The History of Cellphones

IBM-SimonThis is another blog that looks at the history of the industry and that today I look at the history of the cellphone. Cellphones are arguably the most successful product in the history of our industry, but young people are often surprised to find out that the industry and technology are still relatively very new.

Prior to 1973 and stretching back into the 1920s there was some version of radio phones that were mostly used by businesses with vehicle fleets. These services were generally of somewhat poor quality and also limited either by the number of simultaneous users (only 3 at a time, per city in the early 50’s) or by geography (you couldn’t leave the range of the tower you were connected to).

But several breakthroughs enabled the cellphone technology we know today. First, in the late 1960’s Philip T. Porter and a team of engineers at Bell Labs proposed the system of modern directional cell phone towers that we still have in place today. In 1970 Amos E. Joel of Bell Labs invented the ‘three-sided trunk circuit’ that is the basis for cellular roaming, allowing a call to be handed from one cell tower to another.

The big breakthrough came in 1973 when Martin Cooper of Motorola and researchers at Bell Labs came up with the first hand-held cellphone. The first phone weighted two and a half pounds and was nine inches long. The first phone could hold enough charge for 30 minutes of talking and took ten hours to recharge. But the idea of having a handheld portable phone took hold and several companies began developing a wireless product. Interestingly, none of the prognosticators at the time thought that the technology had much of a future. They predicted future customers in the tens of thousands and not in the billions that we see today.

The first commercial use of the new cellular technologies was introduced in Tokyo in 1979, Scandinavia in 1981 and in the US in 1983. The technology was analog and referred to as Advanced Mobile Phone System (AMPS). It had a number of flaws by modern standards in that it was susceptible to eavesdropping by use of a scanner and it was easy to introduce unauthorized phones onto the network. I can recall occasionally seeing somebody talking on one of these mobile phones in the 80s, but there were relatively rare. But the phones got smaller and batteries improved and the first flip phone was introduced in 1989.

The first system that was more like what we have today was also introduced in the US by DynaTAC using 1G technology. Early 1G was an analog service and was made into a digital offering in 1990. In the early 1990s the second generation network was introduced using 2G. There were two competing technologies at the time (and still are today) that differed by the underlying standards – the GSM standard from Europe and the US-developed CDMA standard. The first GSM network was introduced in Finland in 1991 and hit the US in 1993.

Also introduced in 1993 was the IBM Simon phone that could be called the first smartphone. It has features like a pager, fax machine and PDA merged with a cellphone. It included advanced features for the time including things like a stylus touch screen, address book, calendar, calculator, notepad and email. About this same time was the introduction of texting. The first text message was sent in England in December 1992 followed by Finland in 1993. Texting was everywhere by the mid-1990s.

The demand for accessing the web from a cellphone drove the creation of 3G. This changed the phone from circuit switching to packet switching allowing the introduction of a data connection. The first 3G network was introduced in Japan in 2001, Korea in 2002 and in the rest of the world starting in 2003. By the end of 2007 there were 295 million customers using a 3G network which represented 9% of worldwide cell phone subscribers. Apple released its first iPhone in 2007 that used the 3G technology. That phone was the first ‘modern’ smartphone and today smartphone sales dominate the worldwide market. Finally, around 2009 saw the introduction of the first 4G networks, This increased theoretical data speeds by a factor of 10. There were two different commercial standards for 4G data – WiMAX and LTE. Many of these networks in the US have just been completed for most urban and suburban customers.

So it’s easy for a kid to think we have always had cellphones. But the first iPhone was only seven years ago and the flip-phone was the predominant phone for more than a decade before that. Before the flip phone there were very few cellphones users compared to today. This is an industry that has grown entirely during my career in the industry and it’s still hard sometimes to believe how well it has done. Now, if I had just bought that Apple stock . . .

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