Did AT&T Make Good on Its 1990s Promises?

AT&T is not exactly a cutting edge tech company these days. Aside from dragging its feet on a planned 4G network, the company is the nemesis of iPhone owners nationwide. Dropped calls, delayed voicemails, and shoddy coverage are part and parcel with the Apple phone, and it might get worse if reports of a 3G AT&T Apple tablet prove accurate. Is this the AT&T we were promised at the dawn of the electronics age?

Looking at Ma Bell's vision from the 1990s, it's surprising how many of the company's technological predictions were dead accurate--but it's also surprising how many of the products the ads featured didn't actually end up being from AT&T at all. Sure, there's the read-books-from-anywhere thing, the equivalent to modern day Internet (or Kindle); but for GPS, home security, video conferencing, EZ-Pass, and ticket kiosks, they're all real products from other companies (though AT&T will get Garmin's Nuviphone).

If you're wondering what that "mobile fax" device is, it's the EO Personal Communicator, a wireless PDA launched in 1993 and killed in 1994 after being used by a few enterprise clients like the NYSE. It ran on the C language and had a built-in mic for wireless phone and email communications.

The most quaint prediction: the idea that the future would hold digitized health records.

[Via Pogue]

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3 Comments

  • Edward Kuryluk

    Tom Selleck's voice?

    I remember seeing this (or part of it) back in the day. I remember seeing similar videos from Microsoft, Apple and others over the years. My general feeling is that these companies know not all of the products envisioned will come with their logo on it, but the videos demonstrate to investors that the company is thinking in terms of the future and how they might fit in.

    Also, by creating these videos, they help write the future. So I don't find it surprising that some of today's devices look and act like those in the video.

  • Ben Martin

    The AT&T represented by those ads, of course, is not the AT&T of today. The AT&T Corp of the 1990s ("Ma Bell") had no local service and was truly a national company. This, too, was an era where the closest thing to a national cell phone company was Cellular One, itself a product of a Baby Bell. That AT&T had a bigger focus on creating technology; even though it's product was ubiquitous, it knew the future lay in other areas and was keen on developing them (reminds me a lot of IBM, actually). Today's AT&T Inc. is really a rebranding of SBC, the Baby Bell that got so big it could buy Ma Bell outright. Actually having local service and a more direct and comprehensive involvement with customers makes today's AT&T a different animal. No longer the omnipresent and seemingly untouchable corporation (who generally did things well, even if they charged too much), today's AT&T has so many areas where they can fail publicly that they often do--and everyone knows it. Not only that, they're vulnerable; people have more options and can more easily switch to other providers. Yikes.

    The thing I miss most, though, is the good old AT&T logo. It spoke strength and stability. The new revision says "I'm trying to be hip and failing..." which, sadly, fits all too well.

  • Kevin McManaway

    This is an interesting perspective. A company gets a scarlet letter for the iphone and the network it resides on. The truth be told, AT&T has a great story when you look at even the last 10 years. They have found ways to reinvent themselves in other areas without spending millions like competitors. A perfect example of this is U-Verse. I think this article simply over looks that every technology company must develop and be bold to bring new things to market. It is even in these failed attempts that we find final solutions for the type of technology that is deployed. Even when it comes to the iphone. network problems and not just exclusive to AT&T, there are many reports that show how our entire wireless network is slow & outdated to European countries. Yes, they may have not made all of their promises to bring these to market, but there are many similar companies not even around today to call to the carpet!