There are a few beautiful lines in Wilson Rawls’ Where the Red Fern Grows that came to me when I saw that Nokia – or whatever shambling shell of Nokia remains – is re-releasing the 3110, that old warhorse of a phone that carried so many of us from the turn of the century into the modern age of endless information. “It’s strange indeed how memories can lie dormant in a man’s mind for so many years,” wrote Rawls. “Yet those memories can be awakened and brought forth fresh and new, just by something you’ve seen or something you’ve heard, or the sight of an old familiar face”
That familiar face was the 3110 and it brought flooding back memories of my first Nokia.
After college, way back in 1998, I worked at a big consulting company that was tasked with managing Y2K transitions for telecoms and tax offices around the world. We had a few products that needed updating – all written in COBOL – and we also positioned ourselves as Y2K experts. As you recall, the concern was that the world would go down in flames in two years. Someone had to do something!
It was up to us. And we were all college grads with a basic understanding of programming and big dreams of dot-com millions but instead of putting us in front of browsers they figured we could manage telecommunications switches.
After spending a few months in DC the company sent me to Warsaw, Poland. I didn’t own a cellphone at the time – this was still the edge of cellphone acceptance – but they assigned me to work with a cellphone carrier to fix their billing systems and they offered me a phone. It was the 2110, the ultimate in stylish cellphone tech.
The 2110 was a brick. It had a massive removable battery, a telescoping antenna, and a monochrome screen. It was also one of the first to have the now-ubiquitous Nokia ringtone.
The 2110 was the equivalent of carrying around a home phone, one of those a slimline Conairs with the long, tangly cord. In those benighted days we had just begun seeing what cellphones could be. The Motorola StarTAC was the biggest seller. It was small and light and flipped open, allowing for some cool moves. My friend had one in DC and he was the envy of the office. But in Europe Nokias reigned and I was assigned my brick while others in the office had smaller models like the 5165 and then, a year later, the much-heralded Zoolander phone, the 8210. A note to pedants to who intend to call me out on my model numbers (“The 5165 never launched in Europe because it was only sold to a remote tribe of fish herders in Guatemala.”): these are what I remember from a job I had two decades ago and I’m trying to piece this story together.
I carried the 2110 because everyone in the office in Warsaw got company phones – we were, after all, working for a telecom – but the consultants got the cast-off devices. The 2110 I got had been used before and it was worn smooth like a river rock, the rubberized keys a bit shiny from use and the antenna, as I recall, was lightly chewed. These were the days before hand sanitizer so I just grabbed my phone and used it without much complaint because, after all, it was more likely the phone sat in someone’s bag, unused, rather than pressed against someone’s face for hours. Cellphone time was expensive!
Oh the fun we had. In Poland there wasn’t much call for texting early on – it cost about as much as a voice call – and the way you’d send a message was to ring once and hang up or, when someone, answered, you’d blurt out a message quickly and then hangup which let you avoid having to pay for the first 5-second phone impuls. The billing systems were ridiculous. Calling someone who was traveling? As I recall you paid the roaming charge, not the person who picked up the phone in Istanbul. This resulted in lots of complaints and, because we were the first line of defense at the Nokia switches and billing systems, we had to build tools to manage these changes.
One tool I remember was something that I want to say was called PowerTerm. This terminal program had a built-in scripting language that let you create little GUI experiences that let us add and delete services by connecting to the Nokia switches using Man-Machine Language. We could modify bills based on research we did on the switch and add and remove features.
In the beginning of 1999 the carrier wanted to add call waiting and call forwarding to all of their lines. There was no way to do it – as far as we intelligent consultants could tell – in batch on the switch so we had to use PowerTerm. Unfortunately, PowerTerm had a built-in limit. You could only write scripts a maximum of 512 or so lines long. Our GUI was already about 400 lines and I wanted to add batch functionality to the GUI so I had to strip out all of the windowing commands and instead create functions that would read a massive text file of customers and add these features to their accounts.
I was done with the script in about a week and started to run it. It worked fine for about an hour and then crashed. We started it again – 1,024 users would get new accounts – and the system would crash. I tried to rewrite it – my own phone probably had call waiting added to it 500 times as I ran and re-ran the script.
Finally we figured out that a memory leak was crashing the terminal program after some permutation of 256 lines. It was never a defined crash, just a nasty little bit of code that ruined our batches instantly. So we hired two college students to sit there and watch the jobs, feeding a few hundred customers to the system at a time. It took a month to process all of the customers when, in retrospect, it should have taken a few days. But that’s how we solved problems back then, I guess.
But back to the phones. I knew that the 2110 was rugged but I was walking home from work one summer afternoon and I was mugged. I lived off of the main thoroughfare in Warsaw, on a street called Siena, it was sparsely populated when you walked further down towards my apartment block. A long, cold spring had broken into summer and I had a lightness in my step and wasn’t paying attention to my surroundings.
I never felt unsafe in Poland, even 10 years after the fall of Communism, so what happened next was unexpected. Two skinny kids not much older than me had followed me from the avenue. The taller one grabbed my backpack and led me down a street near my home. They asked where I was going. I replied in broken Polish and they clearly saw a nice mark.
The leader asked me where I lived. I refused to tell him. He asked me for money. I also refused. It was an unusual feeling for me, this refusal. From whence came this boldness? I realized that he wasn’t armed… but I was. I was holding my 2110 in my hand.
I stood at the ready. He wondered what to do. I wasn’t going to fold. I had my phone, ready to smack him in the head with it. And I almost did. Suddenly, just as his hand came up I landed a glancing blow on him with the old brick. He smacked me, I smacked his hand with the 2110. And he and his little buddy spat and ran. That brick of a phone saved me and, it’s important to note, the phone itself was so old even then that even my little assailants didn’t want to steal it. It was a weapon and a deterrent at the same time.
So that’s the story of my brick, my old phone. I don’t know where that device is anymore – they took them back when we left the consulting gig – but it was my first brush with mobile technology and it saved me in more ways than one.