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Farewell to the touch-tone pad on your phone

The Touch-Tone pad will turn 50 in 2013, but I doubt the once-ubiquitous keypad will last long enough to blow out its candles because it is disappearing from our lives with breathtaking speed. Sure, keypads are still on the shrinking population of public pay phones, but when was the last time you used one of those things? And the same goes for offices; more and more businesses are eliminating traditional telephone systems entirely, opting for voip systems, or simply asking employees to use their smartphones.

And look in your pocket – the keypad is virtual, an image on your smartphone’s screen. And how often do you even use it, opting instead to connect via the address book, or “return call” feature. Meanwhile, the relentless feature race among cellular providers will deliver ever more capable voice control, crowding out even the virtual keypad in the process.

The touch Tone pad is as doomed as the rotary dial three decades ago. Smug GenXers who once teased Grandparents about the clickity-click of those old-fashioned rotary dials will soon face the puzzlement of their children, “You actually called people using buttons? Dude, you’re sooo ancient!”

I welcome all the new features, but part of me will miss the Touch Tone pad. Officially a DTMP pad (“touch tone” was an AT&T trademark, now long abandoned), the pads once represented the bleeding edge of communications technology. Those sing-song tones were synonymous with instantaneous communications and the romance of long-distance conversations. In those dark ages before the Internet, the only way you could talk across an ocean was by phone or Amateur Radio. And in that distant time when people actually memorized phone numbers, mastering the combination of position memory of keys and recognizing the sour sound of a misdialed number were essential life skills.

The original 10 button pad was introduced in 1963, and the two additional (asterix and octothorpe) keys were added in 1968, specifically to facilitate new computer-enabled telephony services. that grand vision never arrived, but we did get voice-mail and 900 number information services, much to the delight of everyone from weathermen to audio pornographers. Most famously, the two extra keys completed the telephone’s keyboard, triggering a 1970s touch tone music fad where DTMF Mozarts would delightedly perform their latest ditty for hapless friends.

And the DTMF pad inspired a generation of blue-boxing Phone Phreaks like who went on to help jump-start the personal computer revolution. The Woz – Apple’s co-founder—got his start making Blue Boxes in Berkeley. And Phreak legend Captain Crunch wrote one of the first PC word processing programs, and is rumored to have been fired from Apple after designing an illegal Blue box into an early Apple modem.

Of course the touch tone pad will never disappear entirely, but it is already well on its way to irrelevance, a mere vestigial organ on our rapidly evolving communications devices. Which leaves just once question for netizens above a certain age – what will we do with that portion of our brain once reserved for remembering phone numbers?