Telecommunications, Automotive and Market Research

More than 15 years in the mobile telecommunications industry and an industry analyst since 1998.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Three Revolutions in Cell Phone Design

There has been a lot said about "disruptive technologies" and how important they are. but in the 25+ years since we've had cellphones, there have been only three revolutions, three changes that have actually changed the way we think about the design of mobile phones.

Stuff car phone components in a bag and you have a hand-portable cellphone!
Where We Started: The Bag Phone
Cell phones were car phones. There was a handset inside the car with a transmitter/receiver mounted in the trunk. Your car's electrical system supplied 12 volts to run the thing. Was that good enough? For the first couple years it was, until the need for portability arose and all the components were stuffed into a bag... handset, transceiver, antenna and a 12-volt lead-acid battery. It was big and heavy, but you could carry it anywhere. Plus, it operated at 3 Watts, five times the power of portable handsets. Those bag phones would operate even in very low signal areas (and, face it, in 1991, there were a LOT of low signal areas).

Motorola DynaTAC.
First Revolution: The Brick
Starting with the venerable Motorola DynaTAC, (was that a great phone, or what?) there were generation after generation of "brick" phones, that gradually became smaller until they became what we now describe as "candy bar" phones. They got smaller, added features, lost the external antenna and got made over with fancy color screens. But it was still the same basic design (reading from top to bottom):

The Second Revolution: The Clamshell Phone
Motorola StarTAC, 1996
In 1996, the Motorola StarTAC turned the cellular world upside down. Designers at Motorola split the basic candy bar phone in half, putting the earpiece above the hinge and the screen, keyboard and mouthpiece on the other half. If you don't remember, the StarTAC was an absolute sensation. Cellphones were still the province of the wealthy and connected at that time, and crazed stockbrokers were paying two and three times the suggested price to own one of these treasured devices.

Yes, they were mostly analog models in the US and, yes, you would have to buy several batteries to get through a whole day of usage. But the clamshell put Motorola at the top of the industrial design market for cellphones. The ultimate expression of that was the beloved - and later reviled - Motorola RAZR.

The Third Revolution: iPhone
Apple iPhone, 2007
If you missed the excitement the StarTAC generated, you got to witness it with the iPhone in 2007. Aside from all the hyperventilating about the user interface, iPhone has created an even greater revolution in the deployment of applications to mobile phones, forever altering the relationship between the cellular customer and the cellular operator.

The longer-term effects of the iPhone have been to breed another classification of device: the tablet computer, (re)introduced as the iPad, which is little more than a big-screen iPhone.

Looking Back From 2011
Cellular networks were launched in 1983 and started to come into their own in the early 1990s with the DynaTAC and other portable devices.

It was nearly 10 years before the StarTAC revolutionized handset design and another 10 years before the announcement of the iPhone. In the meantime, cellular networks matured, went through three generations themselves. If you're extrapolating the changes in phones, look for things to change significantly... in 2017

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