We’re all so used to smartphones being an integral part of our lives, but not long ago, this device did not exist.
So how did we get here? How did we go from a can on a string to having the whole world in the palm of our hand?
Join us as we take a journey through cell phone history and learn all about the evolution of this essential device.
The first portable cell phone was invented in 1973 by Motorola. On April 3, 1973, Motorola engineer Martin Cooper made the first-ever cell phone call on the DynaTAC 8000X. The prototype he used weighed 2.4 lb (1.1 kg) and measured 9.1 x 5.1 x 1.8 in (23 x 13 x 4.5 cm). This clunky device offered a talk time of just 30 minutes and required 10 hours to recharge. Before this, the closest that one could get to not being tied to a landline was owning a car phone.
The DynaTAC phone was priced at $3,995, which is the equivalent of $10,000 today.
Cell phones became popular during the cellular revolution that started in the 90s. In 1990, the number of mobile users was around 11 million, and by 2020, that number had risen to a whopping 2.5 billion.
Of course, during this time, we have seen the famous “brick” phones evolve to something much more impressive… but let’s see how exactly they evolved.
The first Siemens mobile phone was Siemens Mobiltelefon C1, which came in the form of a suitcase. Yes, you read that right. People had a cell phone that was actually a suitcase. After that, some more compact phones followed.
In 1987, Nokia launched their first mobile phone, the Mobira Cityman 900. The phone weighed only 800g (28 oz) including the battery, and was considered expensive and exclusive to those of a higher status.
A year later, in 1988, Samsung developed its first “handphone" — The SH-100. It was officially the first mobile phone to be designed and manufactured in Korea.
After many similar brick-style cell phones, Motorola innovated again by bringing the "flip" design to the market. Before Motorola’s MicroTAC model, most cell phones were bulky and usually installed in cars due to their size.
As we moved into the 90s, phone bodies became smaller and the antennas thinner. In 1992, the next big innovation came in the form of the Nokia 1011, which was the first mass-produced GSM (2G) phone.
That same year, the first-ever text message was also sent. It was sent by a developer to the company director at Vodafone’s office Christmas party. The text message simply said: “Merry Christmas!”
The first smartphone was introduced much sooner than a lot of people imagine. Released in 1994, IBM’s Simon was the first device to feature apps and a touchscreen, thus it is considered the world’s first smartphone.
Although this early smartphone never took off, “regular” cell phones continued to gain popularity while becoming more compact and varied in design. There were more flip phones, slider phones were introduced, and then Motorola innovated yet again.
Motorola StarTAC was the first clam-shell phone and the first phone to introduce vibration.
The first QWERTY cell phone was the Nokia Communicator 9000 released in 1996. Besides having a keyboard, the Communicator 9000 also introduced many business-related features such as email, web browsing, fax, word processing, and spreadsheets.
The first phone to appear without a visible external antenna was the Hagenuk GlobalHandy.
In 1998, Siemens launched a game-changer — Siemens S10 – the first cell phone to feature a color screen.
Another big event that year was the launch of the third-generation mobile network. It’s worth mentioning that custom ringtones were also released that same year, thus becoming the first downloadable content available for cell phones.
Again, Motorola made another leap forward by bringing us the Motorola Timeport, the first phone with the ability to work around the world.
Motorola wasn't the only company innovating this year; Nokia also released a device with a groundbreaking feature. The Nokia 7110 was the first cell phone to feature a WAP browser that allowed the user to browse the internet.
Not content to let Motorola and Nokia take all the glory in 1999, Samsung came out with a revolutionary phone of their own — the Samsung SPH-M100 Uproar. It combined the features of a cell phone with those of an MP3 player, thus providing the user with the option of playing music. The phone even had a dedicated centrally-located play/pause button.
Nokia’s 5210 was the first cell phone to feature a splash-proof case and it was one of the more popular models in those days.
That same year, the Benefon Esc! launched, thus becoming the first phone ever to feature GPS capabilities.
And yes, we have to mention everyone’s faves, the emojis, which were also invented that year.
The crown for the first camera phone is somewhat contested. Although some claim that it was the Sharp J-SH04, it was in fact another Japanese phone that launched a year prior — the Kyocera VP-210 VisualPhone. It featured a front-facing camera and only had enough memory to store 20 photos. If you want to learn more about camera phones and the timeline of cameras in general, check out our post about the history of photography.
Over the years that followed, other manufacturers began to release their own camera phones, which improved in both megapixel count and storage size.
By the turn of the millennium, phones had become even smaller and lighter. It was in the year 2000 that the Nokia 3310 was launched. As well as becoming one of the most iconic phones of all time, it remains one of the biggest-selling cell phones to this day.
The first phone containing all of these features was the Nokia 8310, and it didn’t come cheap. When it launched in 2001, the cell phone came at a cost of $500.
The first Bluetooth cell phone was the Ericsson T39, after which other manufacturers started introducing this technology as well.
The Nokia 7650 was the first mass-market Symbian OS cell phone and the first Nokia cell phone with a built-in camera.
Then in 2002, innovation came in the form of the Sanyo SCP-5300, a phone which allowed photos to be seen on the screen, rather than having to plug the device into a computer. This groundbreaking phone also featured dual color displays and a camera with flash.
And again, the phone kept getting smaller and more capable, with Nokia and Motorola dominating markets across the world.
The camera game also got a level-up with Nokia introducing the 7610, their first smartphone with a 1-megapixel camera. They also introduced the first true global roaming phone, the Nokia 6630.
The first waterproof phone popped up in 2005. This was the Casio G'zOne, which could sustain being submerged up to 1-meter depth.
One of the biggest events in cell phone history took place in 2007. The first iPhone, known as iPhone 2G, was launched and blew everyone away due to the removal of most physical hardware buttons in favor of a touch-based interface.
A year later, the first Android phone, the HTC Dream, was also launched. The introduction of the Android operating system was criticized due to its lack of functionality and third-party software, but was, nevertheless, considered innovative due to its notifications system and integration with Google's services.
The first release of the Long Term Evolution (LTE) standard was commercially deployed in Norway and Sweden in 2009 and has since become common throughout most parts of the world.
This same year, Samsung launched the GT-I7500, the first-ever Samsung Galaxy phone.
The first phone to come with the free Google Maps Navigator installed was the Motorola Droid which was also released that same year.
The following years saw further innovation.. Apple released the iPhone 4, which introduced the Retina display as well as FaceTime. It was also the first iPhone to have a front-facing camera.
In 2010, Samsung launched its new flagship — the Samsung Galaxy S. At the time, it was the thinnest smartphone at 9.9mm and had the fastest graphical processing.
This same year, Samsung also launched the first 4G smartphone — the Samsung SCH-R900.
Many other pioneering features came to market in 2010. Nexus S, the first Android smartphone with NFC launched, Moto Defy was released as the first water-resistant Android smartphone, and Samsung launched both the Samsung Note and 8-megapixel Galaxy II.
Motorola launched the Razr, which was, at the time, the thinnest phone at only 7.1 mm, and Apple launched the iPhone 4S featuring Siri, the first personal digital voice assistant on a smartphone.
Sony Ericsson went after the mobile gaming market and created the Sony Ericsson Xperia Play, a game-console-like phone focused on the gaming experience.
Motorola focused on adding security features and had released the Motorola Atrix, the first phone to feature a fingerprint sensor.
In 2011, Xiaomi launched their first phone — the Xiaomi Mi 1 — which was only available in Asian markets.
A year later, Samsung came out with the Galaxy S3, a phone with a personal voice assistant of their own, as well as novel features such as eye-tracking.
Around that same time, the innovative Nokia Lumia 920 (which ran on the now-forgotten Windows Phone OS) launched. This phone introduced a highly sensitive capacitive screen and wireless inductive charging and was the first to feature optical image stabilization (OIS).
In 2014, the OnePlus One was launched, followed by some innovation by Korean giants Samsung and LG. LG launched the G3, the first flagship with a QHD screen, while Samsung launched the Galaxy S5, the first smartphone to feature a heart rate monitor.
A year later, in 2015, they launched the Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge, the first phone with curved display edges that allowed additional functionality.
Google launched several Nexus phones such as the Nexus 5X and Nexus 6P, which would be followed by the first-ever phone designed completely by Google — the Google Pixel. It was lauded for its best-in-class camera and came with the bonus of unlimited cloud storage.
The same year, Apple launched the iPhone 7 Plus, which featured a dual-lens system, had no headphone jack, and was the first officially waterproof iPhone.
In 2017, the Asus Zenfone AR launched as the first phone with 8GB of RAM, and LG upped the display game by releasing the LG G6 smartphone featuring Dolby Vision.
Nokia also surprised the world with a remake of their iconic 3310, which shared the same design language of the original yet had modern features such as a camera and Bluetooth.
Perhaps of more importance to Apple fans, they also released the higher-end iPhone X, a smartphone that replaced the fingerprint sensor (Touch ID) with face unlock functionality (Face ID).
ZTE launched Axon M, a dual-screen smartphone that was definitely before its time. It even offered the possibility to use multiple apps simultaneously, which was revolutionary at the time.
2018 brought us the first triple camera smartphone, the Huawei P20 Pro, which had one 40 MP lens, one 20 MP lens, and one 8 MP lens.
Other flagship devices were released this year (including the Honor 10 and OnePlus 6) but perhaps the most innovative was the Vivo X20 Plus UD, which was the first smartphone to incorporate an in-screen fingerprint sensor.
A worthy mention must also go to the Red Hydrogen One, which had the ability to make “holographic” videos and photos, yet ultimately proved to be a flop.
This same year, Turing Space Industries launched the Hubble Phone — a cell phone inspired by the Hubble Space Telescope. The phone boasts, amongst other features, a built-in 15x optical zoom camera.
In 2019, the fifth-generation network was launched, and so were the first 5G phones. The next-generation network came with some bizarre controversies, which we covered here on our blog.
2019 was also marked by launches of the Galaxy S10, Huawei P30 Pro, OnePlus 7 Pro, Samsung Galaxy Fold, and Huawei Mate X, but also the Xiaomi Mi Note 10, which was the first smartphone to feature a 108 MP camera.
We're still in 2020, so it's very hard to say which phones will leave the biggest mark this year, but what we can say for certain is that 5G phones are taking over.
Folding display phones are still in their infancy, but it seems that manufacturers are definitely invested in making them mainstream. Companies such as Samsung, Motorola, and Huawei are gearing up to release the second generation of folding phones, but even the ones revealed so far, such as the Samsung Galaxy Flip Z 5G, have shown to be pretty impressive.
OnePlus, on the other hand, has taken a slightly different route and instead of creating a folding phone, they've launched their mid-ranger, the OnePlus Nord, in the first-ever AR launch which has proven to be a genius marketing strategy.
And Apple is also gearing up to join the AR game. It seems that the tech giant will be adding a LiDAR sensor to the iPhone 12, which will allow it to accurately measure depth and drastically improve performance in AR apps.
In addition to folding phones and augmented reality additions, we're seeing a rise in the popularity of gaming phones. The two that seem to be standing out in this category are the Lenovo Legion Duel and the Asus ROG Phone III.
2020 has also been marked by improvements in battery life and charging speeds. More and more phones now feature fast charging, which is sure to further improve in the upcoming years.
And since this year is far from over, we're sure to get a few more surprises by the end of it, but for now, this is where we are at.
We started the cell phone journey in 1973, and, 50 years later, look how far we've come! Amazing, isn't it?!
We hope that we've answered some important questions, such as when did cell phones come out, who invented them, etc.
And we're also interested to hear which part of this cell phone timeline had you feeling the most nostalgic and why.