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9/16/2018 The History of Smartphones and Who Invented Them

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The History of Smartphones

The History of Smartphones


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by Tuan C. Nguyen

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Updated September 10, 2018

In 1926, during an interview for Collier magazine, legendary scientist and inventor Nikola Tesla described a piece of
technology that would revolutionize the lives of its users. Here’s the quote:

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“When wireless is perfectly applied the whole earth will be converted into a huge brain, which in fact it is, all things being
particles of a real and rhythmic whole. We shall be able to communicate with one another instantly, irrespective of distance.
Not only this, but through television and telephony we shall see and hear one another as perfectly as though we were face to
face, despite intervening distances of thousands of miles; and the instruments through which we shall be able to do his will be
amazingly simple compared with our present telephone. A man will be able to carry one in his vest pocket.”

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While Tesla might not have chosen to call this instrument a smartphone, his foresight was spot on. These future
phones have, in essence, reprogrammed how we interact with and experience the world. But they didn’t appear overnight.
There were many technologies that progressed, competed, converged, and evolved toward the fairly sophisticated packet
companions we have come to rely on today.

The Modern Smartphone


So who invented the smartphone? First, let's make clear that the smartphone didn’t start with Apple —though the

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company and its charismatic co-founder Steve Jobs deserve much credit for perfecting a model that has made the
technology just about indispensable among the masses. In fact, there were phones capable of transmitting data as well as
featured applications such as email in use prior to the arrival of early popular devices such as the Blackberry.

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Since then, the definition of the smartphone has essentially become arbitrary. For example, is a phone still smart if it
doesn’t have a touchscreen? At one time, the Sidekick, a popular phone from carrier T-Mobile was considered cutting
edge. It had a swiveling full-qwerty keyboard that allowed for rapid-fire text messaging, LCD screen and stereo speakers.
These days, few people would find a phone remotely acceptable that cannot run third-party apps. The lack of consensus is
muddied even further by the concept of a “feature phone,” which shares some of the smartphone's abilities. But is it smart
enough?

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A solid textbook definition comes from the Oxford dictionary, which describes a smartphone as “a mobile phone that
performs many of the functions of a computer, typically having a touchscreen interface, Internet access, and an operating
system capable of running downloaded apps.” So for the purpose of being as comprehensive as possible, let’s begin with
the very minimal threshold of what constitutes “smart” features: computing.

IBM’s Simon Says


The first device that technically qualifies as a smartphone was simply a highly sophisticated—for its time —brick phone.
You know one of those bulky, but fairly exclusive status-symbol toys flashed in '80s movies like Wall Street? The IBM
Simon Personal Communicator, released in 1994, was a sleeker, more advanced and premium brick that sold for $1,100.
Sure, a lot of smartphones today cost about as much, but remember that $1,100 more than 20 years ago was nothing to
sneeze at.

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IBM had conceived of the idea for a computer-style phone as early as the '70s, but it wasn’t until 1992 that the company
unveiled a prototype at the COMDEX computer and technology trade show in Las Vegas. Besides placing and receiving
calls, the Simon could also send facsimiles, emails, and cellular pages. It even had a nifty touchscreen for which numbers
can be dialed from. Extra features included apps for a calendar, address book, calculator, scheduler and notepad. IBM also
demonstrated that the phone was capable of displaying maps, stocks, news and other third-party applications with certain
modifications.

Tragically, the Simon ended up in the heap pile of being too ahead of its time. Despite all the snazzy features, it was cost
prohibitive for most and was only useful for a very niche clientele. The distributor, BellSouth Cellular, would later reduce
the price of the phone to $599 with a two-year contract. And even then, the company only sold about 50,000 units and
eventually took the product off the market after six months.

The Early Awkward Marriage of PDAs and Cell Phones


The initial failure to introduce what was a fairly novel notion of phones having a multiplicity of capabilities didn’t
necessarily mean that consumers weren’t keen on incorporating smart devices into their lives. In a way, smart technology
was all the rage during the late '90s, as evidenced by the widespread adoption of stand-alone smart gadgets known as

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Personal Digital Assistants. Before hardware makers and developers figured out ways to successfully merge PDAs with
cellular phones, most people simply made due by carrying two devices.

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The leading name in the business at the time was Sunnyvale-based electronics firm Palm who jumped to the fore with the
products such as the Palm Pilot. Throughout the generations of the product line, various models offered a multitude of
pre-installed apps, PDA to computer connectivity, email, messaging and an interactive stylus. Other competitors at the
time included Handspring and Apple with the Apple Newton.

Things started to come together right before the turn of the new millennium as device makers begin little by little
incorporating smart features into cell phones. The first notable effort in this vein was the Nokia 9000 communicator,
which the manufacturer introduced in 1996. It came in a clamshell design that was fairly large and bulky but allowed for a
qwerty keyboard along with navigation buttons. This was so that the makers can cram in some of the more sellable smart
features such as faxing, web browsing, email, and word processing.

But it was the Ericsson R380, which debuted in 2000, that became the first product to be officially billed and marketed as
a smartphone. Unlike the Nokia 9000, it was small and light like most typical cell phones, but remarkably the keypad can
be flipped outward to reveal a 3.5-inch black and white touchscreen for which users can access a litany of apps. The phone
also allowed for internet access, though no web browser and users weren’t able to install third-party apps.

The convergence continued as competitors from the PDA side moved into the fray, with Palm introducing the Kyocera
6035 in 2001 and Handspring putting out its own offering, the Treo 180, the following year. The Kyocera 6035 was
significant for being the first smartphone to be paired with a major wireless data plan through Verizon while the Treo 180
provided services via a GSM line and operating system that seamlessly integrated telephone, internet, and text messaging
service.

Smartphone Mania Spreads From East to West


Meanwhile, as consumers and the tech industry in the west were still tinkering with what many referred to as PDA/cell
phone hybrids, an impressive smartphone ecosystem was coming into its own across the way in Japan. In 1999, local

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upstart telecom NTT DoCoMo launched a series of handsets linked to a high-speed internet network called i-mode.

Compared to Wireless Application Protocol (WAP), the network used in the United States for data transfers for mobile
devices, Japan’s wireless system allowed for a wider range of internet services such as e-mail, sports results, weather
forecast, games, financial services, and ticket booking – all carried out at faster speeds. Some of these advantages are
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attributed to the use of “compact HTML” or “cHTML,” a modified form of HTML that enables full rendering of web pages.
Within two years, the NTT DoCoMo network had an estimated 40 million subscribers.

But outside of Japan, the notion of treating your phone as some sort of digital Swiss army knife hadn’t quite taken hold.
The major players at the time were Palm, Microsoft, and Research in Motion, a lesser known Canadian firm. Each had
their respective operating systems and you’d think that the two more established names in the tech industry would have
an advantage in this respect, yet there was something more than mildly addictive about RIM’s Blackberry devices that
some had even taken to calling their trusty devices Crackberries.

RIM’s reputation at the time was built on a product line of two-way pagers that over time evolved into full-fledged
smartphones. Critical to the company’s success early on was its efforts to position the Blackberry, first and foremost, as a
platform for business and enterprise to deliver and receive push email through a secure server. It was this unorthodox
approach that fueled its popularity among the more mainstream consumers.

Apple’s iPhone
In 2007, at a heavily-hyped press event in San Francisco, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs stood on stage and unveiled a
revolutionary product that not only broke the mold but also set an entirely new paradigm for computer-based phones. The
look, interface andAdvertisement
core functionality of nearly every smartphone to come along since is in some form or another derived
from the original iPhone’s innovative touchscreen-centric design.

Among some of the groundbreaking features was an expansive and responsive display from which to check email, stream
video, play audio and browse the internet with a mobile browser that loaded full websites much like what’s experienced on
personal computers. Apple’s unique iOS operating system allowed for a wide range of intuitive gesture-based commands
and eventually a rapidly growing warehouse of downloadable third-party applications.

Most importantly, the iPhone reoriented people’s relationship with smartphones. Up to then, they’ve been generally

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