We’re living in a golden age of cellphone technology. Each new iPhone release is a media event, and now Samsung has given us Consumer Reports’ highest-rated phone ever with the new Galaxy S7. Popular tech reviewer Marques Brownlee recommends the S7 in particular for having improved design, excellent battery life, and one of the best cameras on the market.
It’s amazing how Samsung’s Galaxy smartphones have bitten a chunk out of the iPhone’s market, but it also wasn’t that long ago that Apple was sneaking up on Nokia. And it wasn’t long before that when the only phone to have was a Motorola RAZR. So how did we get here?
From Flip Phones To iPhones
A far cry from both the cell’s military roots and the giant bricks of the early 90s, Motorola’s revolutionary StarTAC, the first true clamshell (based on Star Trek’s communicator), singlehandedly created the modern mobile marketplace. Just check out that form factor:
But the true mobile explosion happened in 1999 when Nokia released the 3210, targeting young consumers for the first time with an attractive design and those super sweet interchangeable faceplates. Here are a few of the most important steps in that journey.
The Fads That Faded Away
Do you remember your first cellphone ever? Mine was a Sony Ericsson W810i, and I loved it. The slick candybar design, the responsive tactile buttons, the flashlight. And every feature I loved so much is completely obsolete today. Here are some other passé design choices that sure seemed cool at the time.
The flip phone was such an important innovation – protecting screens, preventing butt dials, looking cool – that Time Magazine recognizes the original StarTAC as one of the 100 all-time best gadgets. Companies still try to revive this design, but it’s pretty clear those days are gone.
2. The Sidekick
The Sidekick was everything when it came out. It was life. Do you text from your phone more than you talk on it? The Sidekick, with its slick horizontal design hiding a full QWERTY keypad, was the phone that made that possible. Complex goes so far as to call it the coolest smartphone of all time. Now, we just have touchscreens.
3. Phone Charms
Before there were customizable phone cases and selfie wallpapers, the one true way to personalize your phone was with a charm. Were you a Hello Kitty kid or a PokeMan? Whatever you used to dangle from your phone, chances are you don’t anymore. While they’re still huge in Japan, their time has passed in the US.
One of the first truly successful ways phone companies found to market to young people was by allowing you to change out your faceplate. In the wise words of PopSugar’s Nicole Nguyen, being able to do this was radtastic. Today’s phones don’t even have faceplates.
If you can believe it, there was a time when using your phone as a flashlight was actually a selling point. It’s one of the main reasons I bought my old Sony Ericsson. You can still get flashlight apps, but with modern features like high-def photos and video it’s just not a selling point anymore.
The Features That Stuck Around
All of the features that faded away did so because they solved a problem that a different feature eventually solved better. The ability to lock and auto-rotate a touchscreen solved butt dialing and QWERTY typing better than a clamshell or a sidekick ever could. Some early features, however, did stand the test of time. Here are a few.
1. Vibrate Mode
It seems like an obvious thing now, but the idea that your cellphone should, occasionally, be silent isn’t even old enough to drink. Even so, it’s become such an important piece of cellphone technology that there’s now an actual psychological syndrome associated with it.
Not that long ago, internal antennas were a design problem that ruined reception so much some companies actually prioritized antenna performance over design. It’s no surprise that Nokia dominated the market for years after becoming the first company to make a good one.
When cellphones first became popular, manufacturers labored under the silly notion that people wanted to use them to talk. In fact, the first phone to ever take a photo wasn’t even built to do it – a customer actually had to hack his phone to take and share a photo of his newborn daughter.
I can hardly walk down the street today without hearing Hotline Bling, followed by the unmistakable image of a half dozen people reaching for their pockets. But only ten years ago the idea of using an actual song as a ringtone was still brand new. How far we’ve come.
For my money, there hasn’t been a bigger step forward for cellphones than the touchscreen. Its implementation has directly impacted just about every aspect of hardware and software design since, not only allowing phones to be thinner than ever while doing more, but also leading the way for other devices like computers and TVs to adopt the technology.
So What’s Next For Smartphones?
For those of us who still remember the Virtual Boy, the idea of virtual reality being the future is actually a little bit funny, and yet between Google’s Cardboard, Oculus, and the Samsung Gear VR, every major tech company is getting in on this game. Don’t be surprised if mobile leads the way to virtual reality becoming the next really, really, really big thing.
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