Smartphones turn 20

November 11, 2014 : TECHFacebooktwittergoogle_plusredditlinkedinmail

Smartphones turn 20

By today's standards, the IBM Simon was hardly very 'smart', but neither was it dumb. In fact, despite appearing little more than a cumbersome chunky black box, the handset, which went on sale in August 1994, could not only make phone calls, it could take notes, page messages and, most importantly, send emails.
 
Releasing the product onto a largely unimpressed world, IBM launched a new era in telecommunications. In fact, while it may not have been labelled a 'smartphone' at the time, the Simon was the first such device to be offered to everyday consumers and marked the start of two decades of technological evolution, a period that has seen internet-enabled phones become not only more compact and powerful, but everyday essentials rather than toys for the rich.

 
The device never really took off, which is hardly surprising given it looked and weighed like a brick, ran through batteries in super-quick time and came with a hefty price tag.
 
Instead, the march towards the smartphones of today was largely driven by IBM's European rivals, first in the shape of the Nokia 9000 Communicator, a big, heavy black-and-white screened handset running off nothing more powerful than an Intel 386 processor.
 
Then, just months after, 1997 saw the launch of the Ericsson GS88, the first device to be labelled explicitly as a 'smartphone'. Just as with the Nokia handset, it was a relatively simple affair, driven by a low-power processor, but it did have a full Qwerty keyboard, giving users the ability to email on the move. Or rather, it would have given users the chance to stay connected on the go had it made it past the prototype stage. As it was, the Ericsson has only really been popular among telecoms enthusiasts, many of whom regard it as a seminal step forward in the advancement of smartphone technology.
 
After humble beginnings, the market starts booming
 
As with most other areas of technology, once it was clear that there was a market for phones that could do more than make calls and send texts, evolution was impressively swift.
 
Before the turn of the millennium, the PDA had appeared, with Qualcomm and Mitsubishi breaking new boundaries, not least by fitting their handsets with specialist operating systems, including Palm and Microsoft Windows.
 
Then, over the first few years of the new millennium, rival companies competed among themselves to offer colour screens, faster processors and, perhaps most importantly for consumers, longer-lasting batteries. While most advances were relatively minor, the launch of the first BlackBerry phone in 2002 arguably changed everything. Beating off tough competition from the Palm 5810, the BlackBerry was embraced by business users, thanks to its simplistic design, ease of use and excellent connectivity. In fact, the model, which was continuously updated by makers Research in Motion was almost peerless in the smartphone market until 2007, the year the Apple iPhone was released.
 
The iPhone converts the masses
 
Despite being dismissed by Apple's rivals as too fancy and too expensive, the sleek-looking handset captured the world's imagination, introducing millions to the concept of smartphones and converting countless sceptics into tech enthusiasts.
 
By 2008, Apple had overtaken Research in Motion, with a 15 per cent share of the global market compared to its Canadian rival's 13 per cent, a massive power shift in the telecoms work and one that continues to this day.
 
However, Apple has not always had its own way. Just a year after the first iPhone was launched, the first Android devices were on the market, giving consumers a wide range of alternatives to the Apple product, some good, some terrible. The Android operating system was embraced by the likes of Google, who launched their own smartphone in 2010, the same year Microsoft launched its Windows Phone.
 
This opening up of the market also enabled a number of new firms to become big players, with the likes of HTC leading the Asian sector's fight for supremacy, largely by offering cutting-edge technology at a fraction of the price of their long-standing rivals.
 
Smartphones now more popular than PCs
 
In 2011, just 17 years after the release of the IBM Simon, it was announced that smartphone sales had outstripped computer sales for the first time. In less than a generation, the smartphone had gone from being an impractical toy for millionaires to an essential item for people in every corner of the world.
 
Curiously, however, after two decades of consumers snapping up the latest and fanciest gadgets, it appears that growing numbers are being won over by simplicity. Indeed, the latest market research suggests that, far from being wowed by ongoing advances, users are turning their backs on apps and instead using their phones for little more than texts, instant messaging and, yes, making telephone calls.

 

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