A History of Mobile Phones: Part Four

Gabriela D'Souza | March 24th 2019


In Part Four, we conclude the series.

In Part Three of this series, we explored the evolution of cellular devices into the modern smartphone, beginning with the PDA/mobile hybrids of the 1990s. We also looked at the rise of the modern "big two" of the mobile world: iPhone and Android.

In Part Four, the concluding part of the series, we will explore important competitors like BlackBerry and Windows Phone, 4G and 5G, and what the future may hold for mobile phones.

The Other Competitors

BlackBerry is a line of smartphones, tablets, and other electronic devices that first premiered in 1999, developed by Waterloo, Canada based company Research in Motion (now known as BlackBerry Limited). The earliest BlackBerry models were email integrated pagers, and it was with the focus on email that BlackBerry devices quickly grabbed a large amount of the market share (particularly for business use).

In the mid-2000s, the familiar model of the BlackBerry arose, with its full QWERTY keyboard designed for "thumbing" use in quickly composing emails (certainly much faster than using T9 technology on a flipphone's keypad) and monochrome display (though these would become colour before too long). BlackBerry's brand emphasized sleek, fashionable, professional phone usage, not gussied up with much of the requisite 2000s bloat. Its streamlined design and minimalist feature-set, though, grew less appealing as smartphones like the iPhone and early Android devices offered the same professional look but also a much wider feature-set.

In 2010, the new BlackBerry Torch models integrated a WebKit web browser similar to those found in iPhones and Androids, signaling a move away from the original design elements of BlackBerry devices. This transformation was completed in 2013, when the company began developing full-screen touchscreen devices like the BlackBerry Z10.

Though BlackBerry and its parent company remain in the market today, they do remain a shadow of their earlier glory, and as of 2015 even began developing a line of successful Android OS devices.

The other main competitor worth looking at is the Windows Phone. Unlike BlackBerry's relatively early positioning in the nascent smartphone market, Windows Phone was engineered by parent company Microsoft as a response to the wild success of Apple and Google's industry dominance, beginning with the launch of the Windows Phone 7 in 2010.

Microsoft was no stranger to the consumer electronics market, having developed the Windows Mobile OS in the early 2000s to run on the PocketPC line of PDAs, as well as their less than successful Microsoft Zune MP3 players, designed to compete with Apple's dominant iPod. The Windows Phone replaced both these extant systems, functioning as an all-in-one multimedia and mobile phone device with easy integration with the Microsoft Windows OS (just as Apple's iOS integrated well with macOS).

Microsoft identified early on that a huge roadblock would be the lack of applications compared to iOS and Android. From the very beginning, Microsoft offered a series of developer initiative programs to entice developers into coding for the Windows Phone. The result was a relatively acceptable 21% of app developers developing for the OS in 2013, though this number would decrease as the Windows Phone's fortunes fell.

The Windows Phone was a moderate success, occupying a comfortable third place in the smartphone wars through most of the 2010s. However, its inability to break in at either the low end or the high end market, and its lack of market share outside of North America, caused the Windows Phone to decline as the decade went on. In January of 2019, Microsoft ceased support for Windows Phone devices.

4G and Beyond

The 3.5G expansion was a valiant attempt at a stopgap, but it became exceedingly clear by the end of the new millennium's first decade that a new generation of mobile data networks would be needed. 4G was the logical next step. LTE, or Long-Term Evolution, was developed as a latency reducing architecture that marked a switch to an IP-based system. LTE, though technically not considered 4G by many international standards, represented a large leap in mobile markets.

The first LTE standard used in a commercial application was in Stockholm, Sweden and in Oslo, Norway in 2009. From here, and building on significant pre-commercial testing worldwide, LTE began to proliferate the market. Another standard, WiMAX, launched commercially with HTC's Max 4G in 2008.

5G is the next big step for cellular mobile communications, with a commercial global worldwide launch expected for 2020. Companies like Qualcomm, Intel, and Huawei have been instrumental in developing the technology, and we have seen successful private applications of the network technology such as Korea Telecom's use of 5G during the 2018 Winter Olympics.

What's Next?

The future of mobile phones is one of increasing complexity and power -- there will likely come a time when the technical specs of handheld mobile devices are indistinguishable from desktop and laptop computers. And further innovations like developments in 3D cameras, two and even three point folding mobile phones, 4k video capabilities, and other innovations are being seen across the globe. China in particular, with companies like Huawei and Xiaomi, is innovating on fronts to capitalize on China's rapidly expanding tech consumer class.

It's impossible to know exactly what the future holds for mobile phones, but there will always be false starts, controversies, and well-intentioned failures. After all, this is an industry whose very first development was marked with accusations of fraud.

A History of Mobiles Phones: Part One

Image of an old style mobile phone

Portable phone technology has been theorized, prototyped, and even developed since basically as long as we've had phones at all. In 1908, the Oakland Transcontinental Aerial Telephone and Power Company announced they were developing a wireless telephone. However, no prototype ever emerged.

A History of Mobile Phones: Part Two

Assorted mobile phones

We continue to explore the history of mobile devices, all the way to the rise of smart phones!