Smartphone History: From the First Smartphone to Today

20 years ago, most of us didn’t have cell phones. 15 years ago, it was rare to carry a smartphone. With the proliferation of today’s smartphone technology, we take it for granted that we can make and change appointments, access the world’s information, map our locations, and much more in the palm of our hands.

In this respect, the future is now. We’re still waiting on the type of hoverboard predicted in the 2015 world of Back to the Future Part II, but smartphones have far surpassed Captain Kirk’s communicator in the original Star Trek. For that matter, perhaps Doc Brown should have picked up an iPhone, rather than a VHS camcorder, at some point in his journeys.

What happened to transform phones from static devices—and the occasional car-mounted monstrosity—into the sleek supercomputer-in-your-pocket that we have today? Smartphone history deserves a bit of introspection, as it represents a seismic shift in our society.

When was the first cell phone invented?

Often one person or organization is credited with “inventing” a revolutionary device. While it’s impossible to trace back all the intricacies in such a development, there are arguably a few main technologies and people that made the modern smartphone possible:

  • •  Smaller and ever-more efficient computer chips
  • •  Cellular network infrastructure
  • •  Advanced battery technology
  • •  Maturation of touch screen technology
  • •  The vision of Steve Jobs at Apple, preceded by the vision of Martin Cooper at Motorola

When Martin Cooper, widely regarded as the father of the cell phone, made his first call on April 3, 1973, the idea of carrying around a phone—much less a computer—was rather outlandish. However, along with a $100 million in capital investment from Motorola, he was able to make the first handheld cell phone and the supporting infrastructure available to the public in 1984.

The original cell phone, the Motorola DynaTAC 8000X (at 2.5 pounds and 9 inches in height) was comparatively huge, and featured only a 30-minute talk time after a 10-hour charge period. Or, as Cooper put it, "The battery lifetime was 20 minutes, but that wasn't really a big problem because you couldn't hold that phone up for that long." Crude, but the basic idea of on-the-go communication existed and could be optimized.

The First Smartphone: 1992

Fast-forward nearly 10 years later, and IBM debuted the “Simon” personal communicator, a device that featured an early touchscreen, and the ability to send and receive emails and faxes, act as a pager, and perform other smartphone-like functions. It was available in mid-1994, at a price of $1099 without a contract. Interestingly, this is the same as the list price of a base model iPhone 13 Pro Max as of this writing, though the Simon would be closer to $2000 in 2021 dollars.

While the Simon didn’t change the world on its own, selling only 50,000 units in its sub-one-year lifespan, it was an important demonstration of what was possible. What happened in the subsequent years was a sort of mishmash of technology, where personal digital assistants (PDAs) of the time morphed into a collection of ad hoc smartphone-like devices. 

The HP OmniGo 700LX, available in 1996, is perhaps a perfect illustration of the era, which featured a dock for a Nokia 2110 mobile phone that could be piggybacked on as a cellular modem

Other companies and OSes would try to compete in the space, but just after the turn of the millennium, RIM emerged as the dominant player in the smartphone space. A built-in mic first appeared in a RIM device in 2003 with the introduction of the BlackBerry 7230, after making devices more akin to advanced pagers. Several generations later, in 2007, RIM premiered the Curve 8300, which might be considered the pinnacle of physical keyboard-based smartphones. 

2007 would also see a paradigm shift in the world of smartphones, with the introduction of the iPhone.

The iPhone Changes Everything: 2007

Up until this point, smartphones were largely targeted at business users, backed up by large corporate pocketbooks, and a focus on keyboard-based communication. This all changed in January 2007, when Steve Jobs announced the (physical) keyboard-less iPhone. This device used only a touchscreen for typing and navigation functionality, instead of the physical trackball/keyboard form factor favored by BlackBerry and other devices of the time.

While RIM would hang on for some time, in retrospect, there appears to have been be no going back. iPhones were the new standard in the smartphone space. However, another competitor was getting ready to spread its wings.

Android Democratizes Consumer Smartphones: 2008

Google, a powerful technology player at the time (though nowhere near the mega-company that we see today), was working on a new, unreleased, smartphone and operating system in 2007. Their presumed competitor was Microsoft, which was involved in the smartphone market, and if allowed to become dominant, could essentially shut Google out of search on mobile.

For its part, the Android OS was revolutionary, even compared to the iPhone. Unlike the iPhone’s iOS operating system, Android is designed to run on any mobile phone or tablet. Also unlike iOS at the time, Android could run multiple applications simultaneously. Google had an online marketplace for apps before Apple did. Even with these revolutionary features, the iPhone’s touch-centric design was so revolutionary that Google engineers had to rethink their original Blackberry-like concept.

A year-and-a-half later, in the fall of 2008, Google finally was able to premiere their phone, the HTC Dream, AKA T-Mobile G1. It still had a keyboard, albeit a slide-out model, and while the debate over phones doing away with the headphone jack seems to be an issue that came up much later, let’s not forget that Android was apparently ahead of the curve, and neglected to include this port.

The Apple Android Duopoly

Despite the late start, Android has come to dominate the mobile operating system today, capturing over 85% of the world’s mobile OS market. Apple holds a less dominant lead in some countries. In the US, for instance, 60% of all phones use an Apple OS, with Android running on around 40%. 

As evidenced by the summation of these two systems, early-2000s consolidation has squeezed out all other mobile OSes, leaving them with well under 1% of usage as early as 2014, and dropping to less than a tenth of a percent by 2018. During this time, mobile data technology continued to advance, along with overall smartphone adoption, making mobile technology ever more useful.

Perhaps “duopolistic” would be an accurate way to state the current mobile OS situation. It’s interesting to note how PC vs Macintosh has now morphed into Android vs Macintosh in a largely different arena.

Smartphone Technology

To make the world of smartphones possible, chipmakers like Qualcomm, NVIDIA, and NXP have pushed chip performance to levels unimaginable when this cell phone concept was first developed in the 1970s and 80s. Mobile usage meant that chips had to shrink, while becoming ever more power efficient to allow for reasonable use times. 

On the other end of the spectrum, battery and charging technologies have evolved to support powerful processors and large screen illumination. Finally, touchscreen capabilities have advanced to enable multi-touch inputs and higher resolutions.

Of course, all of this smartphone-driven technology hasn’t just stayed in the realm of phones. As we’ve become more used to the touch interface paradigm, smartphone-style interface and control has permeated our experience beyond the handsets we carry. We can see touch screens becoming prolific in automobiles and factory automation interfaces, and a multitude of devices (including automobiles) feature connectivity that would have been unthinkable in previous decades. The whole concept of IoT and its derivations wouldn’t be possible without today’s power efficient communication and processing technologies.

How Far Has Smartphone Technology Come?

On a societal level, it’s hard to understate just how much smartphones, and cellular communications in general, have changed the way we interact with the world. Consider that asking for directions is largely a thing of the past, and that if you’re not quite sure about a certain person’s “facts,” you can get a second opinion immediately, right or wrong. Even the ability to schedule and reschedule appointments on-the-fly can’t be underestimated. 

As Bob Dylan noted in 1964, the times are changing. Of course, even he couldn’t have foreseen that you would eventually be able to produce his song at an instant, literally from the palm of your hand.

Article Contribution By: Jeremy Cook

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