After several rings, John Beerends picks up my call on his cellphone. Beerends, a senior researcher at the Netherlands Organization for Applied Scientific Research, in Delft, is one of the world’s top experts on sound perception, and I’ve called from Boston to ask his opinion on the quality of audio on mobile phones. But the connection keeps cutting out, and what I can hear is almost unintelligible. I must sound just as bad, because he asks me to dial him back on his landline. This time, his voice is much clearer. And he immediately confirms what now seems glaringly obvious: Despite their ubiquity and decades-long existence, cellphones still make for pretty poor phones.
How can that be? After all, today’s smartphones are incredible feats of engineering. Packing the processing power of a mid-1980s supercomputer into a sleek, pocket-size slab, they can take photographs, play music and videos, and stream tens of megabits of data to the palm of your hand every second. But try calling your boss in rush-hour traffic to say you’re running late, and there’s a good chance your message won’t get through. “Mobile companies have rather lost the focus on a smartphone also being a telephone,” says Jeremy Green, now a tech-industry analyst at Machina Research, in Reading, England—on a cell connection that keeps dropping words.