The evolution of the mobile phone

Can you believe it’s been nearly fifty years since the invention of the mobile phone? It’s true! A prototype mobile handset developed by Motorola was used to make the world’s first mobile phone call in 1973 – they called one of their competitors to let them know the good news.

However, while mobile phones existed way back in the 70s, it would be a long time before the average person owned one! In Australia, the earliest mobile network wasn’t built until 1981 with just three 500MHz base stations operating out of Melbourne, and 2G mobile networks didn’t roll out in capital cities until 1993. It’s fair to say that mobiles have gotten pretty popular in the decades that followed, with 75.8% of Aussies owning a smartphone as of 2017.

Let’s take a walk down mobile memory lane and find out how our handsets got to be the way they are today.

1983: The not-so-mobile mobile

You couldn’t fit this one in your pocket! The Motorola DynaTAC 8000X was roughly the size of a brick and weighed in at a hearty 784 grams. That said, at the time, this handset was considered revolutionary because its predecessors were more ‘suitcase’ than ‘phone’ and could weigh up to 10 kilos. Taking about 10 hours to charge up for just 30 minutes of talk time, the DynaTAC didn’t offer much bang for its buck – its 1980s price tag had the buying power of about $10,000USD in today’s money. The latest iPhone is looking a bit less expensive now, huh?

1992: Ready, set, GSM!

Fast forward to the rollout of the GSM 2G mobile network, and mobile handsets had already gotten considerably smaller. The Nokia 101 was a much more convenient 280 grams, allowing it to be marketed as “the world’s most portable phone”. With spaced-out buttons and a backlit monochrome display that you could see in the dark, they were simple devices that were designed to be easy to use.

1996: The first smartphone

Bet you didn’t expect to see a smartphone this early in the timeline! It’s very different to the smartphones we enjoy today but by definition, a smartphone is a device that combines the functions of a mobile telephone and a computer. The Nokia 9000 Communicator ticked these boxes, featuring fax, email, a calculator, and even a web browser. Since these were the days before touchscreens, it flipped open to reveal a full QWERTY keyboard.

1998: Gettin’ funky with it

By the late 1990s, mobiles were starting to gain status not only as an important tool, but also as fashion accessories. The Nokia 5110 was one of the first phones to feature snap-on plastic covers, allowing users to customise the handset’s appearance according to their own personal tastes. Combine that with excellent durability and great battery life, and you can see why this was a very popular model in its day.

P.S: This model also featured the Snake game that so many of us know and love!

2000: Smile!

The new millennium saw the dawn of a new technology: camera phones. Two new mobile phones were capable of taking happy snaps: the Samsung SCH-V200 in South Korea and the Sharp J-Phone in Japan (pictured below). While the SCH-V200 came out slightly ahead in terms of picture quality with a 0.35 megapixel camera, you had to connect the phone to a computer to see your photos. The J-Phone, however, let you see your photos on its 256-colour display (even if the camera was only 0.11 megapixels). Sadly, these two models weren’t released in Australia – we had to wait for some later models to hit our market before we could start taking pics on our phones.

2005: The age of itty-bitty 3G machines

As the 3G mobile market began to roll out in the early 2000s, more and more mobile devices were able to connect to the internet. However, there still wasn’t too much to do on that new-fangled mobile internet beyond basic browsing, particularly within the constraints of early mobile web browsers which were much clunkier than the ones we enjoy today (arrow keys, anyone?). The trend was still very much focused on making 3G handsets smaller and lighter – often in weird and wonderful ways, such as the tiny Nokia 7600 that weighed just 123 grams!

2008: A new way to get in touch

Did you know the original Apple iPhone never released in Australia? The very first iPhone released down under was the iPhone 3G, one year later. The handset featured just one button beneath a feature that would become integral to just about every smartphone to follow: a touch screen that took up most of the phone. Said touch screen made it easy-peasy for Aussies to use Apple’s new mobile OS, which included GPS-assisted Google Maps, iTunes, and the App Store. Mobile web browsing in particular was now becoming a convenience, not a chore.   

2009: Android enters the ring

Hot on the heels of the iPhone release was the HTC Dream, the first handset on the Australian market to be powered by Google’s Android OS. This model featured a touch screen interface and a trackball amongst its modest strip of buttons. While the trackball never really caught on, Android OS would soon become one of the major competitors in the market.

2012: More screen, please!

With the 4G mobile network starting to gain momentum across Australia, smartphones are becoming more and more powerful in terms of computer processors, memory, picture quality and mobile data speed. The way we used smartphones became increasingly visual. This brought about a shift in consumer demand for the largest screens possible. The iPhone 5 released with a 4-inch display, up from the original iPhone’s 3.5-inch screen. However, bigger screens drain batteries a lot faster, so battery life became a serious concern.

2017: Goodbye button

In the quest for ever-larger mobile screens, there was pretty much only one feature left to get rid of: the humble home button. Samsung was first to give theirs the flick with the launch of the Galaxy S8. The physical button was replaced by – you guessed it – a digital button on the touch screen, which measured in at a glorious 5.8 inches (or 6.2 inches if you sprung for the Galaxy S8+). The Galaxy S8 also featured a trio of security options to unlock the screen: a fingerprint scanner, an iris scanner, and rudimentary facial recognition. The latter was convenient but ultimately not the most secure – in some cases a photo could be used instead of the owner’s actual face.

2018: The ‘dumbphone’ niche market

While conventional smartphones are pretty great, they’re not for everyone. It turns out there’s still quite a few customers who prioritise affordability, durability and battery life over having a somewhat-delicate supercomputer in their back pocket. ‘Dumbphones’ are mobiles that go back to the basics with non-touch screens and a full physical keypad. The CAT B35 handset from Caterpillar Inc. (a company that also manufactures heavy machinery) has a standby battery life of 30 days.

2020: Slicker security features

As they become more and more integrated with our daily lives, smartphones have become a pretty valuable source of personal information. With the ability to access all of your private messages, social media, online shopping accounts and even mobile payment features linked directly to bank accounts or credit cards, security is more important than ever. Fingerprint scanners and Multi-Factor Authentication are fast becoming default features on most smartphones, but some models are designed with security as a priority. The Sirin Labs Finney U1 offers robust protection from cyber security threats, which is particularly important for users of another one of its features – a built-in cold storage wallet for cryptocurrency.


2021 and beyond: What we can expect to see next

While it’s true that physical mobile handset design hasn’t been very diverse since the advent of the touch screen, there are still a few interesting things that we have to look forward to! As technology innovates and becomes easier to produce, some of the elite features exclusive to top-end handsets may trickle down to more affordable models. We’re talking about stuff like built-in wireless charging capability, 4K (or even 8K) video capture, and vertical-folding touchscreens to allow larger displays than ever before.

Do you remember your first mobile device? Tell us about it in the comments.

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