Throwback Thursday: Hallo from Deutschland, 2003

Posted on March 23, 2017 by Paul Thurrott in Cloud, Paul with 12 Comments

Throwback Thursday: Hallo from Deutschland, 2003

As you may know, I came to Germany this week for CeBIT, and my wife and I are sightseeing in Berlin over the weekend. This trip very closely mirrors my first visit to Germany, in 2003. And it’s amazing how much has changed from a communications perspective.

My first trip to Germany was in May 2003: I was speaking at a local event called Windows-Forum 2003. The topic, amusingly, was Longhorn Server. Which of course would not ship until 2008. But we didn’t know that at the time.

For some reason, we enjoyed the exit signs.

At that time, cell phones were a thing, but smartphones were not, so PDAs were still a thing. Wi-Fi had just come to laptops in a big way in Windows XP. And Windows XP Service Pack 2 (SP2), which would fix the rampant security holes that that access had originally brought with it (among other issues), was still a year away.

Because our last trip to Europe by that time was 10 years earlier, when we had visited my father in London, we decided to make a week of it. My wife flew out with two of our friends, and we planned to take in sights along the Rhine, and in Munich and Rothenberg. (We would begin our annual home swaps two years later, in 2005. So this return to Europe was a big deal for us, and it would inspire future international travel.)

Whimsical Munich.

Also at that time, our son had just turned five, and our daughter was two. So they were not coming along, and would instead stay with their grandparents.

And this presented the first challenge. Facing the normal separation anxiety, and with none of the now-familiar communication capabilities available to us, we decided to rent an international cellphone. This way, we could call our kids from time to time and check-in. And if something bad happened back home, their grandparents could reach us too.

Elevator selfie

Back in those days, that meant finding a local place that rented us a Nokia candy bar phone. And going to pick it up in person. In East Boston. Which in 2003 was nearly inaccessible because of the “Big Dig” construction that was then changing I93 from a raised highway into a tunnel below what is now green space in the middle of Boston.

Anyway, we printed out the directions to the place using MapQuest (again, 2003) and headed into Boston. And got lost, because all the roads were different from what the service described because of the construction. There were no such thing as timely updates back then, let alone real-time updates. But we eventually found it.

Rhine river panorama.

The trip itself was incredible. In fact, one of our most memorable hotel stays to this day happened then, when we stayed in a castle above the Rhine river: We sat behind the parapet, or battlement at the top of the castle watching low, flat boats, trains, and cars move slowly on and next to the river in the dark, drinking wine. Absolutely amazing.

We visited St. Goar, Bacharach, and other places along the river, experienced incredible German Rieslings for the first time, and then made our way towards Munich, and after that, Rothenberg and finally back to Cologne.

Vineyards in Bacharach.

But the most memorable thing about that trip, really, was the rental phone.

As you might know, my son is deaf. He can hear thanks to technology: He now has two cochlear implants, one on each side, and he does amazingly well. (He only had one implant in 2003.) Aside from the fact he is wearing what appears to be hearing aids, you’d never know, as he speaks clearly and appears to hear very well. (It’s a bit more complicated than that, but that’s beside the point.)

To me in 2003, the ability to call my son, from a cellphone, while speeding down the Autobahn on the way to Munich, in this case, was … amazing. (Yes, someone else was driving.) So much so that I literally started crying when I handed the phone back to my wife. On the call, he could hear me, he could understand me, and we could converse normally. It was magic.


Most of my other connectivity attempts on that trip were less successful: Wi-Fi access in hotels and other places was either slow or non-existent back then, and I was mostly offline for the week. But I will never forget that phone call. It changed everything for me, and opened up the possibility that this stuff would only keep getting better and better.

Which of course it has. So this week, when I flew out to Germany ahead of my wife, my son was driving his car out to upstate New York to return to school after Spring Break. We communicate by text and phone, like anyone else, and he called home to his mom along the way, using the hands-free tech in the car, to let her know everything was OK.

Herring and potatoes.

Meanwhile, I’ve been in constant communication with my wife by phone, text, and email during this trip: Doing so is so inexpensive that I’ll just call it free. And now that she’s here—she landed recently and is heading to the hotel as I write this—that easy communication continues.

What a world, right?


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Comments (12)

12 responses to “Throwback Thursday: Hallo from Deutschland, 2003”

  1. CompSciGuy31415

    Have you been using your Duolingo knowledge?

  2. jimchamplin

    It really is a sobering thought. The things that we now take for granted were impossible just a short time ago. I'm tapping this out on an iPhone, which of course despite how much it's changed the computing world, is only ten years old.

  3. leonzandman

    Yeah, love that part of Germany. Visited St. Goar with the famous Lorelei many times. And last month I had a brief visit to Rothenburg (not: Rothenberg :-) ), albeit there wasn't a lot of time to do sightseeing.

  4. MikeGalos

    At that time, cell phones were a thing, but smartphones were not...

    But, unknown to most people at the time, they were about to be.

    While the Samsung SGH-i600 or HTC Tanager were available for developers working with the beta of what would be Windows Mobile 2003, Microsoft and Motorola's public launch of the Motorola MPx-200, signaling the dawn of the age of smartphones, wouldn't happen until later in the year.

    My wife and I bought MPx200 smartphones the day they launched and have been in the age of the smartphone for nearly 14 years now.

  5. Bats

    We had "smartphones" back in 2003, it's just that they weren't called that back then. I know because I carried a Samsung SPH i700 Windows Mobile phone throughout my days in Law School. To be honest, I had no problems with it and I believe that it was the only kind of "smartphone" of it's kind in the market. The phone came with a stylus, but you could also effect the screen by simply touching it. 

    That phone is now proudly displayed in my Tech Museum, along with my Motorola StarTac Black (VIP) edition, Palm Treo (windows Mobile), and all my other tech.

    It's funny on where we are today with mobile tech. Back in 2003, my use for the Samsung SPH i700 was primarily email, web, games, camera, and minor document management. Today, it's like the same thing, but better, much better in terms of ease of use and the expansive ecosystem of application software. It's just so strikingly weird how Microsoft failed to envision on how to improve and evolve that platform. If they had, there wouldn't be (first) an iPhone and (later) Android. LOL...just so weird.

    I, too, also used Mapquest as my primary source for map and direction, despite my efforts to give MSFT's Streets and Maps the designation as my preferred solution.

    • MikeGalos

      In reply to Bats:

      Yes, the SPH i700 was part of that early hybrid group of Windows PDA designs with phone capability added on running Pocket PC 2002 prior to the launch of Windows Mobile. I'd forgotten about that generation. Thanks for the reminder.

  6. dnation70

    do they still use a lot of rum in the food??..they did when i was there

  7. Ugur

    Very nice writeup =)

    Also: yeah, very glad for your son having those hearing aids, yeah, in between all our moaning and complaining regarding what company or product x does wrong (often well deserved critique =) ), nice when one gets reminded in between about how far things have come in such special ways which can really change our lives for the better.

    On the next 10-20 years, hopefully with less Drump types and more such great moments =)

  8. I Khan

    Really nice article.

    I get very excited when technology passes the threshold from novelty to mass distribution -and settles into the workflow of life.