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The History of the Smartphone

Perhaps no other device in history has embedded itself in the lives of everyday consumers more than the smartphone. Ask almost anyone to forego their smartphone for a week and chances are that they’ll think you are insane. From chatting on Facebook to checking work email and receiving directions to ordering food, smartphones are used every day for a huge variety of tasks, even more so than a PC at times. But how did it all get started? Today we will take a look at smartphone history, starting from the very early stages to Android and iOS.

The world’s first smartphone

Depending on your definition, the history of the smartwatch can be pinpointed at various stages. As we understand the term today, however, I would wager that the most fitting device for our purposes would be the IBM Simon which was released in 1994. The Simon Personal Communicator was the first device to feature telephone and PDA elements. The term ‘smartphone’ did not actually exist then but few would contest that Simon was, indeed, a smart phone. It was years ahead of its time but its basic premise seems very familiar. Aside from its telephony features, Simon also featured many applications and services including email, calendar, calculator, address book, world time clock, notepad, multiple on-screen keyboards, and even the ability to send and receive faxes.

IBM Simon

Simon used ROM-DOS, a modified version of MS-DOS designed specifically for embedded systems. The very idea that a mobile phone could offer similar functionality to a computer was virtually unheard of at the time. And even though Simon only sold 50,000 units and lasted for a mere six months on the market, it certainly paved the way.

Ericsson, Nokia, Microsoft, and others

In 1996, Nokia introduced the Nokia 9000 Communicator. Widely considered as one of the first smartphones in the market, it ran on GEOS 3.0 and had some ground breaking applications. It could do everything that Simon could but had even more capabilities including a graphical web browser. The clamshell design that would dominate the market for years to come hid a full QWERTY keyboard. This was long before BlackBerry would immortalize the physical keyboard on mobile devices too.

Nokia 9000 Communicator

Ericsson was on a similar timeline in regards to in-house development. However, those prototypes were mostly discarded aside from the GS88, which was not released to a wide audience either. Instead, the Ericsson R380 launched in late 1999 was the very first device to be marketed as a ‘smartphone’. It was also the first mobile device to use Symbian OS. That operating system would continue to dominate the market until the very last quarter of 2010.

Ericsson R380

Microsoft had already started dabbling in handheld prototypes as early as 1990. However, the company did not have a clear vision and was mostly interested in porting a version of Windows into mobile devices. This led to the development of Windows Mobile in 2000 though no actual hardware was released until 2002. At the height of its popularity, Windows Mobile actually had the largest market share in the US.

Pocket PC 2002

Though these are some of the most important points in the history of the modern smartphone, there were several other companies that contributed in some part as well. Qualcomm’s own PDQ 800 was bulky and riddled with issues but it was still smart and launched in 1998. The Kyocera 6035 was the first smartphone to be tied to Verizon in 2001. Though their effect on everyday users was minimal, such devices heralded the rise of the smartphone market.

Mass adoption, iOS, and Android

The vast majority of those early smartphones did not make as much of a breakthrough as you might think. Very few people were actually interested in purchasing such devices. The very first devices to be massively adopted were developed by NTT DoCoMo in Japan. The phones used a mobile internet service known as i-mode. By the end of 2001, there were more than 40 million subscribers of the service nationwide.

In the US, things moved at a much slower pace. Mobile phones had big physical keyboards and stylus inputs and were mostly used for serious tasks. Overall, they were not a device that the everyday consumer required. They were tools for a job and not for entertainment. BlackBerry was the company to change all that. By 2006, BlackBerry was known as ‘CrackBerry’ in slang, precisely due to its addictiveness.

Even so, most mobile phones were still used by business people. In 2007, the landscape changed completely with the first iPhone. Apple’s device was innovative in many ways. For starters, it was a device aimed at the everyday user. Its touchscreen surface could be navigated with a finger and not a stylus like every other smartphone that came before. The marketing ingenuity of the company sparked the smartphone revolution and was a turning point for the market. The press release, which said that Apple was ‘reinventing the phone’, turned out to be highly accurate.

First iPhone

In the meantime, Andy Rubin was developing his own version of a mobile OS called Android. After being purchased by Google, the first Android phone was released in 2008. HTC was the first company to adopt the OS with the HTC Dream or G1 as it was known in the US. Both the iPhone and the HTC Dream were already considered innovative when they launched but few could have actually understood their future impact. Many people criticized the devices and believed they were severely lacking in comparison to existing platforms.

First Android

Of course, Google and Apple had other ideas in mind. For starters, Steve Jobs had already understood the appeal of the new kind of smartphone long before he actually presented the device in 2007. After the iconic conference, Apple knew that it had a winner on its hands and it focused its efforts on reproducing that success with similar devices such as the iPod Touch.

On the other hand, Google’s Android had a much slower start. The first couple of years were rocky but there were those who believed that the open nature of the OS would be an advantage in the long term. In 2010, those ideas were justified as Android’s popularity skyrocketed. In the last quarter of 2010, Symbian was dethroned from its leading position in the mobile market share. By the start of 2012, Android officially ruled the smartphone market share worldwide. Even though other companies have tried to entered the fray, such as Nokia and Microsoft with Windows Mobile, iOS and Android continue to dominate the market.

Closing remarks

For anyone who was not old enough to remember life before smartphones, imagining a world without them would be pretty hard. What’s even more staggering is the fact that such devices were largely niche items a mere 10 years ago. The mass adoption of the smartphone is undoubtedly a historical landmark. As we develop better and better technology, a similar event might be upon us sooner rather than later. A close look at smartphone history can reveal similar trends, after all.

Do you think that wearables and other similar devices could one day be as widely adopted as the smartphone? Share your opinion with us in the comments!


  1. Seems odd to not even mention Palm.

    Also, not technically a smartphone, but I think the 1999 Star Tac Clip On Organizer is worth a mention.

  2. Hi Kary,

    I wanted to only focus on devices that included full or nearly-full telecommunications capabilities. I think there’s a certain definition that people perceive when they think of smartphones nowadays so I wanted to stay within that framework. The next entry of this content series will most likely revolve around the tablet and Palm will definitely receive the mention it deserves.

    As for the Organizer, the same reason applies though I’ll admit you might have a point there!

  3. FYI, I was thinking of the Palm smartphones. My first smartphone was a Palm Centro because it had real IR, not the remote control IR of some current smartphones.

  4. I’m surprised at the omission of the entire Symbian era after the first Communicator, which culminated in the Nokia N95, a full-featured smartphone that dominated the (still-small) global smartphone market at the eve of the iPhone revolution. It supported multimedia, a full browser, and downloadable apps, plus WLAN, GPS, and maps.

  5. Good article guys, you are missing the HP connection, this was the basis for the Nokia communicator which attached a HP PDA to the Nokia 2110 if I remember correctly, Nokia did proof of concept then full integration. I was Head of Devices at Vodafone UK/Global so from 1993 to 2006 was very well placed to view and shape in some respects the Smartphone industry. Psion also led then fell away. Those were certainly fast moving times!

  6. Not sure I understand this. I can assure you, the Treo 180 fit the modern conception of a smartphone with full telecommunications capabilities. The operating system was primitive compared to modern standards, but it certainly had all the hallmarks of a smartphone. You could even say the same thing about the Danger HipTop. That’s interesting as it was what Rubin was working on before Android.


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