The History of Mobile Phones From 1973 To 2008: The Handsets That Made It ALL Happen

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A LOT can happen in 40 years. But when it comes to technology, 40-years is like going back to the days of Moses or the Roman Empire. Case in point: the mobile phone –– and, more recently, the rise of mobile internet communications, social networks, and super-fast internet.

But what were the phones that made it happen; who were the pioneering brands that made today’s handsets possible; and which phone, out of the thousands launched since the 1980s, was the most important? Answer: quite a few.

But first: a history lesson.

The world’s first mobile phone call was made on April 3, 1973, when Martin Cooper, a senior engineer at Motorola, called a rival telecommunications company and informed them he was speaking via a mobile phone. The phone Cooper used – if you could call it that – weighed a staggering 1.1kg and measured in at 228.6x127x44.4mm. With this prototype device, you got 30 minutes of talk-time and it took around 10 hours to charge.

The First Ever Mobile Phone…

history of mobile phones

In 1983, Motorola released its first commercial mobile phone, known as the Motorola DynaTAC 8000X. The handset offered 30 minutes of talk-time, six hours standby, and could store 30 phone numbers. It also cost £2639 ($3995).

In the very early days of the mobile space handsets weren’t designed with consumers in mind. You’d need a couple of thousand pounds to get hold of one, and even then performance wasn’t great. Back then, mobile phones were designed with the likes of Gordon Gecko in mind, businessmen-types that drove big Jags and flew Concord. Not your average Joe.

Even at the start of the 1990s this was still the case despite Nokia and NEC entering the fray. Nokia’s first ‘handheld’ mobile phone, the Mobira Cityman 900, launched in 1989 and weighed just 800g – a huge improvement over 1982’s 9.8kg Mobira Senator model.

Looking for a unique and funky case that channels all the hallmarks of iconic, retro design from back in the day? I was too. And that’s how I came across Zazzle, which has loads of awesome case designs for iPhones of all shapes and sizes.

I came across the site by accident; I was looking at doing a feature on the best retro phone cases you can buy at the moment and wanted to find a decent retailer for it. I found Zazzle and even ended up buying one myself!

If you’re looking for something a lot these lines be sure to check them out.

1990 to 1995 represented an upward swerve in design and portability, with mobile devices gradually starting to appear in the hands of average consumers for the first time. By the late-1990s, mobile devices were fast becoming the norm thanks to the following handsets…

1989 – MOTOROLA MICROTAC 9800X

history of mobile phones

The Motorola MicroTAC had a pretty long shelf life; it was first introduced in 1989, but then went through a few changes that moved it from an analogue phone to a GDM-compatible handset in 1994.

It was eventually succeeded by Motorola’s StarTAC in 1996, which was one of the first “true” mobile-capable phones ever released.

1992 – MOTOROLA INTERNATIONAL 3200

history of mobile phones

The Motorola International 3200 was the world’s first digital mobile phone. Like the StarTAC, it was GSM compatible. However, it was never certified, so it could be be officially linked to a mobile network.

The phone itself, which is still available in some places, as a collectors item, will actually work on 900MHz network. You’ll just have to track one down, and that will probably be pretty tricky (and kinda expensive too!).

1992 – NOKIA 1011

history of mobile phones

The Nokia 1011 was the world’s first mass-produced mobile phone. It could hold 99 numbers and was originally released in November 1992.

Because of the technology inside the phone, the price of the Nokia 1011 was exceptionally high – around €1796 in today’s money!

The Nokia 1011 was able to send and receive SMS messages, making it the world’s first SMS-capable phone.

1993 – BELLSOUTH/IBM SIMON PERSONAL COMMUNICATOR

history of mobile phones

The IBM Simon was built by IBM and was one of the first instances of a head held, touchscreen device. Originally released in 1994, the IBM Simon went on to sell around 50,000 units total, between 1994 and 1995.

The battery on this bad boy, however, only lasted an hour! And you thought your iPhone was bad…

1996 – Nokia 8810 (AKA: “The Matrix Phone”)

history of mobile phones

The Nokia 8810 was designed to be the most luxurious phone of all time. Nokia pulled out all the stops with this one, adding in the world’s first internal antenna and support for 250 contacts.

The 8810 would also connect to early 2G networks, and it was also the phone used by Neo’s crew in the blockbuster film, The Matrix, making it a true classic in every sense of the word.

1996 – NOKIA 9000 COMMUNICATOR

history of mobile phones

The Nokia Communicator 9000 is basically the world’s first smartphone, as it ran on an Intel 24 MHz 1386 CPU and also had 8MB of RAM. It was heavy too, and it had a full QWERTY keyboard.

It could do email, texts and make calls – three things that hardly any of the competition could manage in the mid-90s.

The Nokia Communicator cost £1000 when it was first released in the UK.

1997 – Nokia 6110

history of mobile phones

The Nokia 6110 was the first mobile phone to use an ARM processor, and was just one of a long line of 6xxx series phones from the Finnish company.

The handset was targeted at the consumer market, and featured things like improved call-quality and extended battery life. It was also the first phone with an advanced user interface, a feature that would soon become standard.

Nokia 6110 Features:

  • Three games: Memory, Snake, Logic
  • Calculator, clock and calendar
  • Currency converter
  • Works as a pager
  • Profile settings
  • 4 colours

1997 – Motorola StarTAC

history of mobile phones

Inspired by the communicator from Star Trek, this bad boy was the world’s first clamshell handset. Another first for Motorola.

1998 – Nokia 5110

history of mobile phones

Excellent battery, slim by 1998’s standards, and it also featured Snake. What more could a 90s consumer want?

Nokia 5110 Features:

  • Dimensions: 48 x 132 x 31 mm
  • Battery: 900 mAh NiMH
  • Display: 47 x 84 B/W

1998 – NOKIA 9110I

history of mobile phones

The Nokia 9210i was the successor model to the Nokia 9000 Communicator and it featured a TFT color display, a 32-bit ARM processor and the first instance of Symbian OS on a mobile phone.

The handset was used by Val Kilmer in 1997’s remake of The Saint, as well as Anthony Hopkins and Chris Rock in Bad Company.

1999 – BlackBerry 850

history of mobile phones

The BlackBerry 850 was the first handset released under the BlackBerry brand. Ten years later, RIM would be crowned the fastest growing company on the planet. And we all know what happened post-2010.

2000 – Nokia 3310

history of mobile phones

The phone that all of your mates had at school – if you went to school in the mid-to-late-90s, that is. Even in 2013, many regard the 3310 as one of the best mobile devices ever created. Some even say it’s indestructible.

2002 – Samsung SGH-T100

history of mobile phones

Before Samsung took over the world it made handsets like this, which was the first phone ever to use a thin-film transistor active matrix LCD display.

2003 – BlackBerry 5810

history of mobile phones

It didn’t have a built in speaker so you had to plug headphones in to make phone calls, but the BlackBerry 5810 did have email and a QWERTY keyboard.

2003 – NOKIA 1100

history of mobile phones

Over 250 MILLION Nokia 1100s were sold during its time on market, making it one of the most successful phone releases of all time. Even by today’s standards.

The Nokia 1100 was designed to be basic; it didn’t feature a lot of the fancy stuff other Nokia phones had, and this made it very attractive to more basic users.

The Nokia 1100 was officially developed for emerging countries like Nigeria and India.

Nokia’s one billionth phone was sold in 2005, as a result of this handset’s release.

2003 – NOKIA N-GAGE

history of mobile phones

The Nokia N-GAGE was the first ever “gaming phone”. It ran on Symbian and featured a rather unique design, whereby the keys were set out on the side of the display.

The phone was designed in an attempt to lure away gamers from Nintendo’s Game Boy Advanced. The handset also included suppport for apps and also MP3, making it a true smartphone in every sense of the word.

On sale between 2003 and 2005, Nokia sold about three million units of this device.

2003 – PALM ONE TREO 600

history of mobile phones

The TREO 600 was probably the world’s first smartphone, as it actually allowed for multi-tasking; you could check the calendar while making a call, for instance.

The result of this phone saw the formation of Palm as a company too, following the merger of Handspring and PalmONE into Palm Inc.

2004 – Motorola Razr V3

history of mobile phones

Motorola shifted over a 130 million of its ‘fashion’ phone between the years 2004 and 2006, making it the best-selling clamshell handset in history.

2005 – BlackBerry 7270

history of mobile phones

First BlackBerry handset to feature Wi-Fi, and one of the main reasons for widespread CrackBerry addiction.

2006 – Nokia N95

history of mobile phones

A true smartphone, one that ran on Symbian, packed in a 332MHz Texas Instruments CPU, and feature 160MB of RAM. It also featured a decent 5-megapixel camera, Bluetooth, and Wi-Fi.

2007 – LG Shine

history of mobile phones

LG Shine Features:

  • Dimensions: 99.8 x 50.6 x 13.8mm
  • Weight: 118g
  • Operating system: Java MIDP 2.0
  • CPU: ARM9 115 MHz
  • Memory: 50 MB Internal, microSD (TransFlash) external memory card slot
  • Battery: 800mAh Li-Ion
  • Display: 240 x 320, 2.2-inch Display 262K-color TFT LCD
  • Camera: 2.0 megapixels + Autofocus

2008 – Apple iPhone 3G

history of mobile phones

This one needs no introduction and is largely responsible for changing the face of the mobile space forever. Apple’s iPhone popularised applications with millions of consumers, helped make touchscreen interfaces the norm, and broke new ground for overall design and finish.

The iPhone 3G was the sharpest tip of the mobile stick, but from here on out things would begin progressing even faster.

For more information on our #1 picks for Apple’s current best iPhone, check out our Guide To The Best iPhone (spoiler: it’s not the current flagship model).

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