Evolution of the Cell Phone
From enormous, 80-pound, car-mounted beasts to tiny terminals in our back pockets, mobile phones have come a long way. What once cost thousands, weighed 2 pounds, and packed 60 minutes of battery life now costs $99, weighs 4 ounces, and packs 5 to 10 hours of battery life--and also includes a full-fledged computer, a video camera, audio/video playback, and high-speed Internet access.
How did we get from there to here? Let's take a brief tour through the history of the cell phone. The following phones don't necessarily reflect the first or best of each type, but instead represent certain phases in mobile phone evolution over the last 50 years.
For more looks at gear and gadgets of the past, see:
SRA/Ericsson MTA (Mobile Telephone System A)
In the days before cellular phone networks, the world's mobile phones lacked a unifying standard. Instead, they used varying communication methods defined on a company-by-company basis.
The 88-pound MTA phone, shown here, is typical in size and weight of early mobile phone systems from the pre-integrated-circuit era. Most were so heavy and power-hungry that they required permanent installation in a car or other vehicle. Very few people owned, used, or even encountered such devices; for example, the service for the model shown here existed in only two Swedish cities and served a mere 125 subscribers from 1956 to 1967.
Notable qualities: The first automatic mobile telephone system (it didn't require a human operator to manually connect the user to an outside phone line)
Motorola DynaTAC 8000X
Though Motorola announced the world's first handheld mobile phone--a prototype of the DynaTAC 8000X you see above--in 1973, it took ten years for the DynaTAC to reach the market. In those ten years, engineers squeezed more capability into less space, and Motorola built much-needed infrastructure--the towers necessary for cell phone service.
Upon its release in 1983, the DynaTAC 8000X became an instant cultural icon, both as a status symbol for the rich (thanks to the $3995 retail price--$8657 in 2009 dollars) and as an almost miraculous wonder-phone that a person could use anywhere. With the DynaTAC, the cell phone revolution had finally begun.
Notable qualities: Small size, light weight; the first handheld mobile phone
Nokia Mobira Talkman
Motorola's handheld DynaTAC was an amazing breakthrough, but in reality its size proved limiting due to the battery technology of the era. The DynaTAC could manage only 60 minutes of talk time in ideal conditions, while larger "luggable" phones equipped with capacious batteries--such as the Mobira Talkman, shown here--could provide many hours of continuous operation.
Notable qualities: Early luggable mobile phone; relatively long talk time
After the success of the DynaTAC, Motorola followed up with the much smaller and lighter MicroTAC phone in 1989. The MicroTAC included a novel space-saving idea: Motorola engineers placed part of the phone's hardware in a hinged section that could fold inward or outward as needed, thus reducing the phone's size when it wasn't in use. The flip concept lives on in many cell phones today.
Notable qualities: First flip phone, first pocket phone; smallest and lightest cellular phone at the time of its debut
Motorola 2900 Bag Phone
When many people think of the "car phones" of the 1980s and 1990s, they picture bag phones like the Motorola 2900, shown here. The bag contained a transceiver and battery, and the user operated a much lighter corded handset. Owners could carry the bag on their shoulder, but a bag phone's general bulk mostly limited its usage to cars.
Despite the availability of smaller phones on the market, bag phones remained popular well into the late 1990s due to their long talk times and their superior range. Thanks to heftier batteries, bag phones could afford to transmit a cell signal with greater power, allowing the phone to be used farther away from a receiving tower. This was especially important in the days when cellular coverage wasn't nearly as widespread as it is now.
Notable qualities: Long talk times, plus greater battery life and signal range
In 1996, Motorola further shrank its line of pocket cell phones, producing the 3.1-ounce StarTAC--which immediately proved popular and influential. The StarTAC expanded on the partially collapsible design of its precursor, the MicroTAC, by allowing users to fold the phone in half when they weren't talking on it. We now call this design "clamshell," for its resemblance to the way a clam opens and closes. The StarTAC's general design was widely imitated, and a large percentage of mobile phones still use it today.
Notable qualities: First fully "clamshell" mobile phone design; smallest and lightest mobile phone at its release
Nokia 9000i Communicator
Though the Nokia 9000i wasn't the first-ever smartphone (many people give that honor to the IBM Simon), it marked the real beginning of our modern smartphone era. The 9000i truly was a pocket computer and a cell phone rolled into one, with an Intel 386-derivative CPU and 8MB of RAM. The phone's physical configuration was novel at the time: Users could open the 9000i in a horizontal clamshell fashion to reveal a wide LCD screen and a full QWERTY keyboard. When folded, it resembled an ordinary cell phone.
The 9000i could send and receive faxes, text messages, and e-mail, and it also had (extremely) limited Web access through 160-character SMS messages. And like any self-respecting smartphone, it shipped with a full complement of PDA-like organizer capabilities.
Notable qualities: First Nokia smartphone; first modern PDA/cell phone combo; mobile Internet connectivity
In the earlier years, all cellular phones shipped with external antennas that stuck out in aesthetically unpleasing ways. Nokia engineers found a way around that problem by designing a flat, plate-like antenna that could hide inside the body of a cell phone. The result was the Nokia 8810, the first true "candy bar" phone in the modern sense. This small, compact, non-clamshell design soon became standard for many Nokia handsets; you rarely see an external cell phone antenna these days.
Notable qualities: First cell phone without an external whip or stub antenna; first "candy bar" phone
Not too long ago, WAP (Wireless Application Protocol) was a huge deal. The mobile phone industry designed WAP to allow Web access on simple devices with limited processing power and displays, like cell phones circa 1999 to 2002. Instead of a rich graphical experience, users would see a stripped-down, typically text-only subset of the Web. Nokia was the first company to bring WAP browsing to a mobile phone with the 7110, released in 1999.
In our present age of smartphones with full-featured browsers, large screens, and beefy CPUs, WAP has quickly become a relic of the past. Web browsing has most assuredly not.
Notable qualities: World's first WAP-capable mobile phone; nifty sliding keypad cover
RIM BlackBerry 5810
The BlackBerry brand began in 1999 as a simple two-way pager, but it morphed into a line of full-fledged smartphones in 2002 with the BlackBerry 5810, the first of the series to include integrated cell phone support. Thanks to top-of-the-line mobile e-mail and text messaging (the QWERTY keyboard didn't hurt either), BlackBerry phones soon became indispensable tools for businesspeople and other professionals.
Notable qualities: First BlackBerry with an integrated voice cell phone; push e-mail support
Photo: Research in Motion
Who would want a camera in their cell phone? When news of such combination devices trickled over from Japan in the early part of the decade, the idea seemed silly and excessive to some people. In 2002, Sprint and Sanyo released the first American cell phone with a built-in camera, the SCP-5300--and the public went crazy for it.
The camera phone became a bona fide cultural phenomenon, allowing the average Joe to quickly and personally share both mundane and earthshaking events with the rest of the world. Today, camera phones are so common that we don't call them "camera phones" anymore.
Notable qualities: First U.S. mobile phone with an integrated camera; color screen, clamshell camera phone design
T-Mobile Sidekick/Danger Hiptop
At the time of its release in the United States, the T-Mobile Sidekick (also known as the Danger Hiptop) quickly became the text-messaging addict's dream machine. This innovative smartphone incorporated a novel design with a large LCD screen that rotated and flipped to reveal a generous QWERTY keyboard. The Sidekick line, with its distinctive full-reveal keyboard, persists today, having influenced many similar hide-and-reveal keyboard designs since its emergence in 2002. These clever and attractive designs helped fuel text messaging's popularity beyond the tie-and-Frappuccino BlackBerry set, extending it to the youth of the world.
Notable qualities: Large, flippable screen; relatively uncramped and full-featured QWERTY keyboard
Motorola Razr V3
At a time when most cell phones were starting to look the same, Motorola decided to break the status quo with the Razr V3, a slim, slab-like clamshell phone with a large screen, a stylish and flat keyboard, a built-in camera, and multimedia capabilities. Impressive technical features aside, you have to admit that the Razr simply looks cool (especially by 2004 standards), a fact that contributed significantly to its wide popularity.
Notable qualities: Stylish design, slim form, and a full set of features
Apple's ability to rock our world through nifty gadgets should not be underestimated. Between the Apple II, the Macintosh, and the iPod, Apple is responsible for more trend-setting consumer technology than most companies. In the same vein, the iPhone goes far beyond being just a mobile telephone: It's a powerful pocket computer, a game machine, and a multimedia-playback device. Better yet, it gives you instant, high-speed access to the Web, e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, wherever you can find mobile phone coverage. In short, it's a revolutionary device, and other companies are already coming up with imitators.
Notable qualities: Everything--but particularly the excellent software, the large and sharp screen, the multitouch interface, visual voicemail, the App Store... (Need I say more?)
For more looks at gear and gadgets of the past, see: