We use mobile phones daily and frequently complain about things such as boring user interface or the difficulty of finding quality content among the millions of apps in the app stores. Smart phones did not even exist a decade ago, and the first bulky mobile phones took their initial baby steps just two decades ago, so I think it’s reasonable to sit back and admire the technology marvel that is our era.

Just about every day, I sit in the car with the whole family. Going shopping or to the park, my phone makes it all happen. First of all, there’s music playing from the car’s audio system—it comes from the phone via Bluetooth audio connection. Because I’m new to the area, I also often listen to voice guided navigation gently speaking over the music and telling me when to make a turn.

The phone itself might be on the backseat where the kids are playing a game, watching a video or—their favorite pastime these days—learning Chinese characters. But the phone’s magic doesn’t stop there. Sitting next to me, my wife could be using a laptop, browsing for interesting places to visit over the Internet, or using the Wi-Fi hotspot shared by my phone.

And of course, let’s not forget that these little wonders can also be used for making phone calls. It almost seems like an afterthought sometimes, and I guess we take it for granted, but I still remember going to conferences and trying to set up meetings with people I had never met, without any means of connecting with them if we couldn’t find each other. The time before mobile phones was much different!

The same little device, a few millimeters thick and just about 100 grams in weight, effortlessly manages as an Internet server, entertainment center, navigator, and game player. The battery lasts for a long time, and if it runs out, I can just plug the phone to the nearest USB port (there’s one in the car and a couple more in my laptop), and it gets charged in no time. There’s no need to hunt for a power outlet like I need to do when my laptop runs out of power.

Software

There are hundreds of thousands of apps available. Many of them free, while some cost a buck apiece. Gone are the days when a piece of software would cost $50, but the quality and the quantity of apps are something never seen before on any platform. Conveniently, I can buy a game on my iPhone, and my kids can immediately pick it up and play on their iPad. When my wife buys some music on the computer, the next time I sit in the car, the album starts to play on the car’s audio system, which can at times be a little surprising!

The phone can replay HD-quality video better than most laptop computers can. In fact, I can record full HD video, edit it easily, and post it to the Internet without ever touching a computer. The phone does amazing 3D graphics that would have required a-state-of-the art PC just a few years ago. Yet most people can afford one if they want to buy one. You just commit to paying $20 per month on your phone bill for the next couple of years, and the phone is yours right away. It’s amazing how the mobile phone industry has perfected the technology, the software and the business model, and completely changed the way we live our lives. Much of the thanks obviously goes to the late Steve Jobs who took what Nokia had created in the previous decade and made it into something everyone can use and enjoy.

In the title photo: Four years ago, Nokia E90 was still state of the art. It was probably the last of the old-era smart phones, launched just before the iPhone arrived and changed everything.