While it seems like everywhere you look today there is someone staring at their phone, the creation of consumer-friendly mobile phones wasn't that long ago.
In less than a century, mobile phones have gone from hardwired devices tied to vehicles and limited to a few callers at a time to pocket-friendly computers that can place a video call around the world in seconds.
Let's look back at cell phones history and take a glimpse into the future to see what mobile technology might have in store.
Mobile Phones: A Timeline of 100 Years of Progress
1920s to early-1970s:
The earliest mobile phones were car phones and train phones.
Mostly used for business and military use through the 1940s, these large, boxy phones required substantial power and we wired into vehicles or attached to large battery packs.
They only supported limited frequencies so few people could place calls at once. Even then, most still used manual switchboards to connect calls. So they weren't much like even the earliest truly mobile phones.
However, they laid the foundation for the future technology and proved the concept of using a phone that wasn't hardwired into a phone booth, building, or other stationary location.
Martin Cooper of Motorola places a call to Bell using the first truly mobile phone prototype. The prototype weighed 2.42 lbs -- slightly less than a 13-inch Macbook Air and 5 times the weight of the iPhone X. The battery was good for 30 mins of talk time after a 10 hour charge.
The first “1G” analogue cellular network debuts. Calls are not encrypted and required significant amounts of spectrum to maintain. This meant that only a few people could place calls at a time. This limited it mostly to business and luxury usage.
This year also saw the release of the first commercially available mobile phone -- the Motorola DynaTAC 8000X. Priced at $3995 at release -- nearly $10k price adjusted for 2018. While slightly more portable than the initial prototype, it still required a 10 hour charge for only 30 minutes of talk time.
The debut of Nokia as a mobile phone company brings more competition to the phone market. During this time, phones -- such as the Nokia Cityman 100 ETACS in the picture above -- start seeing weight and size reductions. Despite these improvements, phones remained expensive and were mostly used for business communications. They were also far from pocket-friendly.
The first 2G GSM mobile network is launched by Radiolinja of Finland.
1992 - 1993:
The first SMS messages are sent. A group sent machine-to-machine messages in the UK in 1992 while a group in Finland sent the first person-to-person messages in 1993.
After nearly 25 years in the business and government sectors, mobile phones come to the consumer market.
Both used an external antenna, used digital signals to transmit, featured a talk time of 3.25 hours, and included games and a few basic apps -- such as a clock, calendar, and SMS. They were also one of the first phones that were available in a range of colours or offered customized face plates to allow consumers to personalize their phone.
This year also saw the first flip phone -- the Motorla StarTAC -- weighing just 88 grams, the phone also featured one of the first optional lithium ion packs ever produced for mobile phones. At release, it was priced at $1000.
Radiolinja debuts the first downloadable phone content in the form of ringtones.
This year also sees the first color display on a mobile phone from the Siemens S10. Though with a 97-by-54 pixel display, it was far from what we enjoy today.
The Nokia 7710 includes the first mobile web browser. Unfortunately, its small monochrome display didn't make it very useful.
More notable that year was the debut of BlackBerry.
The Blackberry 850 was actually an email-enabled pager and not capable of voice calls. But it included a full QWERTY keyboard and 4MB of internal storage. It weighed roughly the same as an iPhone 3G.
BlackBerry devices wouldn't gain the ability to place calls until 2002 with the release of the BlackBerry 5810.
The Nokia 3310 debuts the candy bar format and drops the external antenna for an internal design that is still the basis of antennas in phones today.
Selling more than 126 million units, it was extremely popular and there's a good chance you can still find one kicking around thrift stores or dusty attics today.
This year also marked the release of the first camera phone.
The Sharp J-SH04 was only released in Japan. Its 0.1 megapixel camera won't win any awards either. However, the concept was the start of one the biggest features to smartphones to date -- mobile photography.
Lastly, this year saw the use of the first mobile ad -- a trend that now powers a huge number of free or freemium apps on the mobile market. It was used to support a daily news SMS service by Radiolinja.
The launch of the first 3G network by NTT DoCoMo provided higher transfer speeds and made true mobile web browsing a possibility.
By 2003, 3G networks would be available in major countries around the world.
Samsung releases the SGH-T100 -- the first mobile phone with a TFT LCD display. As a full color display, the 128-by-160 pixel screen roughly the same resolution as what Facebook recommends for your profile image today.
Motorola releases the Razr V3 -- the first premium “fashion phone.” At nearly 14mm thick, it was roughly twice as thick as the iPhone X and featured a large display and flip design.
It was also one of the first all aluminum mobile phones released and remains one of the most popular flip phones of all times.
BlackBerry releases the 7270 -- the first phone to support Wi-Fi. It ran on 802.11b and relied on VOIP for calls.
As the start of the smartphone revolution, the phone would go on to sell 50-million plus units between 2007 and 2010.
It's the first phone to offer a full colour touchscreen display and modern apps as we know them today.
This year also brought the first standardization of charging adapters.
Nokia, Samsung, Motorola, Sony Ericsson, and LG all agree to shift to micro-USB for charging on new devices ending the need to constantly search for funky adapters to charge your phone.
It features a swing out keyboard, navigation ball, physical navigation buttons, and a touchscreen display.
The first 4G networks debut providing true broadband speeds to the mobile market. Carriers begin treating voice calls like any other audio or data and allow the use of data and voice at the same time.
Samsung releases the Galaxy S -- the phone that will start the popular series that still remains near the top of sales charts for flagship releases. It featured a 4-inch 480p display, 1Ghz processor, 5MP rear camera, 0.3MP front camera, and 2 to 16GB of internal storage.
HTC releases the Evo 3D -- the first mainstream dual-lens camera. However, the initial dual lens models didn't focus on bokeh effects and optical zoom -- they were all about 3D images.
The scanner could only store two fingerprint profiles and required you to swipe your finger across the scanner instead of pressing it. Reviewers loved the feature.
The release of the Samsung Gear VR brings mobile VR into the spotlight.
Google Daydream sets VR Standards for Android and helps to streamline headset design and device specs for a consistent experience across multiple VR handsets and platforms.
This year also saw the rise of dual-lens phones for mobile photography. Both the LG G5 and Huawei P9 wowed reviewers and set the stage for the current lens technology used in 2018's most popular flagship releases.
Lastly, Apple ditched the 3.5mm headphone jack in favor of a USB Type-C adapter on the iPhone 7 -- a move that's still hotly contested.
Samsung's domination on the phablet market goes up in smoke as battery flaws led to Galaxy Note 7 batteries catching fire while charging. After confirming the issue, they issued one of the largest phone recalls in history.
This year also saw the debut of Apple's Face ID technology in the iPhone X. It replaces the need for fingerprint scanners adding a highly secured and accurate method of face detection and identification using an array of cameras and sensors.
Where We Go Next
Mobile technology continues to advance at an astounding rate.
While it's difficult to predict where trends will put us in the next 10 to 20 years, there are some current trends and developments on the horizon that can give us clues to the next big trends.
Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, and Artificial Intelligence
As interfaces become more voice visual driven and AI assistants automate common tasks, we’ll likely do less interacting with touch keyboards and start using our phones themselves to interact with and explore the world around us.
Powered by more powerful voice assistance and an ever-growing trove of data, we can expect more voice controls and context-aware phone functions that help make them more useful based on what's going on around you, what you might be doing, or where you're located.
Curved, Flexible, and Folding Displays
Mobile screens already offer up to 4K resolutions and stunning visuals.
But in the race to create larger, more immersive displays, you can only add so much screen real estate before phones get too large.
This means that manufacturers will need to turn to curved, flexible, or folding displays to cram even larger screens onto a reasonably sized mobile phone.
Already, big names have patented different technologies, including Samsung and Apple, but for now, actual uses for the technology remain speculation.
5G: The Next Evolution of Mobile Networks
Telecom Times reports that research points to an expected 9% support for 5G networks by 2021.
Much like the difference in speeds between 3G and 4G networks, then 4G and 4G LTE, the jump to 5G is expected to bring significant boosts to both signal quality and possible transfer speeds for networks around the world.
Increased bandwidth and better coverage will continue to push phones as the central hub of daily life and allow them to further replace PCs for communication, productivity, and entertainment.
Current lithium-ion batteries have reached a point of extreme efficiency. However, like with screens, manufacturers have no real way of increasing battery capacity without also increasing battery size.
While Fast Charging has made it easier to keep your battery topped up when possible, the battery still ultimately dictates so much about both the design of your phone and how you use it.
New battery technologies, such as those being researched at the Illinois College of Engineering, will allow more storage, faster charging, and a completely different footprint for batteries.
Between changes to screen technology and batteries, there's no telling what the mobile devices of the future might look like.
Continued Scrutiny of Private and Healthy Use of Mobile Technology
2018 has been a big year for both privacy concerns and looking at how mobile phones are impacting the physical and mental health of users. That doesn't account for concerns such as government surveillance or hackers.
As both researchers and the general public become more aware of the data collected by mobile phones, methods used to keep people using their phones, and the ways that companies protect (or fail to protect) all of the sensitive data stored in our mobile devices, the scrutiny into these areas of interest is likely to increase.
How this will impact phone usage and design is uncertain, but it will remain a critical concern if we hope to integrate future mobile technologies into our lives in a healthy way.
Further Blurring of the Difference between Offline and Online Life
All of this combines to create an overarching trend -- as connections become faster and more common, tech becomes more integrated into our lives, and VR and AR create more compelling changes to our physical world, the lines between online and offline life will continue to blur.
Whether our phones are used to interact with the digital or physical worlds, they'll likely be tied into this trend in a major way.
While we don't expect to be living in a virtual world like those of Ready Player One or The Matrix in the near future, technology to create such things is growing at a rapid pace -- and mobile technology continues to be a major part of this.
Further Reading: A Brief History of Telecommunications
'Telecommunication' is a term coming from Greek and meaning 'communication at distance' through signals of varied nature coming from a transmitter to a receiver.
In order to achieve effective communication, the choice of a proper mean of transport for the signal has played (and still plays) a fundamental role.
In ancient times, the most common way of producing a signal would be through light (fires) and sound (drums and horns).
However, those kinds communications were insecure and certainly left room to improvement as they did not permit message encryption nor a fast transmission of information on a large scale.
The true 'jump' in terms of quality came with the advent of electricity.
Electromagnetic energy, in fact, is able to transport information in an extremely fast way (ideally to the speed of light), in a way that previously had no equals in terms of costs reliability.
Therefore, we may say that the starting point of all modern telecommunications was the invention of the electric cell by Alessandro Volta (1800).
It was shortly thereafter that the first experiments on more advanced communication system begun.
In 1809, Thomas S. Sommering proposed a telegraphic system composed of a battery, 35 wires (one for each letter and number) and a group of sensors made of gold, which were submerged in a water tank: when a signal was passing from one of those wires, electrical current would split water molecules, and small oxygen bubbles would be visible near that sensor.
Many other experiments were soon to follow: Wheatstone, Weber and Karl Friedrich Gauss tried to further develop Sommering's idea in a product that could be mass-distributed, but their efforts were without success.
For the next step we would have to wait until 1843, the year in which Samuel Morse proposed a way to assign each letter and number to a ternary code (point, line, and space).
This way turned out to be extremely convenient and more affordable than Sommering's idea, especially in terms of reduced circuitry (you wouldn't need anymore a wire for each symbol).
Meanwhile, technology became advanced enough to find a way to convert those signals in audible (or sometimes graphic) signals.
The combination of these two factors quickly determined the success of Morse's symbol code, which we can still find used today.
The system was further developed and improved in the following years by Hughes, Baudot, and Gray (1879), who theorized other possible codes (Gray's code has still applications today in the ICT industry and in barcodes technology).
However, the telegraph could still be used just by trained personal and in certain buildings like offices, so it could only be used by a limited amount of people.
Research of the time therefore took another direction and aimed at producing a machine that could transmit sounds, rather than just signals.
The first big step in this direction was the invention of transducers which could transform an acoustic signal into an electric one and vice versa (microphone and receiver) with acceptable information loss, in 1850.
Since Meucci didn't have the money to patent his invention (the cost was $250 at the time), Bell managed to register it first.
Both with telegraphs and telephones, the need for a distributed and reliable communication network soon became evident.
Routing issues were first solved by means of human operators and circuit commutation: the PSTN (Public Switched Telephone Network) was born.
However, this system didn't guarantee the privacy and secrecy of conversations, and efforts towards the development of an automatic circuit commutation were made.
In 1899, Almon Strowger invented an electro-mechanic device simply known as 'selector', which was directed by the electrical signals coming from the calling telephone device, achieved through selection based on geographical prefixes.
Many other innovations were soon to come:
- In 1885, Guglielmo Marconi invented the 'wireless telegraph' (radio);
- In 1920, valve amplifiers made their first appearance;
- In 1923, the television was invented;
- In 1947, the invention of transistors gave birth to the field of electronics;
- In 1958, the first integrated circuit was built;
- In 1969, the first microprocessor was invented.
With the last step, electronics becomes more than ever a fundamental part in the telecommunication world, at first in the transmission, and soon also in the field of circuit commutation.
Moreover, in 1946 the invention of ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer) starts the era of informatics.
Informatics and telecommunications inevitably begun to interact, as it was to be expected: the first made fast data processing possible, while thanks to second the data could then be sent to a distant location.
The development of microelectronics and informatics radically revolutionized techniques both in telecommunication networks and performance requirements for the networks.
Starting from 1938, an innovative technology called PCM (Pulse Code Modulation) started to grow more and more popular.
This technology could achieve the digital transmission of a voice signal by digitally encoding and decoding, rather than by means of transducers: however, PCM was first used on a large scale only in 1962 in the United States (the so-called 'T1').
During the mid Sixties Paul Baran, a RAND Corporation employee working on communication problems concerning the US Air Force, first gave birth to the concept of 'packet switching network' rather than the conventional idea of circuit commutation network.
According to this model, there should be no hierarchy in the nodes of a network, but each node should rather be connected to many others and be able to decide (and, in case of need, modify) the packet routing.
Each packet is a bulk of data which consist of two main parts, a 'header' containing routing information and a 'body' containing the actual data.
In this context Vincent Cerf, Bob Kahn and others developed, starting from the 70s, the TCP/IP protocol suite, which made possible communication of computers and heterogeneous machines through a series of physical and logical layers. Packet switching network and TCP/IP were later chosen by the military project ARPANET.
The rest of the story is widely known: in 1983, ARPANET became available to universities and research centers, among which NSFNET (National Science Foundation + NET), which finally gave birth to the Internet.
In the latest years, the importance of the Internet has been constantly growing.
The high flexibility given by the TCP/IP suite and the ISO/OSI protocols provide a strong foundation on which communication among devices of different kind -- be it a laptop or a cell phone, an iPod or a GPS navigator -- has finally been made simple and easy to achieve.