And then there were smartphones

And then there were smartphones

A tale of battleship-gray bricks, stylus-operated PDAs, and successive momentous shifts in the mobile industry.
Part of
Issue 18 August 2021


In 1994, Kim MacGregor was a newlywed working in downtown Chicago, taking night classes at a city college. Shortly before the term started, she decided to invest in a portable Motorola phone so she could call her husband, Don, just before boarding the train back home to the suburbs. 

MacGregor doesn’t remember much about the model or what it cost, but she does recall that the phone was “battleship gray” and the size of a walkie-talkie. “It came with a case I could carry on my shoulder, like a small cooler,” she says. “I felt conspicuous when I’d pull it out on a train or platform.” Reception was iffy, the connection plagued by static. Still, she says, “it was nice to be able to dial my husband and let him know when I was about to board a train.”

The phone was most likely the Motorola Tough Talker, released in 1993, which consisted of a base and a handset connected with a spiral cable, similar to a landline phone. It was probably only slightly more convenient to carry around than to continue relying on pay phones, but as with other mobile phones of the era, it was like the proverbial dancing bear—the marvel was not necessarily that it danced well, but that it could dance at all.

At the time, the MacGregors worried the Motorola was an extravagant purchase. They couldn’t have known that in just over a decade, mobile phones would be a more affordable luxury, and one that would revolutionize how we communicate.

The gadgets awaiting convergence

Much like it’s possible to look at a bird and see how it might have evolved from a dinosaur, we can trace today’s devices back to the bulky models MacGregor remembers. But they’re distant cousins at best. Smartphones are now our personal assistants, keeping track of appointments and contacts. They’re cameras and GPS navigators. They share news and weather reports, and provide hours of distraction and entertainment through games, music, podcasts, social media feeds, and cat videos. 

But before all that, the mobile phone had just one job: making voice calls. Jamie Lendino, editor in chief of the long-running technology blog ExtremeTech, describes these early devices as an extension of the landline: “The thinking was, ‘How can I make calls [from anywhere] when I’m not in my house?’” Customers just wanted faster horses; they didn’t know about cars. 

Jawahar Kanjilal, founder and CEO of the SaaS startup Streamz, also recalls the “big bricks” of the era—models like Nokia’s 2010 and 2110, Siemens’ S3, and Ericsson’s GH337. With their single-line displays, “you could only see the number you were typing in, and there was no concept of SMS, even though the phone supported it. Nobody knew what it was,” says Kanjilal, who worked for the Vodafone company Max Touch in the mid-1990s. One could use the Ericsson model to talk for a maximum of 110 minutes—a far cry from today’s 10-plus hours of talk time, though nearly quadruple the 30 minutes offered by the very first cell phone, 1983’s Motorola DynaTAC 8000X. Kanjilal recalls people walking around with spare batteries, which were half the not-insubstantial weight of the phone itself. 

In the 1990s, the idea of a mobile phone that could handle more than voice calling was still science fiction. Consumers accessed the many other functions we now associate with smartphones through a variety of gadgets, all of which evolved along their own trajectories. But as these hefty, call-centric devices made their way into the public’s hands, a concurrent set of developments were on track to converge with the mobile market and pave the way for today’s multipurpose marvels.

PDAs and beyond

In 1993, Apple introduced the Newton MessagePad to great fanfare. It marked a grand leap forward in the market for personal digital assistants (PDAs), the compact computer-like devices that could store appointments and contacts. With the Newton, consumers could use a stylus to write on the screen and take short notes, store contacts, and calculate sums. Independent software developers could write additional applications for things like word processing and maps. 

Despite the hoopla surrounding its launch, the product was too ambitious. It cost nearly $700, was comically bad at recognizing handwriting, and was discontinued five years later. But another, similar device called the PalmPilot 1000, introduced in 1996, followed in the Newton’s footsteps and succeeded. 

The PalmPilot’s makers, Palm Computing, had discovered through user research that people who used PCs at work wanted to be able to take certain functions on the go. They weren’t looking for an independent computer, but rather a portable device that could primarily synchronize appointments and contacts with their PCs. The PalmPilot delivered, allowing users to plug it into a cradle and sync to their computer with the push of a button. Priced at $299, it became a best seller among business users and early adopters.

Then, in the early 2000s, the arrival of the BlackBerry series marked another big advancement. The 5810 model, released in 2002, combined the functionality of a mobile phone with several key PDA applications, including contacts and appointments. In addition to a built-in QWERTY keyboard with real keys, the BlackBerry’s most distinctive features were email access and calendar functionality. And unlike the PalmPilot, it didn’t need to be connected to a PC to sync data. 

Though many similar gadgets had come before—back in 1994, IBM’s Simon had offered PDA and mobile phone capabilities, but with a price tag of $899 and a battery life of one hour, it was a famous flop—the BlackBerry was the first to cross the chasm between early adopters and everyone else. It wasn’t initially a consumer product, but was targeted instead at business users who needed to access email and answer phone calls while running from meeting to meeting. The BlackBerry ruled the corporate market for over a decade, even earning the unfortunate nickname “CrackBerry” for the way people used it compulsively, day and night. 

BlackBerry’s success revealed a consumer appetite for devices that bridged the gap between mobile phones and PDAs, but it didn’t offer much in terms of novel functionality beyond synced email and calendars. The mobile web was still too new, and consumers weren’t hooked on it yet. Incorporating internet connectivity as a key feature would be one of the next great convergence events, but the BlackBerry wouldn’t be the device to do it.

The evolution of touch screens

As the BlackBerry’s popularity soared and the general public grew more accustomed to operating mobile phones with keyboards and keypads, a soon-to-be omnipresent technology was just getting off the ground: the touch screen.

The development of touch screen technology dates back to the 1960s, but it was only in the late 2000s that capacitive touch screens, which could respond to the electrical conductivity of the human body and react to input from a person’s finger, became more prevalent on compact devices. 

“When the Newton came out, touch screens were basically the purview of gaming machines, kiosks, machine controls, and other commercial applications,” says Gene Halsey, vice president of product development at MicroTouch, a company that works on touch solutions. It and subsequent stylus-operated gadgets gave users a primitive preview of what was to come with the iPhone and other touch screen devices. “The Newton tried to bring that tech into a consumer’s hand,” Halsey says. “They were just too early for their time, in my opinion.”

Until capacitive touch screens came along in the late 2000s, the nine-digit numeric keypad predominated on mobile devices, despite the success of the BlackBerry and its QWERTY keyboard. Halsey speculates that the limited capabilities of these keypads—the T9 predictive text method required keys to be tapped repeatedly to generate words—might have accelerated the movement toward touch. Ultimately, the rapid proliferation of touch screen devices in the late 2000s would make mobile keyboards all but irrelevant, starting with one famous product launch.

A new frontrunner appears

By the time Apple introduced the iPhone in 2007, the mobile phone market was divided between general consumers and business users. The consumer phone segment was enormous, split among a few popular models like the Motorola Razr, which was introduced in 2004 and had sold 130 million units by 2008, and the Nokia N95, which was introduced in 2007 and sold 7 million units that same year. The smaller enterprise phone segment was dominated almost entirely by BlackBerry. 

Mobile phones had, by then, evolved a great deal from the gray slabs of yore. They’d become smaller, with longer-lasting batteries. The majority included cameras, and vendors were playing a one-upmanship game of megapixel resolution, a measure of the detail of the image. The mobile web had become a standard feature, accessible from tiny screens, and people actually wanted to use it. Touch screens with multi-touch capability had become cheap and reliable.

The iPhone capitalized on this collective momentum. It brought together all the functions consumers cared about in one easy-to-use, if imperfect, device. “The first iPhone was slippery, it had rounded corners, it was easy to drop,” says Halsey. “But [Steve] Jobs had enough of a vision to incorporate what [Apple] did with the Newton, add the business functionality of the BlackBerry, and an actual camera, and bundle it all together with a multi-touch screen. It was a completely user experience–driven entity.” 

With the launch of the iPhone, Apple effectively reframed consumer expectations around what a phone should be: a high-tech, UX-optimized device in terms of both form factor and functionality. It became the standard to beat. But at a cost of $499 to $599, it also left considerable room for other mobile device-makers to emulate its capabilities at a lower price point, and company after company stepped up to the plate. The iPhone and its many competitors quickly transcended market categories to become must-have gadgets for consumers of all flavors, and the mobile market hasn’t been the same since. 

How the parts fit together

For mobile phones to become such powerful all-in-one personal assistants in just a couple of decades, many things had to happen in parallel. The technology itself had to evolve: PDAs, applications, cellular communication networks, text messaging protocols, and touch screens, not to mention miniaturized cameras, GPS systems, and sensors, combined with the product vision and software to tie them all together. To actually put phones into the hands of billions of people, business incentives also had to align between device vendors, chip makers, phone companies, and independent software developers. With so many moving parts needed to make this vision of mobile phones work, no one company could do it all. The modern incarnation of the smartphone also arrived at a crucial moment when the internet was no longer limited to universities, computer enthusiasts, and big corporations. The web was becoming ubiquitous, making all manner of information and transactions available at the click of a mouse. 

But the evolution of the mobile phone is not just about the technology under the hood, says Charles Edge, CTO at venture capital firm Its journey also involved “a lot of failures, and deep thinking about what mobility means and how society uses it.”

Our understanding of mobile devices and their societal impact remains in flux. On the one hand, smartphones have enabled greater connectivity and convenience, and they’ve been transformative tools for less connected, rural, and underserved populations, offering access to government and payment services, health information, and other necessities. But at the same time, social networks and their algorithm-driven feeds, advertising based on eyeballs, and tracking based on presence have become ever more intrusive thanks in no small part to the devices in our hands. We live in a technological landscape that would seem unfathomable from the vantage point of the 1990s, and we can scarcely predict where these rapidly evolving devices will take us next. 

As for Kim MacGregor? These days, she makes her calls on an iPhone 12 Mini.

About the author

Poornima Apte is an award-winning writer and editor. She’s happiest when her stash of books resembles a Jenga pile.


Artwork by

Joshuah Miranda

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