Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


On the origin of the smartphone

Huub Ehlhardt, Arthur O. Eger

Smartphones have become a hallmark of our time. The smartphone has enabled a stream of new applications and become a topic of many debates. Its presence is now being questioned during dinner, driving and in bed. Clearly it has an unavoidable nature and far reaching influence.

This article is the fourth in a series of five on product evolution. They illustrate that technological evolution can explain ‘the origin of products’, although one of a different nature than we know from biological species.

orgin of the smartphone

Landline telephones

The first patent for the electric telephone was granted in 1876 to Alexander Graham Bell. However, there is disagreement about who should be given credit for the invention of the telephone as several pioneering inventors worked on devices to transmit spoken word.

In the following decades the network systems of landlines were built and use of telephones spread. The first telephones used were simple wooden boxes to which a speaker and mouthpiece were connected. From the initial box designs, the so-called candlestick telephone evolved in the 1890s and became hugely popular. It still consisted of a separate mouthpiece and speaker but got rid of the box. In these days the telephone exchange required manually operated switchboards to make connections. This opened up new job opportunities for women as switchboard operators. The telephone soon proved to be an indispensable tool for trade and fuelled economic development. All in all the telephone and its network system had a large societal impact.

Increased demand made landline networks evolve from hand-operated switchboards to mechanised pulse networks for which the telephone received a dial. Further increasing demands fuelled development towards tone networks which are operated by push buttons using the 12-digit keypad we still find on smartphones. Again driven by increasing demands, networks evolved to digital transmission.

Mobile phones

Just like for landlines, the history of mobile phones is intertwined with a series of consecutive network technologies. The first experimental mobile networks developed to circumvent restrictions of landline-based telephones are collectively designated by the name 0G. These 0G networks could only handle few calls and were very expensive.

The first commercially operated wireless telephone networks are referred to as 1G and used analogue network technologies. These networks are made up of many cells, each with its own base station, which connects to the terrestrial phone network. The base stations allow connections being handed over from one cell to the next. Hence the used devices are also named cell phones. Without this cell network structure mobile phone users would not be able to travel while calling.

The first 1G cellular network was launched in 1979 in Japan by the Nippon Telephone and Telegraph (NTT) company. The technology spread and in 1981 Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden received their Nordic Mobile Telephone system. Then in 1983 also in the USA a 1G network became operational using the Motorola DynaTAC 8000X mobile phone. Now referred to as the ‘brick phone’, this first of a kind weighted about 800 grams and was priced close to four thousand dollars or more than three times the average worker’s monthly salary. Nevertheless, because of its novelty soon after introduction there was already a waiting list. The following years Motorola developed into a leading mobile telephone manufacturer.

The second generation of wireless telephone networks also referred to as 2G are based on a standard developed in Europe. The protocol used by 2G is based on the Global System for Mobile Communications and simply referred to as GSM. Deployed in Finland in December 1991, 2G was the first digital cellular network.

Building on the success of early mobile phones additional text messaging services were developed using the same network technology. This became known as Short Message Service (SMS) and was commercially introduced in 1993 in Finland. SMS did not require any additional infrastructure and soon became hugely popular. This made it a cash cow for mobile operators around the world in the years to follow.

The first mass-produced GSM telephone was the Nokia 1011 introduced in 1992. The popularity of the mobile phone opened a huge market and production numbers rose rapidly. Many other companies started producing mobile phones, however Nokia and Motorola dominated the market. The mobile phones later became known as feature phones (to distinguish them from smartphones). Feature phones have been produced in a few typical designs known as candy bar, clamshell and flip phone.

Feature phones became a huge success. Annual production amounts of feature phone handsets rose to well over hundred million a year by end of the 1990s. By 2002 the amount of mobile phones had outgrown the amount of landline phones in use. The wide availability of mobile phones changed our perception of what it means to ‘keep in touch’.


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About The Authors

Huub Ehlhardt

Huub Ehlhardt has studied Industrial Design Engineering at Technische Universiteit Delft and worked on a Ph.D. project at Universiteit Twente. He has worked over twenty years in di...

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Arthur O. Eger

Arthur. O. Eger is a Professor of Product Design. He has a broad experience in industrial design engineering, wrote and edited over fifteen books, and published over 100 articles a...

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