Chapter 1. A Brief History of Mobile

I like to compare the history of the mobile industry to the work of Umberto Eco: you get what is going on, but it makes your head hurt in the process. The evolution of mobile networks, the devices that run on them, and the services we use every day have evolved at an amazing rate, from the early phones that looked more like World War II field radios to the ultra-sleek fashion statements of today.

If there is one basic principle about mobile, it is that everything is the way it is for a reason. It might not be a good reason, but a reason exists nonetheless. It is the history, or the context, of the medium that gives mobile designers and developers the patience and passion needed to deal with the frequent issues they face in the mobile ecosystem. The mobile industry is a difficult one to jump into without patience and passion.

This chapter briefly discusses the evolution of the mobile medium from the perspective of the device, the most universally identifiable facet of the mobile ecosystem.

In the Beginning

For those of us who are older—that is, over the age of 30—when we think of what a telephone is and try to picture it, we might think of the phone illustrated in Figure 1-1.

The telephone is undoubtedly one of the greatest inventions of mankind. It revolutionized communications, enabling us to reach across great distances and share thoughts, ideas, and dreams with our fellow man, making the world a much smaller place in the process. In fact, the telephone is probably one the most defining technologies of the twentieth century and the most commonly used electronic device in the world today.

For the vast majority of people around the world, the perception of what a “phone” is and what it can do hasn’t changed from this iconic image—something you hold up to your ear and talk into—but when those under the age of 20 picture a telephone, they might think of an image similar to the one shown in Figure 1-2.

The traditional telephone
Figure 1-1. The traditional telephone
A modern mobile phone
Figure 1-2. A modern mobile phone

Although the modern mobile phone is a distant cousin to the telephone, it is a communication and information device. It is nearly always connected to the Internet, even if you don’t have a web browser open. You can send and receive voice and text messages. You can purchase goods and services without opening your wallet. Plus, it can locate which street corner you are standing on and tell you what is nearby all in a fraction of an instant. Oh, did I forget to mention that you can talk to people, too?

In fact, the modern mobile phone is capable of doing nearly everything you can do with a desktop computer, but with the potential for more meaningful relevance to our daily activities. The mobile phone is not merely a telephone. In fact, modern mobile devices deliver on the long-overdue promises that technology will make our lives easier, but without the cable clutter that drives someone like my wife nuts.

Thinking of mobile devices more as personal computers and less as telephones is a difficult shift in perception. The mobile industry of today has somewhat of a split personality—each side with its own conflicting interests: the first half being the telecom infrastructure and the people who run it, required for everything to work but only focused on the network; and the other consisting of the devices we carry, focused on how and when we interact with the network. And yet a third personality is the Web, the repository of the world’s knowledge that we seek to use in the context of our daily activities.

Even the Web is divided within mobile, consisting of the “regular” or desktop web and the mobile web. The desktop web is made up of the sites and web applications designed for a browser running on desktop or laptop computers. In other words, the desktop context involves information that we access typically while stationary and sitting at our desk. The mobile web contains the sites and web applications designed for mobile devices, or the mobile context, which we can access anywhere at any time.

Technically speaking, it is all one Web, at least in terms of the technology that we use to publish information and knowledge. But these two mediums are very different and offer different value to the end user, based on their context—something we will talk about in more detail in Chapter 4.

The Evolution of Devices

Every story has a beginning, and mobile development is no different. Understanding context is something discussed often in this book, and I can think of no better place to start than to go down memory lane and give you the backstory, or historical context, of how we arrived at the mobile technologies of today.

Mobile technology has gone through many different evolutions to get to where it is today. In the industry, we often refer to these evolutions as “generations” or simply “G,” which refers to the maturity and capabilities of the actual cellular networks. The cellular network is only one element of the overall mobile ecosystem, something discussed in Chapter 2. To make sense of it all, you cannot rely on the common convention of network generations, as those milestones are too focused on the network and not the true cultural milestone that is shifting how people use technology.

Rather, you need to segment the history of mobile into five distinct eras of devices. Why the device? Over the history of mobile technology, we’ve seen an interesting phenomenon. Every now and again a device comes along that changes everything. It might not be the fastest or bleeding-edge technology, but it might just be the right solution at the time. It packages all the current capabilities and standards into something people are willing to add to their lives. It opens people’s eyes to the potential of mobile, starting with the early days of simply being able to make a phone call from anywhere to today’s pocket personal computers.

The Brick Era

The first era I call the Brick Era (1973–1988). My first taste of mobile telephony was with my father’s suitcase phone that he purchased when I was still in school—basically a corded receiver connected to a portable radio the size (and weight) of a car battery. My father, never one to throw away a good piece of electronics, took his suitcase phone on a 1998 driving trip of Alaska—along with his more modern and portable mobile phone. Of the two, the suitcase phone was the only device powerful enough to get a signal in the remote areas of Alaska. Nothing is more emblematic of this era than the Motorola DynaTAC (see Figure 1-3) introduced in 1983.

The Motorola DynaTAC 8000X was the first mobile phone to receive FCC acceptance, in 1983; DynaTAC was actually an abbreviation of Dynamic Adaptive Total Area Coverage
Figure 1-3. The Motorola DynaTAC 8000X was the first mobile phone to receive FCC acceptance, in 1983; DynaTAC was actually an abbreviation of Dynamic Adaptive Total Area Coverage

You might recall seeing one of these behemoths back in the 1980s. They were larger than corded phones of the day and more expensive than using a payphone, so it’s hard to believe that Motorola discontinued the DynaTAC as late as 1994. Mobile telephony certainly existed before this device, but for the first time, telephones were cordless and portable.

As noted already, everything in mobile technology has a reason. Brick Era phones required enormous batteries to get the power needed to reach the nearest cellular network site, which back in the 1980s were few and far between.

Brick Era phones proved useful only to those who truly needed constant communication, such as stockbrokers or those who worked in the field, such as salespeople or real estate agents; because they were so enormous and so expensive, they were far too impractical for the majority of us.

In the early 1990s, bulky mobile technology would eventually be added to cars for increased mobility, first as aftermarket devices installed in trunks or under seats and eventually at the factory in luxury automobiles.

After mobile technology started racing down the motorways of the world, more cellular radio towers were needed to provide constant coverage. As more towers went up, the power demands of the devices went down. In other words, the closer you were to a tower, the smaller the device you needed.

The proliferation of mobile technology in this era opened the gates to mobile devices of today. What started as a bulky luxury item became something everyone could fit into their budgets and their pockets.

The Candy Bar Era

The second era, the Candy Bar Era (1988–1998), represented one of the more significant leaps in mobile technology. “Candy bar” is the actual term used to describe the long, thin, rectangular form factor of the majority of mobile devices used during the Candy Bar Era and even today (see Figure 1-4). At this point, network operators started to see the clear value (and big profits) in their burgeoning cellular networks, and a “perfect storm” ensued. The network shifted to second-generation (2G) technology, starting in Finland in 1991. The density of cellular sites caused by increased usage decreased the power demands of the device, making it small enough to fit in your pocket. And finally, with the economic prosperity of the European, U.S., and Japanese middle classes in the early 1990s coupled with the perceived notion of mobile phones being a luxury item, suddenly everyone around the world wanted a mobile phone.

Increased demand meant more competition for providers and device makers, which further reduced costs to consumers. Those in the industry quickly envisioned a future in which everyone had a mobile phone with them at all times.

As the profits from fixed-line telephone operators started to plummet, mobile operator upstarts saw huge financial gains. During the mid-1990s, a mobile device future blossomed in Northern Europe. At the time, a coworker of mine from Scandinavia said to me:

In Scandinavia all the land lines are owned by the government. If you moved, you had to file a request with the government to switch your service to your new address, which would often take months. At one time, I lived someplace for nine months and I didn’t have a phone. I actually moved before I ever got service. Then I had to wait again.

So what most people do is they go down to the mobile shop and buy a phone for a few hundred dollars and use it as a primary phone until they get their land line installed, which in my case, took about a year.

A Nokia candy bar phone
Figure 1-4. A Nokia candy bar phone

This era didn’t just usher in portability. For the first time, people started to realize that mobile phones could do more than make voice calls. Candy bar phones—so commonly associated with 2G GSM (Global System for Mobile communications) networks—included SMS (Short Message Service) capabilities.

Initially, the idea behind SMS was for the mobile operator to send subscribers a notification of a new voicemail, or other short notifications. But in the early 1990s, due to oversights by mobile operators, text messages were not charged to consumers. Mobile-savvy Europeans quickly realized that they could send messages to their friends for free when voice calls were still fairly expensive by today’s standards. Thus, today’s abbreviated text language, which is limited to 140 characters, was born.

The Feature Phone Era

The third era, the Feature Phone Era (1998–2008), wasn’t nearly as radical a technological leap as the leap from the Brick Era to the Candy Bar Era, but it was an important evolution nonetheless. Up to this point, mobile phones had done three things: make voice calls, send text messages, and play the Snake game. The Feature Phone Era (see Figure 1-5) opened the floodgates to a variety of applications and services on the phone, like listening to music and taking photos, and introduced the use of the Internet on a phone.

The Motorola RAZR, probably the most iconic device from the Feature Phone Era
Figure 1-5. The Motorola RAZR, probably the most iconic device from the Feature Phone Era

During this era, GSM network providers added GPRS (General Packet Radio Service), allowing packet-switched data services. This network evolution is most often referred to as 2.5G, or halfway between 2G and 3G networks. Network providers offering CDMA and other TDMA-based networks followed suit with similar packet-switched data services soon after.

With the introduction of cameras into higher-end feature phones and with increased consumer interest in digital photography, demand for feature phones began to increase. Not soon after, we saw the introduction of the Motorola V3, more commonly known as the RAZR. Although the RAZR was not a technologically advanced phone, its slim form factor and sleek appearance drove demand around the world, selling over 100 million units, to become the second-best-selling mobile phone of all time. PC World magazine ranked it #12 in their “50 Greatest Gadgets of the Past 50 Years.”

I often joke that the camera phone introduced the mobile web to the world, and that the RAZR promptly broke it (referring to its poor mobile web browser), but it achieved enormous market share.

At last, the Web had reached mobile devices, but due to high prices, poor marketing, and inconsistent rendering, no one was using it. Instead, mobile companies were focusing on creating downloadable ringtones, wallpapers, games, and applications to sell through network operator portals.

When I look back on this period, I think about how little real innovation occurred during this time. Everyone knew what the problems were, everyone knew where we needed to go—but no one seemed interested in getting there. It seemed as though mobile insiders just wanted to see quarterly earnings at the sacrifice of the long-term benefit of the medium.

Sure, there were moments of divine inspiration, but they always seemed to get cut short by the demands of network operators and device makers. You simply couldn’t innovate within the space without their express permission. With the inconsistent interpretation of agreed-upon standards, consumers felt like spectators of a Wild West shootout.

Hope would come from unexpected places soon, helping to shape a new vision for the future of mobile, but only after a decade of mobile designers and developers shed a lot of blood, sweat, and tears.

The Smartphone Era

The Smartphone Era occurred at the same time as the third and fifth eras and spans from around 2002 to the present. What is and isn’t a smartphone (see Figure 1-6) has never been defined, which explains the overlap in chronology. Although smartphones have all the same capabilities of a feature phone, like making a phone call, sending an SMS, taking a picture, and accessing the mobile web, most smartphones are distinctive in that they use a common operating system, a larger screen size, a QWERTY keyboard or stylus for input, and Wi-Fi or another form of high-speed wireless connectivity.

Early smartphones came from companies like Nokia, Handspring, and Research in Motion (RIM)
Figure 1-6. Early smartphones came from companies like Nokia, Handspring, and Research in Motion (RIM)

Although there have been many different flavors of smartphone, I see this era more as a technological bridge. Most notable devices of this era seemed to try to be something that they weren’t.

For example, the Nokia 9000 series of “Communicator” smartphones looked like a feature phone on the outside, but you when held one on its side, it could be opened like a clamshell to reveal a large screen and keyboard—obviously in an attempt to position the phone as a micro laptop. This is something Microsoft also attempted with its initial Windows CE platform, which would later become Windows Mobile.

Handspring, on the other hand, combined a Palm OS–based PDA with a phone module to create PDA-style smartphones, which would later become the popular Treo line of smartphones. Research in Motion applied its background in two-way paging to create the first BlackBerry, which would later be used to “push” email to corporate citizens in a pager-like fashion.

As you can see, with the exception of Nokia, many smartphone players came from outside of the wireless industry and often found themselves ill-prepared to deal with the increasing demands of network operators and a highly competitive and fast-paced industry. It took several years and many mobile devices for these manufacturers to find the right mix of features and stability.

But even with all this effort, smartphones failed to pique the public’s interest and create demand, capturing—at best estimates—just 10% to 15% of the global mobile phone market share.

Meanwhile, feature phone manufacturers continued to evolve their devices, merging the capabilities of PDAs or limited desktop computing with traditional feature phones. Most notably, Symbian—initially a joint venture of mobile device makers Nokia, Motorola, Ericsson, and Psion, and now fully owned by Nokia—created the Symbian OS, a smartphone operating system containing common libraries, tools, and frameworks.

The Symbian OS is used for a variety of mobile devices, the most recognizable of which are the Nokia S60 (still referred to by the defunct Series 60 label), and popular models like the 6260 and N95, both devices that look more like phones than computers.

I think Nokia defined the devices of the Smartphone Era. They created great telephones, an amazing framework for creating cool applications and services, and a reusable infrastructure to innovate.

And although new phones continue to emerge based on the smartphone model, I feel like they will continue to be usurped by the fifth and final era: the Touch Era.

The Touch Era

Change occurs because there’s a gap between what is and what should be.

Craig McCaw

Mobile devices started as simple portable telephones, but they evolved. Messaging was added to mobile capabilities, but mobile devices were still just person-to-person communication tools. We saw networks improve and data speeds increase, which allowed for more technology and more features each year, crammed into smaller and smaller packages. Mobile devices got smarter by learning from desktop computing, truly becoming personal computers, but people weren’t interested.

Until recently, the history of mobile has been borrowing from other mediums, learning and growing along the way, but never quite creating an identity of its own. But that all changed. As Steve Jobs once said, “Every once in a while a revolutionary product comes along that changes everything.”[1]

On the morning of January 9, 2007, Steve Jobs went onstage at the MacWorld conference in San Francisco to usher in the fifth and final era and to change the mobile world. He introduced the world to the iPhone.

Now it is at this point that I must confess that I have been a devout Macintosh user for more than 10 years. I also must confess that there are many within the mobile community that disagree with me on the importance of this event, especially my friends from Finland.

I insist that we will look back on the iPhone as one of the most significant milestones that the mobile industry has ever seen. In fact, I believe that in the future, when we reflect on the history of mobile technology, we will divide it into the days before the iPhone and the days after.

Though the majority of technology within the iPhone and its lower-cost successor, the iPhone 3G/3GS, had already been available from several manufacturers for some time, what was so notable about the iPhone was how it changed everyday perceptions of what mobile technology can do. It wasn’t a phone, it wasn’t a computer: it was something else entirely.

In less than four months after its release in the United States, sales of the iPhone 3G surpassed the long-established Motorola RAZR to make it the bestselling mobile device in the United States. It also surpassed RIM in quarterly smartphone sales, putting it on its way toward capturing 30% of the overall smartphone market.

Impressive numbers, for sure, but what leads me to believe that the influence of the iPhone and devices like it will have a lasting effect on the future of mobile are stories like this one from the New York Times back in March 2008, several months prior to the release of the iPhone 3G:

M:Metrics, a measurement firm that studies mobile media, has released a survey of iPhone users six months after the device was released to long lines and nearly unending fanfare.

The results, from a January survey of more than 10,000 adults, are somewhat dramatic. 84.8 percent of iPhone users report accessing news and information from the hand-held device. That compares to 13.1 percent of the overall mobile phone market and 58.2 percent of total smartphone owners—which include those poor saps with BlackBerries and devices that run Windows.

The study found that 58.6 percent of iPhone users visited a search engine on their phones, compared with 37 percent of smartphone users in general and a scant 6.1 percent of mobile phone users.

The market for mobile video once seemed like a nonstarter in the United States. Well, 30.9 percent of iPhone users have tuned into mobile TV or a video clip from their phone, more than double the percentage that have watched on a smartphone.

Finally, 74.1 percent of iPhone users listen to music on their iTunes-equipped devices. Only 27.9 percent of smartphone users listen to music on their phones and 6.7 percent of the overall mobile-phone-toting public listens to music on their mobile devices.[2]

Since then, the iPhone’s presence on the Web has been increasing twofold per quarter. It now ranks in the top 10 platforms accessing the Internet, above desktop computers that still run Windows 98, Windows ME, and beginning to rival even modern platforms like Linux. Even the iPod touch, which is recognized separately from the iPhone, outranks the more-established Windows Mobile and Nokia Series 60 devices, and should reach the top 10 soon.

But the impressive numbers hardly stop there. In less than a year, more than 2,000 mobile web applications were made freely available specifically for the iPhone. Throughout my entire career in the mobile industry, I hadn’t even seen 2,000 mobile websites, let alone web applications.

And within just six months of the launch of the iPhone 3G and the ability to purchase and load applications onto the iPhone, the iTunes App Store had already seen its more than 10,000 applications downloaded over 300 million times, at a rate of 2 million per day.

“It’s unbelievable,” says Piper Jaffray’s Gene Munster. “It’s a differentiator. We think [next year] it’s going to be a $1 billion market place and Apple will probably take about 30 percent of that. There’s virtually no operating expense for them. They just approve the apps.”[3]

These staggering numbers aside, the iPhone is just the beginning. Devices that can separate themselves from the clunky smartphones of old, and begin to understand that mobile devices are not just telephones nor miniature computers, but a new medium entirely, will be in a position of strength. The iPhone is to mobile phones as the Macintosh was to personal computers: a market definer. With the iPhone, Apple has set the bar for what people want. The masses have finally realized that a phone is more than just a device that can make phone calls, and they now have expectations about what a phone can be. And they want more.

Mobile devices of the Touch Era are a completely new medium capable of offering real people new and exciting ways to interact and understand information. The devices of tomorrow will be able to leverage location, movement, and the collective knowledge of mankind, to provide people’s lives with greater meaning.

And what is so exciting is that “tomorrow” is actually happening right now.

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