Long gone are the days when the most enterprising thing you could do with your home phone was dial a special number that made it ring back. Few things could compare to the joy of watching your teen-age sister race to answer a ringing phone that had no one on the other line.
Today, at the push of a button or the push of a series of buttons, people can hook up their home phone with a personal computer and gain access to data bases, pay bills through their bank, and shop electronically.
"The world of inventors has made the phone now into an instrument that is really the interface with the largest computer in the world because that's what the telephone network is," said Tom McNaghten, a spokesman for Pacific Bell in San Diego.
Today, most kids have never seen a rotary phone and probably wouldn't know how to call home on one if they did. More would be likely to understand "Call Waiting" and "Speed Dialing."
If the options already available were not enough, public hearings are being held this week in San Diego to decide on the feasibility and legality of yet another new group of custom calling features.
One of the services, Caller ID, has received considerable public attention because of possible implications on the rights of privacy of both the caller and the person being called.
Caller ID displays the caller's telephone number on a small screen, allowing the person being called to see the number of the person calling. While the person being called has the advantage of screening unwanted or annoying recurrent calls, callers may feel their privacy is being invaded by having their numbers displayed.
The new services, which are scheduled to be implemented in Los Angeles and San Francisco this year, won't be available in San Diego County until 1993.
Once a novelty that cost $1.20 a month, Touch-Tone Service has become a standard necessary feature of all the new phone services. As of Feb. 1, Pacific Bell quit charging separately for the service. Although there are several long-distance carriers, including AT&T, US Sprint and MCI, Pacific Bell is the only local phone service carrier in North County and much of the state.
Optional services--such as three-way calling and intercom plus--come with an average price tag of a few dollars each per month. Except for the pound and star buttons, no fancy gizmos or attachments are required.
Not everyone embraces the new technology in phone service or phones, though.
Marilyn Eischen, an English teacher at Valley Jr. High School in Carlsbad, was phone shopping last week at the AT&T Phone Center in the Plaza Camino Real shopping mall. She chose the Trimline 210, the most inexpensive, no frills corded phone that sells for $49.95.
"I don't want a hold button. I don't need call waiting. I'm just not that fussy," said Eischen, resigning herself to the fact that her new purchase still comes equipped with a redial and mute button.
"I don't need any frills. I don't even have an answering machine, it's just not my thing," Eischen said. "I'm an English teacher and I'm allergic to numbers. I'm not mechanical at all."
Kathleen Williams of Encinitas doesn't quite know how to deal with all the gadgetry either.
She still has three old phones inherited during the split of AT&T and Pacific Bell. "They work fine so buying a new phone is not a high priority, but I keep seeing things and being solicited so sometimes I think, 'Gee, I should get something more modern."'
But trying to choose a new phone is too confusing, she said.
"It seems harder to make the decision to buy one than to live without it," Williams said. "I think these phone systems are total information overload. There is so much out there and it all seems reasonable, so you have to make a choice and usually when a choice is associated with money you want to make a smart choice, but it's difficult to know why you're choosing or what you're doing."
Williams said phone shopping in the past has made her feel "stupid" and it's just as grim as shopping for computers.
"It seems like everyone else knows how they work, but I think no one knows how they work," Williams said of modern phones. "They just aren't saying that."
There comes a time, too, when even the most die-hard beeper lover, call-waiting fanatic or cordless phone aficionado feels as if they are living life tied to a very short tether. Advances in telephone technology make sure you'll never miss another phone call again, but they have also left very few places to hide.
Consider the North County woman who was beeped one evening while attending the theater. Making her way to the pay phone, she ran smack into the person who was beeping her from the same lobby pay phone.
Although AT&T would not release specifics on which phones are most popular among North County buyers, they acknowledge that the Trimline is far and away the favorite of consumers.