The evolution of mobile: From bricks and dumbphones to iPhones in 30 years

Oliver Smith
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We've come a long way since 2002 (Source: Getty)
You can’t even walk down the street without bumping into dozens of people talking, tweeting, taking Snapchats and hailing Ubers, all from the 5-inch smartphone screens they carry.
London didn’t always look like this. In fact, it was 30 years ago this year that the very first British mobile phone call was made on the streets of London.
And while the first mobile phone call sounds like a momentous occasion, according to the man who made that call, it was just a day like any other.
"The small crowd who gathered around us when we made the first call in Parliament Square were more puzzled than excited," Michael Harrison told City A.M.
"No one looking on had seen or probably even heard of 'cellular' technology and it certainly didn't feel like the launch of a service that would actually change all our lives over time."
But on New Year's Eve in 1985 Harrison did exactly that, standing in Parliament Square he made Britain's first mobile phone call, changing history in the process.

Three decades of mobile revolution

The rest, as they say, is history and today nine out of every 10 adults (93 per cent) in the UK have a mobile phone, according to Ofcom.
Recently, smartphones, a category of device that barely existed in 2004 when Kantar ComTech reported ownership was a slim 1.6 per cent of the population, have exploded in popularity. Today 71 per cent of us own a smartphone and that number is rising rapidly.
The explosion in smartphones didn’t happen overnight. Since 1985 mobiles have evolved from basic phones into advanced supercomputers and there are six key devices that industry analysts say really drove the technology forward.
The first mobile phone, the one Harrison used for his phone call, isn’t anything like the slim, sleek devices we’ve come to expect today.
The Vodafone Transportable VT1 didn’t just have an unattractive name. The 4.9kg VT1 was an eyesore with its oversized battery pack to power what was then cutting-edge technology.
"Nobody back in 1985 even talked about 'mobile' phones — and in fact given the size and weight of the original model they really weren't that 'mobile'," says Harrison.
The VT1 didn’t even boast particularly good battery life, a 10 hour charge resulted in just 30 minutes of talk time.
Luckily better phones would soon wash away memories of the VT1 and pave the way for the mass adoption of mobiles.

From dumbphone to smartphone

The Nokia 2110 came out in 1994 and looks just like any other mobile from the 1990s, but it’s crucially important for one key reason, it introduced text messaging.
“Text messaging was key because it took your phone from a voice interaction to a written interaction and paved the way for a booming industry of SMS messaging for network operators in the 1990s and 2000s," CCS Insight mobile industry analyst Ben Wood, who has a personal collection of over 1,000 mobile phones dating back to the 1980s, told City A.M.
There was another critical Nokia device family, according to Wood, which arrived on the turn of the millennium, the most iconic two devices Nokia ever created and you probably still have one in a drawer somewhere.
“Nokia’s 3210 and 3310 were incredibly easy to use, affordable, had great battery life and a clear screen. Because of this they sold in the hundreds of millions [160m and 126m units respectively] and became ubiquitous devices, the phones of the masses that truly democratised mobiles for the first time,” says Wood.
There were other noteworthy phones in the 2000s including Motorola’s RAZR, with its eye-catching super-thin design in 2004, and of course Blackberry’s Pearl range from 2006 which turned smartphones from a business tool into a consumer device with its BBM instant messenger app.
But it wasn’t until 2007 that the modern smartphone market was really created, when a niche computer manufacturer decided to make a phone that changed everything.
Introducing the iPhone
“When Apple’s CEO Steve Jobs walked on stage on 9 January 2007 and pulled out the iPhone, everything changed,” explains Wood.
Indeed the iPhone, and its successors leading up to today’s iPhone 6, were transformational devices that propelled the smartphone into something that seven in every 10 UK adults own today.
A full web browser and multi-touch screen (original iPhone, 2007), the App Store (iPhone 3G, 2008), high-resolution Retina Display (iPhone 4, 2010), fingerprint sensing Touch ID (iPhone 5S, 2013) and mobile payments with Apple Pay (iPhone 6, 2014) were among the innovations introduced by Apple and quickly adopted by the rest of the smartphone industry.

Tomorrow’s world

So could Harrison, after making that very first phone call in 1985, have predicted even a fraction of what was to come?
“Today’s mobile world is based on a whole series of technology breakthroughs, most of which were not even imagined as obstacles to phones at the time,” he says.
“People were talking about the hope of smaller and lighter batteries—but no one had conceived of messaging or other forms of nonverbal communication. We were still years away from the internet becoming a reality and touchscreen technology hadn't even been featured in science fiction!”
Indeed the very reason today's iPhone would have sounded like sci-fi and looked so alien to the public of 1985 is because the core reason we use our phones today, to access the world wide web, wasn’t even invented until 1990.
It’s no stretch of the imagination that the reason we will use the phones of tomorrow, whether that’s to enter virtual realities or control robot assistants, probably hasn’t been invented yet either.

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