On the day affectionately known across the geek world as Star Wars Day (May the 4th be with you) I thought about the seemingly never-ending series of movies we have seen so far – and continue to see – and how that same concept often applies in the technological world. I am sure when we first went to cinemas after the release of Star Wars on 25 May 1977, not even George Lucas was thinking about Episode IX being released in 2019. I am quite certain that absolutely no one was thinking about the options in how we would view a movie in 2019. Back in 1977, you went to a cinema in a major city. Full stop. After some time, regional cities may receive a popular movie. Fourteen months after the release of the movie, it was still being shown at cinemas in major cities as there was no viewing alternative. Actually, that isn’t quite true. In late 1977, you could purchase a Kenner Movie Viewer and a cassette containing 200 feet of 8mm film which you viewed by looking through a small viewfinder and cranking the movie by hand. Not exactly the cinematic experience that Lucas had in mind!

VHS was released in the US in 1977 but Star Wars wasn’t released in that format until 1982. Around the same time, subscription TV and eventually free-to-air TV both showed the movie but significantly there was that five-year gap between cinemas and alternatives. As time marched forward, movies commonly started becoming available on VHS; Betamax; Laserdisc; DVD; Blu-ray and now, of course, on a huge variety of streaming platforms. Each time we see a new format released, we are certain that this is ‘the one’. This will be the format that ends the debate forever. This is the best format ever…until someone creates a new and better format or method of viewing. The time from cinema release to other formats is also much shorter and the profits for a movie are no longer solely dependent upon box-office takings. Imagine telling Lucas in 1977 that when the ninth episode of the series was released, people would watch it on a train or a plane or at the beach on a device they carry in their pocket – called a smartphone. There are so many advances and changes in technology to make that possible that I don’t think even Nostradamus could have predicted those series of steps.

Even on 26 July 1990 when I connected Dubbo’s first mobile when the AMPS (Advanced Mobile Phone Service) analogue mobile network was turned on, it would be hard to envisage what we have now. The first phone I sold back then was an NEC P3 valued at approximately $5,000 ($15,000 in 2018 income value). A plan in those days was approximately $50 per month ($150 per month in 2018 money). That $50 gave you the service and zero included calls. Every call you made was at an exorbitant rate and forget about people ringing your mobile – landlines paid a rate that scared people off ringing your mobile. As the plans moved forward, the rental and calls became cheaper and then calls started to be included. For some time, the plans were all about the calls. Users of mobiles would look at the number of calls they made and choose from a variety of plans based on their call usage.

When the brave move was made by a carrier to introduce the first unlimited call plan, it was priced at an horrendous several hundred dollars per month in current prices but heavy users flocked to the plan. By comparison to today, carriers have most plans with unlimited calls in Australia. Some even include unlimited calling to limited overseas countries but for less than one hundred dollars per month, you can now purchase plans that allow you to call anyone in the world with no additional charges.

In mobiles though the battleground is no longer about calls. It is all about data. Over the last few years, data usage in Australia has been increasing at the rate of forty per cent each year – and the plans from carriers have been quickly changing to try and keep up. In the same way as carriers once made a bold move with unlimited calls, we have just seen the bold move by some carriers to include unlimited mobile data on plans. This is something users have been asking for but carriers were concerned about the pressure on the network. The initial plans have some limitations to try and protect the network integrity. They don’t allow data sharing on a bill; they slow the speed if the phone is tethered and they have a threshold of data usage after which the speed slows for the remainder of the month. This is just a first step though and, in the same way as we laugh at the first unlimited calling plans, in a short period of time we will look back at these first unlimited data plans and have a chuckle.

More importantly, we can now watch all of the Star Wars movies on our smartphone without worrying about excess data charges. Happy Star Wars day!

Mathew Dickerson

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