How Smartphones Have Evolved

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If you’re under the age of 35, then you probably don’t have any first-hand experience with the first generation of clunky mobile phones. But everyone has seen the films that feature boxy airplane phones or car phones embedded directly into the dashboard. Thankfully, the size of the smartphone has shrunk significantly since the first mobile phones were developed. Now, everyone has a powerful computer in their back pocket that’s no bigger than an apple. 

Let’s take a look at the evolution of smartphones. We’ll explore why they shrunk in size and which features evolved when. No matter what kind of device is in your pocket, it was probably affected by the trends and technologies we’re about to discuss.

Motorola in 1983

You would probably recognize this boxy, Barbie-style mobile phone from movies made in the late 1980s. Motorola’s mobile phone, the DynaTAC 8000x, had electronic push buttons and a tiny screen to show which numbers had been dialed. It had a tiny receiver at the top of the unit, as well as a speaker and microphone embedded.

However, this phone didn’t have a lot going for it. It weighed a lot (more than a kilogram) and it wasn’t easy to carry around like today’s smartphones. Plus, it took 10 hours to charge and could only last for about thirty minutes of usage. In 1985, this phone was used to make the first public phone call in the United Kingdom.

Nokia’s “1011” Model in 1992

This was a groundbreaking product because it could be used anywhere in the world. The 1011 model had access to the GSM network, or Global System for Mobile Communication. As a result, this phone is typically referred to as the first of the 2G (second generation) mobile phones.

Your parents may have had one of these phones. The 1011 had an extendable antenna, a monochrome LCD screen, and a more ergonomic design than previous mobile phone models. It fit nicely in the user’s hand and the buttons were a bit more refined.

The nineties were a critical era for mobile phone development thanks to the early adoption of people in the late 1980s. Once Nokia’s designers had access to user data from the 80s, they could implement that feedback into new models. That’s why their 1011 model looked and felt so much friendlier than other models on the market.

The Very First Smartphone from IBM in 1994

In 1992, IBM released the very first product that today’s consumers would recognize as a mobile phone. It wasn’t available to everyday people for purchase until 1994, but in that time people got very excited. This phone was called the Simon and it cost more than $1000. It had some groundbreaking elements and some unfortunate design limitations. For instance, it has a touchscreen with email and contact storage capabilities but the battery life was only one hour.

It was only available for about six months, but the company still managed to sell 50,000 units. People were clearly hungry for more connectivity and eager to test out the newest technology.

1996: Nokia and Motorola 

Nokia was highly competitive and developed this innovative product in 1996. It featured the first Blackberry-style horizontal keyboard and phone functionality. The Communicator could send and receive emails, as well as fax. It could do this thanks to its GSM access.

Apparently this model is famous because Kelly Rowland texted Nelly an Excel spreadsheet on a Nokia Communicator back in the nineties. It caused a big tiff, although today Rowland says she doesn’t know what Excel even is. 

Nokia also released the 8110 in 1996. This model was curved, or banana-shaped. It had a slide cover to protect the dialing pad and users could end their call simply by sliding the panel up. You might recognize this model from the first Matrix movie, where Neo speaks on the phone before entering the real world.

In 1996, Motorola also released a model called the StarTAC which was the first clamshell-style phone. It weighed less than 100 grams and was marketed as a luxury product. In fact, the company encouraged people to see it as a “wearable” phone since it could easily clip onto a belt or be carried in a jacket pocket.

Late 1990s into Early 2000s

There wasn’t much new development in mobile phone technology during this time. As the new millennium rolled around, many mobile phones underwent a redesign from black to silver. Horizontal typing pads were more popular and the first Blackberry models were released. 

In 2000, Nokia released its iconic 3310 which had a green and black LCD screen. Users could use screensavers and choose custom ringtones, making this one of the most customizable mobile phones on the market during that time. This model also popularized the game Snake. The 3310 remained popular for a long time thanks to its durability and long battery life.

Motorola Razr, Nokia N95, and the iPhone

You probably used one of these phones yourself. With email, phone, and camera capabilities, these models changed the mobile phone industry forever. They decreased in size due to the increasing processing power and shrinking chip size. The iPhone, for instance, was made possible by cutting-edge printed circuit board design, or PCB design software. However, it was the iPhone’s touchscreen interactions and pleasing user interface that made it so innovative.

Today, anyone can access free PCB design software (and gerber viewers) to design their own products. But back in the early days of developing mobile phones, PCB layout software was complex and difficult to use. It wasn’t easily available for programmers and designers to use. The future of mobile phones seems to indicate that screens might be getting bigger, even as the necessary hardware gets smaller. With foldable screens and incredible amounts of data storage, the next generation of mobile phones will be even more powerful than today’s smartphones.

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