MEGATech Showcase: 40 Years of the Cellphone

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The mobile phone is 40 years old. Wrap your head around that. It’ll be tricky, because early mobile phones were some pretty large devices. Truth is that mobile communication goes back over eighty years; but we’re not talking about mobile communications. We’re talking about mobile phones and the first mobile phone call was placed forty years ago.

Martin Cooper and the First Phone Call

Martin Cooper, pictured above, is known as the “father of the cell phone,” a title he very much earned. Cooper thought up the first handheld mobile phone and led the team that developed it and eventually brought it to the market. He’s also the first person to make a public cellphone call, using a prototype DynaTAC cellular phone, an event that I’m sure brought him a lot of funny looks.

The First Cell Network

In 1971, AT&T went to the Federal Communications Commission and proposed a commercial cellular service. It wasn’t until 1977, six years later, that they were able to follow through with it, and the nation’s first cellular network was born. It was located in Chicago and it only served 1,300 customers out of the gate. Coverage was limited and different geographic areas required different cellular providers, but it was a start.

The Motorola DynaTAC 8000X

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In 1984, the first cellular phone, the Motorola DynaTAC 8000X, went on the market. It wasn’t pretty to look out and it sure doesn’t seem very comfortable to hold, but it worked. It also weighed 28 ounces, stood 10 inches high, and dosed you with a lot of radiation, but it worked. It featured a red LED display and the battery could only support a phone call of up to an hour, afterwards you’d have to charge the phone for up to 10 hours.

The Simon Personal Communicator

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Bestowing the title of the first smartphone isn’t as clear cut as the first cell phone. In 1994, IBM released the Simon Personal Communicator, a cell phone that could also send and receive emails and pages, and was also equipped with an address book, calendar, calculator, electronic note pad, and a further assortment of PDA-esque features. Feature-wise, the Simon Personal Communicator could rightfully be called the first smartphone.

Yet the term “smartphone” wasn’t coined for three more years when in 1997, Ericsson referred to its GS 88 Penelope concept as a “Smart Phone.” The Penelope never actually made it to market. Even if it had, I think it’s safe to say the Simon Personal Communicator was the official debut smartphone, even if the term hadn’t been invented. You could argue that it was ahead of its time.

Cellphone: The Next Generation

Then there are the generations, commonly labeled as 1G, 2G, etc. The first generation started in 1977 with the development of the first network in Chicago. In the following thirteen years, small networks popped up all over the UK, Canada, Mexico, and the Washington DC/Boston area, as well as in Scandinavian countries. The major difficulty that occurred during the first generation was rapidly expanding usage in the face of limited technology.

Years later in 1991, we saw the shift from analog transmission to digital, which kicked off the second generation. Another big shift was cell phone size, with new technologies allowing the construction of cell phones as light as 100-200 grams. This generation saw the world’s first smartphone, the first person-to-person SMS message, downloadable ringtones, and pre-paid service plans. In Japan, NTT DoCoMo launched the first full Internet service for mobile phones, which would ultimately lead to the third generation.

In 2001, just two years after NTT DoCoMo launched their Internet service, demand for mobile data has become too much for circuit switching, so packet switching becomes the new thing, which ushered in the third generation. Streaming media content was introduced and the way in which mobile phones are used is changed dramatically. The Blackberry 5180 is the first BlackBerry with voice capabilities. The Sanyo SCP-5300 is the first cellphone with an integrated camera. The ROKR is the first mobile phone to include iTunes, and then of course Apple released the first iPhone in 2007. In October 2008, the Android Market launches.

Then in 2009, less than four years ago, mobile data makes the move from packet switching to all-IP transmissions, and with that we’re in the fourth generation. Will this be the generation of the phablet? I sure hope we don’t call it that.

Happy birthday, cellphone.

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About

Dylan Duarte is a freelance writer who's covered videogames, film, television, and now tech! Be sure to check out his site, Dylan Reviews Everything, and follow him on Twitter: @dylanduarte.

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