The History of Mobile Phones

April 7, 2014 Sara Metcalfe Telecommunications

It’s hard to pin a true start date on mobile phones because fixed-line phones and radio-based communication have always shared their technologies, be they in maritime communication, police operations or presidential cars. So when we were compiling our brief history, we decided to focus on the age of the phones that were commercially available and relatively affordable, which actually started many years earlier than we might think. For us, the seminal moment was the release of the Motorola DynaTAC in 1973.

The original inventors probably had little idea of the direction their technology would take. What we now call a “phone” is essentially a pocket computer that bears more of a resemblance to the PDAs (personal data assistants) that were popular during the 1980s and 1990s – the only exception being their telephony capability. For most users, the internet, social media, the camera, text messaging, games, apps and navigation are the prime uses for a phone – check out a modern phone review and call clarity barely gets a mention.

The first revolution was digitised

Phone history has necessarily been a measured evolution as network technology and handset technology have always needed to limit themselves to each other’s capabilities. But there have been a few true revolutions along the way. The first was the leap from analogue to digital, which saw its biggest take-up in the mid to late 1990s. This allowed better call quality, SMS messages and, most portentously, data communication.

The first attempt at the internet came around the turn of the millennium with Wireless Application Protocol (WAP), which allowed special WAP pages to be set up. Data was text-based, although graphics were allowable (albeit at resolutions measured in the hundreds and in monochrome LCD). 3G and 4G are upgrades to this system, and without them it’s doubtful if the second revolution would take place.

Screens you can touch

The second revolution came in the mid-00s with the arrival of the smartphone. While some insist that the iPhone was the first smartphone, there were others before it that could claim to belong to the genre. There were Windows Mobile devices, for example, that had the large screen and general functionality that anyone today would recognise as qualities of a smartphone. However with its massive success, Apple proved that the device was commercially viable that the masses would buy into – not just businesspeople.

That in turn led to the other manufacturers and developers such as Samsung, BlackBerry, LG, Microsoft and Windows investing heavily in the technology. The rise of the smartphone also ended the decade-long dominance of Nokia, Motorola and Ericsson (which merged with Sony in 2001), who have been criticised for not being “smart” enough at the start. The Android operating system was launched in 2007 and this would eventually end the iOS’s grip on the smartphone market.

More of the same?

Compared to the rapid rise between the mid-1980s and the mid-00s, progress seems to have slowed somewhat, and most new phones are really just upgraded versions of the existing ones, perhaps with a faster processors, better cameras or higher resolution screens. Even the next big thing, “wearable tech” (mainly watches and glasses) is really just the application of smartphone functionality to hands-free devices. Until someone comes up with the next big idea, we can probably expect the foreseeable future of mobile phone to be incremental. That’s no bad thing, of course – we can always use a little more speed and quality.

The History of Mobile Phones