Pocket computing: evolution of the smartphone

Angelena Iglesia

Smartphones are commonplace today. Almost everyone has one. My grandmother carries an iPhone and my father – a man who once swore he’d never carry a phone with him anywhere – slaps a Samsung Galaxy S III with an OtterBox case on his hip every morning. It wasn’t always so. […]

Smartphones are commonplace today. Almost everyone has one. My grandmother carries an iPhone and my father – a man who once swore he’d never carry a phone with him anywhere – slaps a Samsung Galaxy S III with an OtterBox case on his hip every morning.

It wasn’t always so. I remember being the only person at my high school – teachers and administration included – with a smartphone. First, I had the Moto Q, then the BlackBerry Pearl 8130, followed by the Curve 8330. And that’s where my story began, back in 2006, taking lesson notes (read: playing Brick Breaker and Asteroids) on a fantastic QWERTY keyboard about half the size of the palm of my hand.

Believe it or not, smartphone history goes back more than a decade before that. Things were … interesting back then.

First, what is a smartphone? Turns out, the actual definition, no matter the source, is quite vague. Merriam-Webster concisely calls a smartphone “a cell phone that includes additional software functions (as e-mail or an Internet browser).” Oxford Dictionaries, on the other hand, gets a little more precise by saying a smartphone “is able to perform many of the functions of a computer, typically having a relatively large screen and an operating system capable of running general-purpose applications.”

Either way, there is a fine line between what is and isn’t a smartphone these days, even if the so-called “dumb” or “regular” phones can perform many of the same functions. Even the cheapest, low-end smartphones are distinctly different from their non-smart counterparts.

But where did it all begin? Who made the first smartphone? What were early model smartphones like? Below, you will find the evolution of the smartphone.


The beginning

The box for the Ericsson GS 88 “Penelope”
IBM’s Simon Personal Communicator

The very first concept of a smartphone is said to have been envisioned back in the mid-1970s, but that idea didn’t come into fruition until almost 20 years later when IBM’s Simon Personal Communicator first showed its face in 1992. Simon had a monochrome touchscreen, a stylus, and a charging base station. When using data, you could expect to charge the phone after about 60 minutes of use.

Simon went on sale the next year through BellSouth Cellular for a whopping $899 with a two-year agreement or $1,099 sans contract. Approximately 50,000 Simon units sold, and in the wake of IBM’s mid-90s crisis the computer giant and BellSouth decided against the second-generation Simon says BusinessWeek.

Despite being able to send and receive emails and faxes, Simon was never technically called a smartphone, though in hindsight, that’s exactly what it was.

Nokia entered the not-yet-developed smartphone space in 1996. It released the Nokia 9000 Communicator to the world, a 1.5-inch thick, 397g phone with an outward facing dial pad, navigation keys, and monochromatic display. Unlike Simon, from the outside, the 9000 Communicator looked almost like a run-of-the-mill cell phone from 1996. Along the left edge, however, was a hinge which opened to a full QWERTY keyboard and physical navigation buttons flanking a much larger display (also monochrome).

The Nokia E7 poses with its ancestor, the Nokia 9000 Communicator from 1996

The Nokia 9000 Communicator – also not officially called a smartphone at the time – was capable of email, fax, Web browsing (a feature Simon lacked), word processing, and even spreadsheets. Humming along under the hood was an Intel 24MHz i386 CPU, and it came with just 8MB of memory.

Dear ol’ Penelope

The term “smartphone” would not be coined until one year later, when Ericsson released the GS 88 concept, otherwise known as Penelope. Its outward appearance and design were strikingly similar to that of the 9000 Communicator, though it housed a touchscreen on the inside and came with a stylus.

Through the turn of the century, other manufacturers began mashing up PDA functionality with cell phones. Qualcomm released the Palm OS-powered pdQ-1900, Ericsson unveiled the R380, and Palm introduced the Kyocera 6035, all similar, vertically-oriented cell phones with hinges at the bottom of the phone, which allowed the dial pad to flip down and expose a much larger touchscreen beneath.

In this time, smartphones were still fledglings largely uncommon in the mass consumer market.


From enterprise to consumer

While the rest of the world was still heavily concentrated on basic cell phone communication, Japan became the first mobile market to popularize the smartphone. Frank Rose of Wired explains how i-mode, a wireless network capable of data transmission speeds of just 9.6Kbs, turned Japan into the first “post-PC nation”.

The very first device from Research In Motion, the BlackBerry 850, a two-way pager of sorts, was released in 1999, followed by several different models, such as the globally popular monochrome 6200 and color 7200 series. Focused heavily on email with spacious keyboards, BlackBerry became a well-known brand in the enterprise market.

N95_MessagingIMG_2334In the early 2000s, Symbian, BlackBerry OS, Palm OS, and Windows Mobile (then known as PocketPC 2000) became increasingly popular. With capabilities such as email, fax, Web browsing, and other enterprise-centric features, so did form factors that catered to such use cases. Between 2000 and 2006, cell phone manufacturers eagerly explored dozens of different form factors to capitalize on the new mobile functionality. Sliding and flipping keyboards, rotating displays, wafer-style phones with displays positioned above permanent, vertical keyboards, and even phones with multiple keyboards abounded. Resistive touchscreen displays found their way onto smartphones, and the popularity of the stylus was born, almost out of sheer need as these early model smartphones were not very finger-friendly. Resistive touchscreens required pressure, unlike modern captive digitizers, and early incarnations of various mobile operating systems weren’t exactly designed with large fingers in mind.

During these early years, manufacturers like Palm, HTC, HP, Research In Motion (now BlackBerry), Samsung, Nokia, Motorola, and Audiovox all made names for themselves. Dozens of smartphones were released over the next seven years.


Pocket PC, renamed to Windows Mobile in 2003, gathered its fair share of enterprise users, as well, with dozens of various models from a handful of manufacturers. Some of the most notable devices of the era are the: Hewlett-Packard (Compaq) iPAQ from 2000, Motorola Q, HTC Universal, HTC Wallaby, HTC TyTN, i-mate Phone Edition 2003, Samsung SPH-i700, Samsung BlackJack, Audiovox PPC 6600, Motorola MPx200, and several Palm Treo models.

universalForm factors for these Windows Mobile handsets ranged from vertical or horizontal sliders to vertical or horizontal clamshell devices, even devices that flipped or slid in both directions. Back in 2008, Brandon Miniman of Pocketnow briefly detailed the 18 form factors of Windows Mobile.

Of course, there were Symbian and Palm OS (Garnet OS) devices, as well.

Symbian’s heavy hitter was the Nokia N95. However, devices like the N73, E71, E90, 3650, and N82 all still resonate with former Symbian users. And the Sony Ericsson’s P990i is one of the most memorable non-Nokia Symbian phones.

Palm OS phones came in droves, as well, from manufacturers like Sony, Samsung, Acer, Gamin, IBM, and even Palm itself.

Danger Hiptop

Still, one of the most memorable smartphones of this era came from a company by the name of Danger, Inc.: the Sidekick, or otherwise known as the Hiptop, Mobiflip, and Sharp Jump. Its display kicked-out from the center of the phone, exposing a horizontal QWERTY underneath. It ran the unique java-based DangerOS and were heavily centered around quick text-based communication, namely instant messaging clients of the time, such as AOL Instant Messenger, Yahoo Messenger, and MSN Messenger.

Again, these smartphones were originally marketed mainly towards enterprise and business users needing to stay connected on the go. However, through the sheer volume of handsets and the convenience of on-demand Internet from practically anywhere in the world attracted the consumer market in the mid-2000s. From 2004 to 2007, there was a dramatic rise in smartphone usage, and devices like consumer-targeted BlackBerry 8700 and Charm series, the Samsung BlackJack, Palm Treos, as well as the Motorola Q found their way into the hands of everyday consumers.

As such, the software became slightly more user-friendly, third-party applications and games slowly began to circle Internet forums (without centralized catalogs), and wireless providers began offering the more capable smartphones along with data plans.


The iPhone boom

In 2007, the wireless industry took a dramatic turn. While enthusiasts and non-enterprise users had found other uses for their smartphones than email and work, the main function of such devices was keeping employees within reach and connected away from the desk. Smartphones were primarily used for correspondence and light Web browsing on the train.

horizontal-slider-form-factorThat was all set to change when Apple announced the iPhone in January 2007 and launched it months later in June. Apple’s idea of the smartphone combined powerful multimedia functions with the same email and Web browsing features as all other smartphones previously had. It had a large color display with a capacitive digitizer, and its user interface was finally finger-friendly. And unlike phones before it, the iPhone had only one button on its face – the Home button – and three around its edges, two for volume up/down and one for power/standby. Apple’s mobile operating system, iOS, was still very basic at the time, but it was the first glimpse into the new, modern mobile smartphone operating systems we know and love today.

The real context switch brought with the iPhone, though, was how websites displayed on mobile. Thanks to the WebKit browser debuted in iOS, no longer were they hacked-up, dumbed-down versions of the full desktop sites, but fully rendered, color web pages via mobile. This helped bridge the gap between the bite-sized version of the Internet consumed on earlier smartphones and the full-blown Internet experience we enjoy today.

Following the iPhone launch, several other Windows Mobile and BlackBerry devices launched. HTC’s Touch and Touch Pro were HTC’s attempt at a more consumer-friendly Windows Mobile. Likewise, The BlackBerry Bold 9000 was Research In Motion’s more modern take on the BlackBerry, but even it screamed “all work, no play.” The BlackBerry Pearl 8100 and Curve 8300 series were designed to (sort of) cater to the mass consumer market. And it worked for a short while.

In September 2008, Google answered iOS with its own mobile operating system, Android OS. Partner HTC built the first Android-powered smartphone for T-Mobile, the G1, also known as Dream. It can be seen in the above video, in all its first-generation glory.

palm pre unboxing titleApple’s iPhone was graced with an annual hardware upgrade, as were its competitors’ flagships. The iPhone 3GS, as well as the Windows Mobile-powered HTC Touch Pro2, HD2, Samsung Omnia II, and Android-powered HTC Hero, Motorola CLIQ, DROID, and Samsung Galaxy all arrived in 2009. Hardware wasn’t the only significant release in 2009, though. Palm announced and released its successor to Garnet OS, webOS, in June 2009 alongside the Palm Pre.

At the time, there were seven major mobile operating systems: Symbian, BlackBerry OS, Palm OS, Windows Mobile, webOS, iOS, and Android. Over the next few years, though, Research In Motion’s half-hearted attempt to appeal to consumers and inability to innovate sent the company on a rapid downward spiral, which it is still trying desperately to recover from. Palm also met great adversity in the new smartphone market and was eventually acquired by HP in April 2010. And Microsoft had shifted its attention away from Windows Mobile and struggled to grow public interested in its freshly-built platform, Windows Phone 7.

By 2012, Symbian had all but disappeared; Palm OS and Windows Mobile were dead in the water, superseded by webOS and Windows Phone; BlackBerry market share had dramatically diminished; and Android and iOS were left to rule the land.

RIP, physical keyboards

tilt-form-factorAs we progressed through the years, one significant thing happened in the mobile industry: consolidation. Not only did the iOS and Android spark the slow and painful death of effectively all the prior mobile operating systems, they also led to the extinction of practically all smartphone form factors, save for the candy bar.

The number of smartphones with physical keyboards dramatically declined over the course of a few years, and each iteration became more heavily dependent upon the touchscreen. Devices like the HTC Hero, HTC DROID Incredible, HTC EVO 4G, Motorola DROID X, and Google Nexus One became increasingly popular. That’s not to say devices with keyboards ceased to exist. BlackBerry experimented with devices like the Torch, a vertical-sliding touchscreen device with a QWERTY underneath, and the BlackBerry Style, a clamshell-style device. Motorola continued to make the popular, horizontal-slider DROID series for three years, as well as devices like the Admiral and DROID Pro. HTC also made a few sliders and vertical QWERTYs itself. And BlackBerry, to this day, continues to create keyboard-bearing smartphones.

From right to left: Slab 1, Slab 2, Slab 3, Slab 4, Slab 5 …

However, it’s safe to say practically all other form factors are dead. Physical keyboards only scarcely exist. This is a product of a shift in the way people use phones and the prominence of multimedia consumption.

During this transition away from physical keyboards, smartphones grew in dimension, as well. The very first Android smartphones and the iPhone came bearing low-resolution displays measuring between 3- and 4-inches. Today, the average smartphone display is between 4.7- and 5.5-inches with 1080p resolution – perfect for Web browsing and consuming various forms of multimedia and games.


Today and future

More slabs

Most of what you see on the smartphone market today is much of the same. Very few manufacturers experiment with form factors and are instead tweaking internals, packing phones with ever-impressive specifications, and focusing on improving the individual components to make a greater whole. Smartphone displays are now surpassing 1080p resolution; cameras are encroaching on point-and-shoot quality; storage is slowly inching upwards; and processing power is quickly catching up to gaming consoles and personal computers.

Features like speaker quality, battery life, build quality and design, and storage space are under constant scrutiny.

Oh, hey, look! More slabs

And while manufacturers try their damnedest to differentiate through software or specially branded features – like UltraPixel, PureView, BoomSound, etc. – it all amounts to the same: a giant rectangular slab which may vary in size, but provides a mostly similar experience.

As different as we may consider the LG G3, Nokia Lumia 1020, Apple iPhone 5s, and all the other current smartphones, they’re all far more alike and uninventive than practically all the smartphones from the beginning of the era.

The smartphone is also being decentralized through accessories and wearables. But as far forward as we can currently see, the smartphone isn’t set to drastically change in the near future.

Okay, that’s a pretty slab.

Upstart operating systems like Jolla’s Sailfish OS face incredible adversity. Ruassia’s YotaPhone 2 is arguably one of the most forward-thinking and “different” smartphones of the future, yet it’s just another slab.

What we have to look forward to are more same-yet-different slabs in different colors, with different corner radii, and varying internals. We can, however, hope for a manufacturer to finally think outside the box and begin exploring form factors once again to spice things up for a change. We have to wonder if we have actually met the pinnacle of smartphone design. Has the smartphone industry met the design plateau that has plagued the laptop industry for the last few decades? Or will a youthful and rebellious manufacturer upend the industry in the next decade with a novel design and form factor?

A future smartphone, according to Hollywood

Time will tell, but if pop culture has anything to say about it, we’ll be toting all-glass, see-through phones in the next few years. Per usual, I wouldn’t put too much faith in Hollywood, especially when it comes to technology. The 2013 film Paranoia should lend plenty of credence to that.

The way things are headed are admittedly monotonous and dull, at least as far as truly unique options go. But at the rate things are constantly shifting, adapting, improving, and evolving, the future of smartphones is certainly a bright one. Devices like the LG G Flex, Samsung Galaxy Round, and even Project Ara’s modular phone concept, while not as futuristic or glamorous as we first imagined, are paving the path for more ergonomic and exciting smartphones in the not-too-distant future.

The smartphones of the future may not have holographic keyboards or fully transparent displays, but cautiously-made baby steps are far more likely to stick around for a while. How quickly all the different form factors of Windows Mobile disappeared was proof that very few of them were actually helpful in the day to day.

So, sure, today’s smartphones may be a little on the dull side, and everything might be starting to look a lot alike. But the power and technology jam packed into a tiny machine that easily slips into your pocket is mind-numbing. The gaming and graphics power of smartphones is closing in on that of dedicated gaming consoles, and if that doesn’t blow your mind, not much will.

When you consider that smartphones have only technically been around for 20 years and they’ve since come this far, it should make you very excited for the smartphones that are just around the bend.

Images via Stockholm Smartphone, Wikipedia, Richard Baguley, My Phone Book

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