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From Bricks to Gadgets

Wed, 10/01/2008 - 6:29pm
Evan Koblentz

Cell phones of today are nothing like the first devices of 25 years ago.
Here’s a look at how they evolved.

Ever since commercial cellular service came to the United States in 1983, the phones we carry keep getting smaller and more sophisticated. With the recent onslaught of smartphones that are more computer than telephone, it’s easy to forget the many important evolutions that got us here.

25 Years of WirelessDynaTAC, the original portable brick phoneBefore the “portable” cell phone emerged, U.S consumers experienced “car phones,” which were mounted on vehicle consoles and hooked up to a hefty 90- to 100-pound transceiver in the trunk, with a 3W transmitter. Business executives by the early 1980s could opt for a “briefcase” or transportable device that weighed as much as 25 pounds with most of the heft consisting of batteries.

Still, certain features that we think of as modern really aren’t new at all. In many cases, it is difficult to point to individual “firsts” because of multiple roots or conflicting announcements and patents. To help, here’s a brief tour of the evolution of cell phones from 1983 to 2008.

Among the most celebrated historic phones is the Motorola DynaTAC. At 1.75 pounds with a shape evoking a brick, the DynaTAC is to modern cell phones what the 1981 Osborne suitcase computer is to modern subnotebooks – a true “luggable.” Talk time was only 30 minutes and standby time was 8 hours. It also had a vehicle adapter, 30 memory locations, electronic lock with an automatic power-off feature and a visual silent ring option.

Ericsson introduced its first portable, the HotLine Pocket, in 1987. Designers borrowed from an older police radio, including the color scheme of a black case with orange buttons.

The original Motorola iDENMotorola’s new model for 1989 was the MicroTAC 9800X, weighing 12.3 ounces with a standard battery or 10.7 ounces with a slim battery option. This was the first of Motorola’s ubiquitous “flip phone” designs with more than two dozen variations throughout the 1990s, including the dual-mode MicroTAC Lite version in 1991.

Many owners assumed the microphone was located in the folding base, but in reality that was just a cover. The microphone was actually located at the base of the main phone unit.

OKI Telecom developed the Visorphone, available as an option in Chrysler’s luxury cars for the 1991 model year. The Visorphone used a control panel mounted in the driver’s sun visor, connected to additional equipment in the trunk and powered by the car battery. Drivers could flip the visor down to dial and up to talk. Calls also could be dialed through up to 100 preset numbers. Unlike traditional car phones mounted in the console, the Visorphone was designed to be difficult to steal.

Nokia became a player in 1992 with the model 1011 phone – the first mass-produced phone for GSM networks and the first with a text messaging feature. Talk time was 90 minutes. Compared to Motorola’s “flip phone” design, the 1011 and successive models were known as “candy bar” designs because of their dark color and flat shape. It gained popularity in 1993 and is among the first 2G phones.

IBM changed the cell phone game by introducing the Simon in 1992. It was the first smartphone. Features included a large touchscreen, on-screen keyboard and tools such as a calendar, e-mail client, faxing, games, notepad and predictive typing. The Simon weighed 18 ounces without its battery. It ran a version of the popular DOS and even had a PC card slot. The phone didn’t reach mainstream sales until 1994 through BellSouth.

That same year, Motorola launched the L3000 iDEN device, combining a flip phone with a walkie-talkie and making the phrase “push-to-talk” part of the industry lexicon. Calls could be placed to individuals or groups. There was also an emergency call option.

Conversely, in 1996, Motorola’s StarTAC reached a new low – in size. The StarTAC weighed just 3.1 ounces and was slightly larger than a deck of playing cards. Rather than a bottom cover flipping up, the earpiece flips open from the top hinge. It had an optional lithium-ion battery and a vibrating alert feature borrowed from Motorola’s pagers. This was among the first cellular phones to be featured in movies and to be seen by the public as a fashion statement. Motorola advertised it as a “wearable” phone.

Nokia’s 1011 set the “candy bar” standardAlso in 1996, Nokia repeated IBM’s bigger-is-better smartphone move by introducing the 9000 Communicator. But it wasn’t quite as big and it was far more sophisticated than the Simon. In phone mode, users held it vertically like a standard cell phone, but in PDA mode, the entire case opened along its left horizontal axis, revealing a large screen and a wide QWERTY keyboard.

“BlackBerry” entered our vocabulary, thanks to Research In Motion (RIM), in 1998. Resembling a 2-way pager with a keyboard, it was unique because of its corporate e-mail integration features along with a calendar and simple Internet access.

The year 1999 saw two interesting phones with new features: the Nokia 7110 and Motorola iDEN i1000plus. Nokia’s 7110 was the first phone with a WAP browser. It also introduced programmable “soft keys” which are now commonplace. It also had a roller-type mouse, contact folders and a spring-loaded keypad cover influenced by the movie The Matrix. Meanwhile, Motorola’s iDEN i1000plus combined a new version of the iDEN devices with a WAP browser and alphanumeric pager.

Still in 1999, Qualcomm’s pdQ (later sold to Kyocera) changed the rules of smartphones again. Basically, the pdQ was an ordinary Palm III PDA mated to a cell phone. But unlike the Nokia 9000 and the IBM Simon before that, the pdQ had some huge advantages. It was almost as small as ordinary cell phones, most ordinary Palm software could run on it and it synchronized with a desktop computer just like a regular Palm-brand PDA.

StarTAC was supposedly inspired by Star TrekMicrosoft debuted the PocketPC in a “phone edition” in 2000, bringing the dominant Windows operating system from desktop computers into cell phones.

The world got a smartphone version of RIM’s BlackBerry in 2002 via the model 5810, although it still looked and felt like a data-centric device. Gradually, the later models came to look and operate more like cell phones.

In 2003, Motorola’s A760 became the first mainstream Linux phone. It also supported Sun Microsystems’ Java platform. Some of its features were an MP3 player, camera, speakerphone and Bluetooth. Meanwhile, Nokia in 2003 released the N-Gage system, which was a phone specifically design for multiplayer videogames.

Apple and Google entered the cell phone space in 2007. Apple brought out the iPhone, which made competitors look twice because of its innovative user interface and its integration with the iTunes music library. The iPhone also garnered attention because of Apple’s unique exclusive relationship with AT&T in the United States.

At about the same time, rumors began building that Google would debut a rival “GooglePhone” which turned out to be the Android operating system. But unlike the iPhone – limited to Apple’s hardware and running only Apple-approved software on Apple-certified carriers – Google allows any company to build Android-powered phones, any software developer to sell programs for it, and any interested carrier to stock it. Several companies are expected to do so, with the first handset manufactured by Taiwan-based HTC.

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