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The Stunning Transformation Of Cell Phones

by George Mensah
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Cell phones have become an indispensible part of modern life. It’s difficult to imagine our lives today without them. What was once the domain of wealthy professionals is now so common that more than half of all children receive their first phone before the age of 11. (via NPR). It is taken for granted that you can contact friends and family no matter where you are and get answers from the internet at any time. You can use your phone to access entertainment, communication, and real-time GPS. You can manage your appointments, stay up to date on world events, and document every moment of your life all from a single device.

While cell phones appear to be a relatively recent invention, their history spans more than a century — and that doesn’t even include their earlier origins in the home and mind of Alexander Graham Bell. From the first mobile phones to the modern marvel that fits in your pocket, cell phones have come a long way. Our phones, like a jawless fish eventually evolving into a thinking ape capable of building spaceships, have changed so much along the way that they barely resemble their former selves. To understand how that incredible transformation occurred, we must go back to the beginning.

Car Phones

AT&T introduced the world’s first mobile phones in 1946, but their scope and availability were limited due to technological limitations at the time. Because a given area could only handle 11 or 12 channels, if there were more users than that, the lines would become congested and you would have to wait to place or receive your call (via Britannica).

These early mobile phones also had enormous power requirements, far exceeding the capabilities of any handheld batteries available at the time. Manufacturers solved these power requirements by placing them inside vehicles, where they could rely on the relatively large power source available in car batteries. As a result, they came to be known as “car phones.” Giving your phone a home near the dashboard allowed you to take your communication with you away from home for the first time, but you remained tethered. Given that the car — or, at the very least, the battery — was a necessary component, they made for incredibly large mobile phones.

Things began to change when phone manufacturers realized they could increase user numbers by dividing an area into units or cells. Cell phones got their names from this. The only issue was that frequencies were scarce, at least until the FCC offered up a mostly unused portion of the UHF band in 1968. Then, finally, things started to fall into place, and the first cell phones were born.

The World’s First Cell Phone

According to Wired, Motorola was also working on cellular phone technologies and hoped to beat AT&T to market. That was accomplished in 1973, when Martin Cooper, an engineer at Motorola, called Joel Engel at AT&T to inform him that he had lost the race. Winning the race for a new technology is impressive enough, but using that same technology to rub your victory in the face of your competitor is next-level shade.

The phone itself, known as the DynaTAC 8000X, left a lot to be desired by today’s standards. But, given that it was the early 1970s and Cooper didn’t have anything to compare it to, he probably didn’t realize what he was missing.

It weighed 2.5 pounds and had a talk time of only 35 minutes before needing to be recharged for about 10 hours. That’s a far cry from the level of convenience we’re accustomed to today, but it’s plenty for slinging mud in your opponent’s eye, and it set humanity on the path to nearly universal mobile communication.

Nokia Enters the Picture

Nokia is no longer the dominant player in the mobile phone market that it once was. Its market share fell to around 3% in 2013, down from 48% at its peak in 2007. (via Statista). However, Nokia was in the game almost from the start.

The Nokia Mobira Cityman, released in 1987, built on Motorola’s foundations and improved on them. It gained popularity after being seen being used by Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet Union’s then-President (via Microsoft Devices Blog).

Being the preferred method of communication for world leaders wasn’t the only thing the Cityman had going for it. It weighed just under 800 grams, which was nearly a full pound less than the DynaTAC. With a four-hour recharge time, talk time increased to just under an hour (via Nokia Museum). That’s not ideal, but it’s a significant improvement over its predecessors on both counts. Still, it was a massive piece of machinery, and its size was only outweighed by its cost. According to Phone Arena, getting one in your hands (it certainly wouldn’t fit in the average pocket) would cost around $10,000 if it were sold today.

Motorola MicroTAC: The First Flip Phone

Things tend to change slowly at first, like most types of evolution, before rapidly ramping up. The Motorola MicroTAC 9800X could be considered the tip of the curve in cell phone technology. Not to be outdone by Nokia, the company that gave us the first true cell phone, came out with the world’s first flip phone in 1989.

When compared to previous devices, it was significantly smaller and lighter. This was due to its unique folding design. When not in use, the mouthpiece folds up, concealing the buttons. This served to protect the buttons while also lowering the overall profile. The MicroTAC weighed around 300 grams, or less than a pound, according to Android Authority. It was one of the first cell phones to be small enough to fit comfortably in a pocket — at least when folded up — and it paved the way for countless folding phones in the years since.

In fact, the design was so successful for Motorola that it remained in use, with minor changes, for nearly a decade, until 1998. (via Mobile Phone Museum). Perhaps part of the allure was the satisfying feeling of answering and ending calls by flipping the mouthpiece open or closed, something that today’s devices sadly lack.

The First Text Message

Until this point, the majority of the innovation focus had been on shrinking the overall size of cell phones while improving their battery life, but little had been done in terms of functionality. As 1992 came to a close, all of that was about to change.

Neil Papworth sent the world’s first text message on December 3, 1992. He was working as a programmer for Vodafone at the time and sent the message to Richard Jarvis, a Vodafone executive. It’s unclear whether Papworth or Jarvis realized the significance of what they’d accomplished or how it would affect global communication in the coming decades, and there’s little in the message to indicate their emotions. It simply said, “Merry Christmas.”

Jarvis got the message on an Orbitel 901, a massive phone weighing more than 4.5 pounds. In reality, it was hardly a mobile phone at all, but it was the first device to operate on a GSM network. Unfortunately, the Orbitel was unable to respond to the message, and it went unanswered (via NPR).

Despite its unlucky beginnings, that first message proved prophetic, as text messaging quickly became a gift to us all, freeing us from the need to answer phone calls. Though it was probably unforeseeable at the time, this marked the first significant shift in phone functionality as it moved toward the devices we know today.

IBM Simon: The First Smartphone

According to Cambridge Wireless, there is some disagreement about which device was the first smartphone. That disagreement is largely due to disagreement over what exactly qualifies as a smartphone, as well as the fact that the term didn’t emerge until several contenders were already on the market.

While it looks nothing like today’s smartphones, many people consider IBM’s Simon Personal Communicator to be the first. It was released in 1992 and featured a number of functions that would not be widely adopted until a decade and a half later.

Looking at it, one can see a perfect marriage of old and new technologies. At first glance, it looks more like an old cell phone, thanks to its boxy design and matte finish. What set it apart was a large LCD touchscreen that took up the majority of its front. This screen, in conjunction with the included stylus, was capable of sending and receiving emails, faxes, and pages. It also included an address book, a file folder, a calendar, and other features (via Insider). Despite an impressive set of features, the Simon only sold around 50,000 units and failed to capture the market in the way that later smartphones would. It is sometimes more about timing than function.

Cell Phones Get the Internet

While the Simon didn’t make the impact IBM had hoped for, it did herald a shift in how people communicated that would culminate in the mid-1990s. The internet was a new technology, but its popularity was growing rapidly, particularly in the United States. By 1997, roughly 20% of people in North America were online, and the percentage was growing (via Our World in Data). Similarly, approximately 20% of people in the United States had a cell phone at the time (via Statista). Cell phone providers saw this as an opportunity to merge the two technologies.

AT&T was the first to develop an internet-enabled cell phone, the PocketNet, but that phone was never released to the public. However, in 1996, the Nokia 9000 Communicator was released (via Mobility Arena). The clamshell design of the Communicator revealed a full QWERTY keyboard and a large screen capable of accessing online content. The user experience was admittedly limited, relying on WML (wireless markup language) to convert websites into something the phone could understand. A few years later, Nokia raised the bar with the Nokia 7110, the first phone with an integrated Wireless Application Protocol browser (via Mobile Phone Museum).

Samsung UpRoar: The First MP3 Player Phone

Playing music from your phone may seem obvious nowadays, but it wasn’t always the case. The origins of today’s mobile streaming music functionality can be traced back to the Samsung UpRoar, which was released in 2000. Even before the first iPod hit the market, making MP3 players the device du jour, Samsung managed to combine a cell phone and an MP3 player.

The UpRoar, which was built on the framework of a fairly standard flip phone, included web browsing, voice dialing, memo recording, and 64 megabytes of built-in music storage. According to CNN, that was roughly enough to hold an hour’s worth of music, and the phone could play for 11 hours on a single charge. Pulling music files directly from the internet onto the phone wasn’t yet possible, but it wouldn’t be for another few years. Instead, files were transferred to the phone via USB cable, along with MusicMatch software.

A large play/pause button was built front and center to accommodate the MP3 player’s functions, and it remained accessible even when the phone was flipped closed. It was a little ahead of its time, but it laid the groundwork for yet another change in cell phone functionality.

The First Camera Phone

There is some debate over which phone was the first to include a camera. It’s a matter of strictly defining what counts as a camera phone and what doesn’t, much like the smartphone debate. According to CNET, several early devices combined the functionality of a phone and a camera, such as the Olympus Deltis VC-1100, which allowed users to upload photos over phone lines. It used cell phone technology, but it wasn’t a phone. Other devices connected a camera to a separate cell phone via dongles, allowing them to communicate with one another. What was missing was a unified device that could serve both functions. Whether or not those early examples qualify as camera phones is up to the individual.

When Samsung released the SCH-V200 in 2000, it was likely the first to produce a true camera phone. It had a 0.35-megapixel camera and could store up to 20 photos on the phone. The only issue was that you had to connect it to a computer in order to retrieve your photos (via Digital Trends).

Sharp is probably responsible for putting all of the pieces together later that year, incorporating a camera and the ability to send photos over the air into their phone. Regardless of where you draw the line, a camera has quickly become an essential component of nearly all cell phones.

The First iPhone

When Samsung released the first true camera phone, they were most likely the first to do so. By the mid-2000s, cell phones had nearly become ubiquitous, and manufacturers had experimented with a wide range of cool features, from taking pictures and listening to music to sending text messages and accessing the internet. The market was ready for someone to bring it all together in a unified package. As previously stated, the iPhone was not the first smartphone, but it did popularize the form factor like no other. It would have an impact on almost every cell phone that came after it. Whatever phone you have in your pocket, it can probably trace a lot of its DNA back to the first iPhone.

Apple’s first version, released in 2007, lacked many of the features you know and use today. According to Insider, it lacked an app store, couldn’t shoot video, and couldn’t even send a photo in a text message. What it did well, perhaps better than any phone before or since, was to establish a platform for experimentation and innovation, which has continued to this day.

Each iPhone iteration has improved on the previous one. While the differences between years and phones were minor, the cumulative evolution between the first iPhone and its descendants is nearly as impressive as the evolution of cell phones overall.

Resurrecting Old Form Factors

Despite all of their incredible features, modern cell phones lack something in terms of aesthetics. That, too, can be traced back to the first iPhone, at least in part. Since then, cell phones have been reduced to sleek bricks of smooth glass and metal. While user interfaces may differ slightly, if you’ve held one phone, you’ve held them all. You’d be forgiven for missing the satisfying clack of the RAZR closing or the dopamine rush of the Sidekick’s whirling display.

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We lost some of the tactile experience that cell phones used to provide in our pursuit of improved functionality and streamlined designs. That could be about to change. Some manufacturers are attempting to combine modern technology with vintage designs in order to provide consumers with foldable screens and dual monitors that include moving parts that haven’t been seen in a long time. Some of these phones, such as the LG Wing and the Lenovo C Plus, look like they’ve been plucked from a futuristic sci-fi film, equal parts strange and incredible.

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