A brief history of smartphones

Steve Jobs depicted on an iPod.

Steve Jobs depicted on an iPod.

On January 7th, 2007, legendary CEO of Apple Inc. (NASDAQ:AAPL) and master of the product demo Steve Jobs announced the introduction of three revolutionary new products: a widescreen iPod with touch controls, a revolutionary mobile phone and a breakthrough Internet communicator. Soon, it became clear to everyone attending the Macworld 2007 keynote address, these three products would be incorporated into a single device known as the iPhone. This was Apple’s first foray into the nascent smartphone sector and it marked the beginning of a sea change in the consumer electronics industry. As Jobs noted, the iPhone had several features which improved upon other smartphones on the market, including the elimination of a keyboard for more screen space enabled by multi-touch technology enabling new gesture commands and more flexible user interfaces. “And boy have we patented it,” Jobs said during his address.

From that day forward, smartphones have attained a dominant position in the consumer electronics sector. Almost two-thirds of all U.S. citizens owned a smartphone by April 2015 according to data published by the Pew Research Center. Online data and statistics portal Statista indicates that one-third of the world’s population is projected to own a smartphone this year with nearly 1.5 billion smartphone units having already been sold. For Apple, iPhone sales have grown from 270,000 units in the third quarter of 2007 up to 78.3 million units in the first quarter of 2017. Apple’s iPhone sales are far outpaced by sales of smartphones running the Android OS developed by Google. In 2016, just over 216 million iPhone units were sold while more than 1.27 billion Android smartphones were sold that year.

With more than 30 years of development in the smartphone sector, and ten years since the unveiling of the smartphone that changed the industry, the current moment offers a good occasion to look back at some of the successes and failures in this field of technological development. This brief history of smartphones will look at the earliest concepts in the field, the ways that major tech giants have jockeyed for position in the global market and how these companies continue to fight it out on this consumer frontier which continues to grow.


Simon Says That Smartphones Existed Before the iPhone

“IBM Simon Smartphone in Charging Station” by Bcos47. Public domain.

Even as he unveiled the iPhone, Jobs acknowledged that this product wasn’t the first smartphone, although he argued that it was much smarter and easier to use than what was currently available on the market. In fact, famed Serbian-American inventor Nikola Tesla conceived of a portable device which could be used for wireless data communications across the world more than a century ago. In recent years, many tech and news publications have pointed to a 1926 interview Tesla had with Collier’s as the first mention of the modern smartphone. Actually, Tesla’s smartphone concept goes back even further, to a 1909 interview with The New York Times which was republished in that year’s October issue of Popular Mechanics. In an article titled Wireless Of The Future, Tesla is quoted as saying:

“It will soon be possible, for instance, for a business man in New York to dictate instructions and have them appear instantly in type in London or elsewhere. He will be able to call up from his desk and talk with any telephone subscriber in the world. It will only be necessary to carry an inexpensive instrument, not bigger than a watch, which will enable its bearer to hear anywhere on sea or land for distances of thousands of miles. One may listen or transmit speech or song to the uttermost parts of the world. In the same way any kind of picture, drawing or print can be transferred from one place to another. It will be possible to operate millions of such instruments from a single station. Thus it will be a simple matter to keep the uttermost parts of the world in instant touch with each other. The song of a great singer, the speech of a political leader, the sermon of a great divine, the lecture of a man of science may thus be delivered to an audience scattered all over the world.”

Soon is a relative term, however, and it wasn’t until the early 1990s that any device coming close to fitting Tesla’s mold would be marketed to consumers. It’s widely believed that the first smartphone product on the consumer market was the Simon, unveiled in 1994 as a joint development of IBM (NYSE:IBM) and BellSouth, an early example of the partnerships between consumer tech and telecom companies which has been necessary to commercialize iPhones and Android phones alike.

Compared to the smartphones of today, Simon was clunky and did not accomplish too much. As opposed to the razor-thin smartphones on the market currently, Simon measured 8 inches by 2.5 inches by 1.5 inches. Only about 2,000 Simons were made and most ended up being destroyed by BellSouth after production stopped. However, the Simon marked significant accomplishments in the field of smartphone development. It introduced important aspects of the smartphone such as a graphical user interface (GUI), e-mail capability and basic software applications like calculators, address books and calendars. It also was the first cell phone capable of being programmed wirelessly over the air, greatly reducing the amount of time needed to program a cell phone when it was purchased. The Simon was taken off the market by early 1995, due in no small part to the fact that mobile networks weren’t capable of the high data transmission rates which make today’s smartphones much more productive.


Early Smartphones Evolve from the Personal Digital Assistant

Although Simon didn’t gain much traction in the consumer market, there was still great demand for portable handheld computing devices which could improve personal productivity. By the late 1990s, personal digital assistants (PDAs) would be marketed to consumers around the world as a useful electronic tool for staying organized.

The first major commercial success among PDAs was the PalmPilot, first released in March 1997 and the second generation of PDAs developed by former electronics firm Palm Inc. It sported a paltry 128 kilobytes of memory, a 16 megahertz processor and it ran on two AA batteries, as opposed to the rechargeable lithium ion batteries used in smartphones today. Palm developed a Palm OS mobile operating system including a suite of basic applications to run on the PalmPilot. A March 2004 issue of the Journal of Digital Imaging published an article which indicated that 25 million PDA units running Palm OS software had been sold within a few years, and Palm OS held 72 percent of the share of this market in 2001.

Today’s smartphone market began to naturally evolve out of the PDA market by the early 2000s and an early crossover in the field was the Ericsson R380. Significantly, the Ericsson R380 was the first mobile phone device to incorporate Symbian OS, the first commercially successful operating system developed for mobile phones. The R380 also incorporated web browser, built-in security and unified messaging features, including short message service (SMS) text transmission. Symbian OS would continue to be a major player in the mobile operating software sector and hit its peak market share in the second quarter of 2009, when it was the operating software for 51 percent of smartphones sold to consumers. As of January 2017, Symbian OS only held 0.84 percent of the smartphone operating system market.

Another important early player in the smartphone sector was the Handspring Treo 180, a second-generation device from Handspring which was first released to consumers in 2002. It weighed less than six ounces, had a full keyboard and had smart search functions, offering suggestions based on what a user had begun to type into a search bar. The Treo 180 functioned using Palm OS and was the first device with messaging and Internet access programmed directly into the operating system.

Steve Jobs, Google’s Android, and the Thermonuclear War That Wasn’t

At Macworld 2007, Jobs identified the Treo as one of the smartphones which the iPhone was designed to completely replace with its simpler touch interface and higher processing capacity. Jobs’ announcement kicked off a flurry of activity in the field. In November 2007, Google announced that it was releasing Android, a mobile operating system that would come to be a major nemesis for Jobs and the iPhone, so much so that Jobs is famously quoted with saying that “I will spend my last dying breath if I need to, and I will spend every penny of Apple’s $40 billion in the bank, to right this wrong. I’m going to destroy Android, because it’s a stolen product. I’m willing to go thermonuclear war on this.”

Unfortunately, Jobs was never able to rain down fire and brimstone from the sky in quite the way that he would have hoped. Apple still maintains a lead in smartphone sales as the 78.3 million units sold in the fourth quarter of 2016 was the greatest sales volume for any single company. The open architecture of Android, however, allows it to be incorporated into phones from a wide array of developers, and Samsung only just trailed by less than a million units in 2016’s fourth quarter, selling 77.5 million. So while Apple remains a consumer favorite, Android has a much wider base of manufacturers making phones for the operating system. 


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Join the Discussion

3 comments so far.

  • [Avatar for angry dude]
    angry dude
    March 6, 2017 10:45 am

    IPhone is an agglomeration and integration of hundreds of distinct components

    Just take a look at the list of component suppliers (dozens if not hundreds, but they change over time)

    But the lemming population has a notion that Steve Jobs “invented” IPhone (dude didn’t even write code)
    Yes, he “played the orchestra” well, but “inventing” IPhone.. just give me a break

  • [Avatar for Night Writer]
    Night Writer
    March 5, 2017 09:40 am

    Verizon had a really good smart phone too in 1995, but it had power problems.

    The reality is that the iphone put everything together at just the right time and did it well. Lots of IP in the iPhone.

  • [Avatar for Night Writer]
    Night Writer
    March 5, 2017 08:55 am

    Pretty interesting. The iphone was no surprise to anyone that worked in this industry. I worked in this industry in the mid to late 1990’s. Nokia had a pretty advanced smart phone they showed off at the CeBIT back in 1998, but it was limited by the 64k download speed. Anyway, there were smartphones like the iPhone back in the late 1990’s (and the music playing device even with the same button) in the research labs. Everyone knew that as soon as the touchscreen got cheap enough and with enough resolution that an iphone type phone would take over. There were plenty of research products that were the iphone 5 to 10 years before the iphone.

    I often wonder why the CeBIT isn’t used more in patent litigation for finding prior art.