mnmlist: The History of the Smartphone

The road of progress is littered with technology that was fit, but not fittest, for survival. Smartphones are an evolutionary whirlwind. They emerge to the blare of trumpets and become extinct in months, not eons. Herewith, a short history.


For smartphones to exist, wireless service had to first be invented. AT&T got things moving—literally—in 1946. A driver placed the world’s first mobile telephone call June 17, 1946.

Mobile phones from then until the 1990s were clumsy, heavy energy hogs. If not connected to a larger power source (automobile, plane or boat), their batteries were so large the whole contraption had to be carried in a stylishly geeky shoulder-strapped bag.

Simple Simon

The world had to wait for real progress in mobile telephone technology until IBM introduced the Simon Personal Communicator in 1994. For a mere $1,099 a customer could own a hybrid cell phone and personal digital assistant (PDA). Taking a two-year contract knocked $200 off the price.

BlackBerry Singing in the Dead of Night

In 1999 BlackBerry provided a two-way e-mail paging system at the vastly improved price of $399. No pictures, no voice, just text. A buyer could practically measure the cost of each word.

Ericcson Coins a Name

Which is catchier—the “R380” or the “smartphone?” Ericcson’s R380 mobile phone may have been a complete dolt compared to later models, but it gave the world a new word.

Apple Arrives

In 2007, Apple changed the market with the touch-screen iPhone. Suddenly multimedia was in the palm of a user’s hand. Communication could be by voice, text and image.

Androids for Everyone!

Symbian, the operating system of choice for many years, was swept away by the arrival of Google’s Android OS in October of 2008. Within two years Android OS outsold Apple and Symbian combined, not least because Google gave away the Android OS for free.

Microsoft Wants In

Having failed to attract actual customers with Windows Mobile, Microsoft released its revamped mobile operating system, Windows Phone, in February of 2010. Probably by merest coincidence, this was the same year the first Android Trojan virus appeared, and smartphones outsold PCs.

The Players Rumble

In 2011 Apple was the largest vendor of smartphones, selling nearly 19 million iPhones, but Android held 50 percent of operating system share (Symbian was almost 30 percent).

Lawsuits follow success, and Apple took Samsung to court over Samsung’s Galaxy. The case is still pending. Microsoft sued LG for patent infringement and took a small slice of each LG handset as royalties. By January 2012, Microsoft claimed it had “agreements on” (read “its thumb in”) 70 percent of Android handsets in the United States.

The Future Was Then

By 2011 nearly half of all American adults had smartphones. By 2012 half a billion Android devices were in operation around the globe. Annual sales of smartphones are expected by 2016 to top $1 billion worldwide.

What will make these devices so ubiquitous and appealing? Improvements on an ever-accelerating scale: holographic projection; fuzzy logic that cleans up voice transmission; devices that fit as rings, bracelets, or implants within a user’s body.

Somewhere today a ten-year-old is developing the kernel of an idea that will once again change the course of smartphone evolution.