History of Mobile Phones

Motorola created the first mobile phone in 1970s. Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, Nokia pioneered cellular networks technology standardization. But neither of those companies are among mobile market leaders nowadays. What has happened? Let's dive into the thrilling history of mobile phones in this multimedia infographics to understand the past, present and future of telecommunication technology and its impact on society.

Mobile Phone Size Evolution. Source: Daily Infographic

Train phone

To trace the origin of wireless communication, we have to go to Germany at the beginning of the 20th century. By the end of the WWI, the wireless telephony started being tested on military trains between Berlin and Zossen. In 1924, public trials started with telephone connection on trains between Berlin and Hamburg. Two years later, telephone service was offered to 1st class travelers.

Forecasting the future

Around the same time, artists started to explore various ideas of how the technology could evolve in the future. One of the earliest examples is a cartoon "Forecasts for 1907" by Lewis Baumer, published in Punch magazine, in which two people sitting in London's Hyde Park are not talking to each other, but instead are engaged with a wireless telegraph. Another example is a visionary cartoon "Drahtlose Telephonie" by Karl Arnold, published in German satirical magazine Simplicissimus, showing public use of mobile telephones in the street of Berlin.

Forecasts for 1907. IV. - The Development of Wireless Telegraphy. Scene in Hyde Park. Source: Punch. December 26, 1906
Berlin, Drahtlose Telephonie. Source: Simplicissimus. December 20, 1926
June 17, 1946

Car phone

In the US, engineers at Bell Labs were working on a system that would allow people to place calls from their automobiles. The service was launched on 17 June 1946 in St. Louis. The original car phone equipment weighed 36 kg and was placed in a vehicle's trunk. Due to the small amount of allocated frequency spectrum by FCC (Federal Communications Commision), at most three subscribers in a single area could make a call at the same time. In 1965, an improved system called IMPS (Improved Mobile Telephone System) was launched, which brought a few more channels and full duplex capability, but as more people started using the service, the waiting lists were still getting pretty long.

In 1947, D. H. Ring at Bell Labs created a document "Mobile Telephony: Wide Area Coverage", where he proposed the foundations of a cellular telephone service. It introduces the concept of hexagonal cells, where different frequencies are used by adjacent cells, but frequencies can be efficiently reused within a city or along the way. As a user moves between the cells, the call is automatically switched from one cell to another. Therefore, the service can provide almost unlimited wide area coverage. However, it still takes another 30 years of technology development and waiting for FCC approval, until the system can be put into practice. The first commercial cellular service, known as AMPS (Advanced Mobile Phone System) is launched in 1978 in Chicago by AT&T and the following year in Washington by Motorola.

AT&T Archives: Testing the First Public Cell Network. Source: YouTube

April 3, 1973

The first mobile phone call

Martin Cooper, senior engineer at Motorola, calls a rival telecommunications company AT&T, to inform them he is speaking via a mobile phone.

Meet The Inventor of the First Cell Phone. Source: YouTube


Motorola DynaTAC 8000X

Only after 10 years later, Motorola releases its first commercially available mobile phone, Motorola DynaTAC 8000X, also known as "shoe phone". It features a battery with 30 minutes of talk time, can store up to 30 phone numbers and costs $3,995.

Motorola DynaTAC Promotional Video. Source: YouTube


The first GSM phone

In early 90s, Nokia introduced Nokia 1011, the first mass-produced mobile phone with GSM network support. GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) is a standard describing protocols for 2G network. All transmitted signals are digital and encrypted, in contrast to analog 1G networks. It introduces data transmission, starting with SMS (Short Message Service) and MMS (Multimedia Messaging Service). Therefore, Nokia 1011 was also the first phone capable of sending SMS messages. In a wider perspective, this can be seen as the first step away from phone being just a device for a single use, to a phone becoming a general-purpose device. While the phone was originally meant as an accessory for businessmen, it quickly became popular among younger generation.


IBM Simon Personal Communicator

Introduced in 1992 at COMDEX computer show in Las Vegas, IBM Simon was the first cellular phone that combined features of PDA (Portable Device Assistant) and mobile phone into one device. Beyond telephone calls and basic PDA features including calendar, address book and notepad, it could also run third party apps. While the term "smartphone" hasn't been used until 1995, it can be seen as the first vision of what would phones offer in future.


Motorola StarTAC

Inspired by the Communicator device from Star Trek series, Motorola created the world's first clamshell (flip) phone. Clamshell form factor became quite popular, because its construction prevented unintended pressing of keys when being kept in a pocket and also protected the display from stratches. Later, some of the phones also included secondary display for displaying time and notifications even when the phone was closed.

SMS language

Due to the limited size of a text message and difficulty of text entry on a dial keyboard, so-called SMS language, or "textese", started to evolve. It consists of introducing new abbreviations (btw, omg, lol), replacing words with letters having similar pronunciation (are => r, you => u), use of emoticons (<3, :D) or lack of punctuation. It further evolved with increasing popularity of the internet, as the novel style of writing provided more efficient communication and added emotional dimension to textual messages. On the other hand, it also received a lot of criticism for wrecking the language and introducing ambiguity.


Emoji Art. Source: Co.Design

In late 90s, emoji (Japanese: 絵文字) were introduced in Japanese mobile phones, allowing to use predefined ideograms and smiley pictures in text messages. For a long time, there was no standardization and they did not work reliably across different manufacturers and carriers. When Apple wanted to enter Japanese market with iPhone, they could not ignore the cultural phenomenon and also included their version of emoji keyboard for Japanese customers. In 2011, after emoji support was added to Unicode standard, emoji keyboard was enabled outside Japan as well by iOS 5. Support by other major operating systems followed shortly. Emojis quickly gained international popularity and are essential part of expressing emotions in electronic communication nowadays.


Nokia 3310

One of the most popular phones ever created, with 126 mil. units sold. It gained a cult status because of its durability, some even say it's indestructible. As many other Nokia phones, it also featured "Nokia tune" ringtone and a Snake game. In 2017, Nokia announced to relaunch an updated version of 3310 to pay homage to the iconic classic.

The original inspiration for Nokia tune ringtone (at time 0:13). Gran Vals, composed by Francisco Tarrega, performed by Manuel Cabrera II. Source: SoundCloud

The first camera phone

J-SH04, manufactured by Sharp and released by J-Phone in Japan, was the first ever phone with a built-in camera and color display. It even had a small mirror next to the lense to help with taking self-portraits. The first camera phone got into the US two years later. In 2004, two-thirds of all phones shipped had a camera in them. Leading the way was Nokia, with Sony Ericsson emerging as their main competitor.

The fact that most people started to have a camera always with them also contributed to significant shift in news coverage. After combining with social networks, the news suddenly became real-time and decentralized, with ability to provide authentic pictures or videos from the place of interest.

Symbian OS

In 1998, an old PDA company Psion changed its name to Symbian and took funding from major phone manufacturers Ericsson, Motorola and Nokia. They developed Symbian OS, which eventually became the most widely used smartphone operating system. Symbian OS was just a shell system, requiring additional graphical user interface, for example S60 platform built by Nokia or UIQ (User Interface Quartz) used by Motorola and Sony Ericsson. Due to the fact that each user interface was based on different software platform, applications developed for one interface were not compatible with others. Early versions were not prepared for touch screens, but phones often provided physical QWERTY keyboard. When touch screens gained popularity, touch-based interface support was added, which led to further compatibility fragmentation.

Symbian retained its leading position until 2010, when it was overtaken by Android. In 2011, Nokia, the only remaining company still supporting Symbian, announced they would discontinue its support and use Windows Phone as the primary smartphone platform from then on. Symbian failed to keep pace with modern operating systems, which were designed specifically for touch interfaces. Users felt it was too complex to use, while developers had difficulties with developing apps due to bad system architecture and fragmentation.

Source: PCWorld
January 9, 2007

Apple iPhone

In 2004, Steve Jobs set up a classified team in Apple, to investigate the use of touchscreen devices. Two and a half year later, he gave one of his best talks at MacWorld 2007, where he introduced a new revolutionary device – an iPod, a phone and an internet communicator in a single device. It was innovative in many ways. It introduced the whole new style of interaction based on touch, without any hardware keys. Thanks to capacitive touchscreen technology and reimagined user interface, a user could control the phone solely with fingers, instead of a stylus, as was common at that time. As the first phone supporting multi-touch, it introduced the idea of touch gestures, such as pinch-to-zoom or image rotation. And last but not least, scrolling in lists didn't involve scrollbars, but one could naturally move content on screen by swiping. It also included desktop-class Safari browser and a phone was sold by AT&T with included data plan. Mobile web on other devices at that time was limited to WAP browser.

When the original iPhone was introduced, it was not supposed to have support for any third-party apps, because of security and reliability concerns. After appeals by community, an idea of Web 2.0 applications was presented at WWDC. The apps ran in Safari engine and had a limited access to iPhone services. But just one year later, an SDK (software development kit) was introduced, which let developers to create full native apps using Objective-C programming language. In the same year, AppStore was opened, allowing users to browse and download apps from certified third-party developers.

Steve Jobs introducing iPhone at MacWorld 2007. Source: YouTube

The rise of Android

Several years before Android existed, a small mobile software company called Danger was co-founded Andy Rubin, a former Apple engineer. Its most notable product was T-Mobile Sidekick, a smartphone with landscape keyboard and software made for instant messaging, web browing and e-mail. Released in 2002, it pioneered cloud-based synchronization, app marketplace and captured a lot of attention in North America. Andy Rubin left in 2003 to form a new company called Android, building on ideas from Danger. Google's Larry Page and Sergey Brin quickly spotted the trend and with vision of Google being the default search engine on more smartphones, Google acquired Android in 2005.

On November 5, 2007, Open Handset Alliance was formed, a consortium of technology companies including Google, device manufacturers, wireless carriers and chipset makers. Their goal was to develop the first truly open and comprehensive platform for mobile devices, to directly compete against mobile platforms from Apple, Microsoft, Nokia and others. At the same time, Google also unveiled Android, an open-source mobile phone platform based on Linux kernel.

The creators of Android talk about their new open platform for mobile phones and the Open Handset Alliance. Source: YouTube

Worldwide Smartphone Sales to End Users by Operating System
Source: Gartner 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016

The first commercially available Android device T-Mobile G1 was built by HTC and released in 2008. It slowly started gaining popularity among early adopters and programmers, because of its openness and integration with Google services. Google realized the importance of third-party developers from the very beginning and supported them by giving away $10 mil. to create the first apps for the new operating system. The real Android frenzy took off in 2009, with introduction of Motorola Droid and Samsung Galaxy phone. In 2010, Google unveiled Nexus One, a reference device targeting at mobile apps developers, running clean Android without any manufacturers customizations and with guaranteed timely platform updates.

Early Android versions had basic look, the system was designed by engineers and no strong design language was present, in contrary to iOS or Windows Phone. Therefore, most manufacturers built their own skins on top of Android, to enrich user experience. In 2010, Google hired Matias Duarte, former Palm designer, to give direction to Android design. This results in Holo theme in Android 3 and finally Material Design visual language introduced with Android 5.

A behind-the-scenes look at building Google's visual framework. Source: YouTube

Virtual & Augmented Reality

According to many, virtual reality is the next big thing. Employing smartphone screen technology and processing power of computer, is enables us to experience an authentic virtual reality using PC-compatible VR headsets HTC Vive or Oculus Rift. There are many possible use cases which range from playing games, viewing 360° and 3D content, to engineering and education. With increasing power of pocket size devices, it's already finding its way into mobile phones as well, with first examples being Google Daydream, Samsung Gear VR or Xiaomi Mi VR.

One step further is augmented reality, which merges virtual and real world. While the most immersive experience is probably being currently offered by Microsoft HoloLens, another promising platform is Tango, being developed by Google's Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP) group. Tango is an augmented reality computing platform which adds sensors for motion tracking, area learning and depth perception into mobile devices. The first AR phones hitting the market are Lenovo Phab 2 (2016) and Asus ZenFone AR (2017). Its early applications include indoor navigation, interactive museum exhibitions or NASA space robots vision.

Project Tango is an exploration into giving mobile devices a human-scale understanding of space and motion. Source: YouTube