with email! You didn’t have to click on ‘send and receive’ to go and get it, it just appeared on your handset, which was truly like magic in those days and a total game changer.

When you got an email, your BlackBerry would vibrate in your holster - yes, a holster, which you stuck on your belt. This, handily, put it in battery saving mode and these things would last five or six days. They bounced quite well too.

Joking aside, I’ve kept one of them for nostalgia in my desk and I know a few of my colleagues have too.

People in those days would have a phone AND a BlackBerry, as they couldn’t make calls unless you put a headset in it. The launch of the BlackBerry Pearl a few years later changed this and we, as you might expect, embraced the idea of just having one device.

Enough of the nostalgia for now – let’s look to the future. I try to keep up with the innovation in the industry as much as possible, with the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona being one of my favourite events. I’m really interested to see how everyday technology evolves in the next 5-10 years.

Not just with 5G, full-fibre and IoT but in completely new technologies. It’s amazing to me that we haven’t run out of things to come up with yet. Rather than tweaking existing technologies, imagine if something new is created or discovered - what that could open up.

At the moment, there’s radio waves, they have enabled us to have mobile phones, Wifi, all that kind of stuff but now we’re starting to see developments in things like sending power through the air, which started with wireless charging and could lead in a number of directions. You only have to look at smartphones to see how one simple innovation can change the way we live and communicate.

From a personal standpoint, I’m currently experimenting with 3D printers - I got one as a Christmas present actually, having wanted one for years and now the price point is far more accessible. I’ve started printing things off for my little boy, like the dinosaur skull of tyrannosaurus rex that I printed the other day.

As simple as it sounds, yes, you can go out and buy whatever you want. But it’s pretty amazing to just literally go, “oh that’s cool, hang on a minute – I’ll print it off!” I’ve not got into the CAD side of things yet but I want to get there and when I do, I’ll probably make something for my archery.

When I say that, I’m not a master archer or anything (yet), which basically means you’re Robin Hood! I started archery just over a year ago and now I’m really hooked. It’s surprisingly technical (maybe that’s the appeal) and I’ve been working my way up the ranks, recently become third-class.

Maybe I’ll get to the legend status one day but for now, happy 20-year anniversary to Bamboo!

paul lees (Image- Sony CM-H333)

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