50 years of the mobile revolution
It started with what might be labelled a prank call, using 1.13 kilograms piece of technology, developed by American manufacturer Motorola. The device that was priced at £2,738 and had just 30 minutes of talk time.
But when Motorola engineer Martin Cooper made the first mobile phone call in 1973, he would set off a transformative technology that has become central to our lives.
A recent survey from Sinch, marking the anniversary of Cooper’s infamous call, found that nearly 72% of people couldn’t imagine going more than a weekend without their mobile phone, while nearly a quarter (23%) believe they could last an hour at most.
But back on 3 April 1973, Cooper couldn’t have known that he was about to make history. On the streets of New York, the Motorola engineer dialled the number of rival Bell Labs, who were locked in a race with Cooper’s company to deliver on mobile telephone technology, and delivered what is regarded as the first public cellular phone call.
“I’m calling you on a cell phone, but a real cell phone, a personal, handheld, portable cell phone,” Cooper said on the phone to Joel Engel, head of AT&T-owned Bell Labs.
Speaking on the 50th anniversary earlier this month, Cooper said he never doubted that the mobile phone would become a mass market product – one that is central to people’s lives today.
“I was not surprised that everybody has a cell phone,” Cooper, now 94, told CNN. “We used to tell the story then that someday when you’re born you would be assigned a phone number. If you didn’t answer the phone, you would die.
It would take another decade before “cell phones” became widely available to the public. But it was on the streets of New York where history was being made in 1973.
After Cooper’s first call, manufacturing issues and government regulation slowed the progress of bringing the phone to the public, he said. For example, Cooper recalls the Federal Communications Commission, an agency at which he now serves as an adviser, struggling to sort out how to split up radio channels to ensure competition.
It wasn’t until 1983 that Motorola launched a version of the DynaTAC for widespread usage. The Motorola DynaTAC 8000X commercial portable cellular phone received approval from the US FCC on September 21, 1983. A full charge took roughly 10 hours, and it offered 30 minutes of talk time. It also offered an LED display for dialing or recall of one of 30 phone numbers. It was priced at $3,995 in 1984, its commercial release year, equivalent to $10,420 in 2021
Due to the high price tag, low talk time, and sheer heft of the device itself, the mobile phone was a relative novelty during the 80s, often seen in TV shows and films as a sign of great wealth or power.
The bulk of mobiles sold were actually “carphones” which were attached to a vehicle, overcoming some of the low battery and size issues. These used the same radio technology but were obviously less portable.
In the UK, the first ever the first-ever mobile phone call was made almost 40 years ago — on 1 January 1985 — by Vodafone. In 2015, to commemorate the 30 year anniversary of that call, Vodafone released a list of its most popular 80s handsets. This included the VM1, a 1985 carphone model that weighed in at 4,9kg and cost £1,475 at the time.
The Transportable Vodafone VT1 also became available simultaneously close to the January 1985 launch of the network. It weighed 200g less than the VM1 — 4,7kg — and would have to be charged for 10 hours to provide 30 minutes of talktime.
“Most customers opted to buy a VM1 above a Transportable if they were frequently in their car, as this was more convenient,” Vodafone explained.
The first mobile phone that bears a resemblance to modern devices was the Motorola 8000X, introduced by Vodafone in March 1985. Christened “The Brick” by its users, it was used by Michael Douglas in the 1987 Hollywood hit Wall Street. It cost £2 995 at the time.
It was in the 90s when mobile phones really began to take off. Driven by much smaller form factors, the ability to swap batteries, and more widespread availability, the 1990s was a key decade in the development of the devices, which began to become useful for consumers and businesses.
One key change was in how phones looked. The size and weight of the mobile device came down significantly, meaning the famed Carphone (which gave Carphone Warehouse its name much to the confusion of younger generations) faded out, to be replaced by sleeker models, such as the Motorola D160. The first flip phones were also developed, with Motorola (again) releasing the MicroTac in 1989, and the StarTac in 1996, which was among the first mobile phones to gain widespread consumer adoption.
At the same time, network technology was changing. 1991 saw British firm Orbitel release the world’s first GSM (2G) device, offering improved connectivity and clarity, as well as other services across the network. The same firm would make history the following year, releasing the TPU 901 – the first phone to receive a text message.
Nokia began its dominance of the market, releasing the Nokia 1011 in 1992. It was the first mass-produced GSM phone, came with a monochrome LCD screen, and could even store up to 100 phone numbers, as well as send texts.
By the end of the 90s, phones had transformed from bulk brick-like objects into the slick handsets seen in films such as The Matrix (the Nokia 8110). Telecoms companies had also begun making steps down the next stage of the mobile revolution, and it is on this path that would change our working and personal lives forever: mobile internet.
Phones don’t connect people, WAPpers do
In 2023, the term “WAP” has taken on an entirely less suitable meaning thanks to a famous song by Cardi B, but in 1991, WAP was about to transform our mobile lives. The Nokia 7110 was the first mobile phone to come with a WAP (Wireless Application Protocol) browser. It went on sale in October 1999.
This allowed it to access a limited range of internet content including news, weather and email. The 7110 was also the first cellular phone to implement the T9 Predictive text input method for composing messages.
Though internet connection was woeful at the time, it did highlight the future of phones – as the central tool to our everyday working lives. The following year, Sharp launched another revolutionary phone technology – one that is arguably as important as the internet – the cameraphone.
The Sharp J-SH04 was released in the year 2000. The device featured a 0.11 megapixel built-in camera and allowed users to email their pictures. While it was released exclusively in Japan in 2000, the device popularised the concept of a camera phone. J-SH04 is also considered to be one of the first phones with polyphonic ringtones.
Front-facing cameras soon followed (in 2004) while the internet on phones quickly improved with the release of 3G in 2003 – Korean telco SK Telecom was the first to go live with the new standard of connectivity, which offered far better internet services.
This would become vital with the release of what many will remember as their first ever proper business phone – Canadian firm RIM, best known for making pagers at the time, would enter the mobile market with the BlackBerry 6210 in 2003. This was actually the tenth device from RIM, but the first to have a built-in telephony system.
Integrated email and private messaging services, a full miniature keyboard, and a reputation for high levels of security helped BlackBerry own the American corporate space and dominate the early smartphone market. At its peak, Blackberry owned over 50% of the US and 20% of the global smartphone market, selling over 50 million devices a year.
But it was the introduction of another technology that slipped by BlackBerry and most other manufacturers, and as email had marked the rise of RIM, the launch of the touchscreen would help lead to its downfall.
iTouch, you feel
If I asked you to name the first touchscreen phone, I imagine many people would point to the first iPhone. Indeed Apple did revolutionise how we interact with our phones – but it wasn’t the first to launch a phone with a capacitive touchscreen.
The IBM Simon had been released way back in 1994 but that touchscreen relied on a stylus. So who made the first touchscreen that could really recognise your finger and allow for scrolling? That was Prada. Yes, the Italian luxury handbag maker. In a partnership with Korean manufacturer LG, the LG Prada was launched in 2006 offering a design aimed at more usability.
But although the LG Prada deserves the props, it was a rather different company in California that was about to change the world, and in doing so, get the glory.
The first iPhone was introduced by Apple CEO Steve Jobs in January 2007 at MacWorld San Francisco, with the slogan ‘Apple reinvents the phone’.
That June, the 8 GB version was released to the public at $599 – or £269 at the time – and it became Apple’s most successful product, selling more than 6.1 million units.
Its iconic touchscreen and layout of apps forever changed the smartphone industry, and was named the Time Magazine Invention of the Year in 2007.
iPhone remains one of the most popular phones in the market today, but it was the simplicity and usability of it that would not only take smartphones mass market, but also send the death-knell for the older generations of business phone, such as BlackBerry.
Soon, the phone category because a direct race between two operating systems: iOS vs Android. Apple vs Google. And this battle rages on today, with companies dominating the device market (though Samsung is the world’s biggest phone maker).
The intervening years have seen the launch of 4G (in the UK, the fourth generation went live in 2012 with the launch of EE) and 5G – greatly increasing connectivity, reliability, reducing latency and allowing for services such as video calls to really take off.
We’ve had foldable smartphones, smartwatches that can make calls like in a James Bond movie, tablets and phablets that can serve as a laptop when connected to keyboards, and connectivity has moved into other devices, from cars to fridges.
The phone is central to our lives. Sinc’s poll found that consumers really, really love their mobile devices. Asked what they’d rather give up than their mobile phone, 41% of respondents chose the gym while 25% of millennials selected TV or radio, and 22% percent of GenZ said they would give up sex.
“From the first mobile phone call 50 years ago, a communications revolution was born. This study underscores just how integral the mobile phone is to our everyday lives — with many prepared to give up their favourite things rather than their phones,” said Robert Gerstmann, chief evangelist and co-founder of Sinch.
“Clearly, businesses that can invite their customers in for a true two-way conversation — whether by text, phone, social app, email, or chatbot — will be the winners today and in tomorrow’s mobile worlds. Yet companies often struggle to deliver personalised experiences at scale because channels, tools, and communications are siloed and not designed to work together with the customer at the centre. We can see from a survey like this that consumer demand will drive businesses to change.”
Though phones are perhaps no longer seen as a tool for calling each other, they have transformed our working and personal lives. And it can all be traced back to that phone call on the streets of New York, when Marty Cooper decided to prank his rival.
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