Motorola engineer Martin Cooper made telecommunications history when he placed the first cellphone call 40 years ago. And who did he call, you ask? His rivals at Bell Labs, of course. Oh snap!
Still, it took another decade for the mobile phone to reach the masses, because Motorola didn’t make the DynaTAC available until March 1983. And in an example of just how quaint the tech business was back then, Motorola had a press event 10 years before the phone was on sale.
Which brings us to April 3, 1973, when the company that eventually brought us the Razr and Droid introduced the mobile phone. Forty years later, we’re still dropping calls like bad habits and struggling to get a signal inside a supermarket. Not that it matters, because we rarely use our phones to make phone calls. Instead, they’re a gateway to our digital lives, a means of doing everything from sending texts to updating our status to posting photos and listening to music.
Thousands of phones have come and gone, and most of them seem to run on Android. But the number of handsets that could be called truly groundbreaking is surprisingly small. Here they are.
Yeah, yeah, we’ve probably missed your favorite. And you’ll probably tell us about it in a comment typed on your phone.
Above: Motorola DynaTAC 8000X — 1983
The DynaTAC was the first commercially available cellphone and the culmination of all the research Cooper had done since joining Motorola in 1954.
The phone resembled those the military used in the field. The svelte handset weighed 28 ounces and was 10 inches tall, not including the antenna nearly as long as the phone. It wasn’t exactly something you could shove in a pocket or purse. Still, it wasn’t attached to a car and you could walk around with it, so there was that.
Such mobility wasn’t cheap. The DynaTAC would dig a $4,000 hole into your bank account. But that didn’t stop early adopters from diving into the swanky world of mobile calling. The phone had a cameo alongside Gordon Gekko in Wall Street and with über-preppy Zack Morris on the teen drama Saved By the Bell.
Motorola MicroTAC — 1989
The MicroTAC introduced the flip-phone form factor that would eventually be adopted by the StarTAC. Beyond setting the standard for phones, it popularized the idea of being able to put a mobile phone in your pocket.
The phone, billed as the “MicroTAC Pocket Cellular Telephone,” was the smallest available when it was released. It was a lilliputian 9 inches long when open and weighed a mere 12.3 ounces. For the sake of comparison, the enormous Galaxy Note II is just shy of 6 inches long and weighs 6.4 ounces.
Still, the “little” phone packed a lot of amazing features, including security codes, currency calculator, hands-free operation and, perhaps most conveniently, a phone book to store names and numbers. It was the beginning of the end of having to actually remember anyone’s number.
Nokia 3210 — 1999
The Nokia 3210 was, for many people, the gateway drug of phones. It also was among the first to tuck the antenna inside the handset. (The Toshiba TCP-6000 was the first, but that was the phone’s only claim to fame.) The little Finnish candybar phone was the first mobile communication device of the masses.
Its monochromatic screen did more than give you a heads up about incoming calls. It introduced a generation to the greatest mobile-phone game ever: Snake. The addictive game, based on computer game from the 1970s, featured a snake that grew as it consumed pixels. The object was to make the longest snake possible without having it eat itself.
And you thought Angry Birds was silly.
Nokia sold 160 million T9-enabled 3210s before replacing it with 3310 in late 2000.
Sony Ericsson T68I — 2002
The T68i was the bridge between dumb phones and smartphones and, it could be argued, the most awesome cellphone ever. It included such groundbreaking features at Bluetooth, two-way MMS, simple WAP browsing and e-mail. And it had a cool color screen, a first for Ericsson.
The phone was so far ahead that it appeared in the Bond film Die Another Day. If it was good enough for 007, it was good enough for you. And it proved that people wanted more from their phones than calls and texts. Although the phone never saw the sales numbers of the Nokie 3210, it enjoyed a cultlike following.
Photo: Sony Ericsson
Danger Hiptop/Sidekick — 2002
While the suits and salesmen went nuts for RIM’s BlackBerry, the rest of us typed texts on our own QWERTY keyboard six-shooter, the Danger Hiptop. The phone, aka the T-Mobile Sidekick, was just as connected as a BlackBerry sans BBM, but didn’t make you look like a dork.
The Hiptop had online connectivity and a huge (for the time) 2.6-inch screen that flipped out, making it the swtichblade of the truly connected nerd. It came with a monochrome screen to start, but that soon gave way to color.
Designed by Danger, the Hiptop’s OS supported apps and could communicate not only via SMS but also with instant messaging services like AOL’s AIM. Adored by nerds and teenage girls alike, the Hiptop was the first real smartphone to hit the market.
BlackBerry 6210 — 2003
While the T68i put e-mail in your pocket, and the Hiptop made nerds drool, it was the BlackBerry 6210 that made cellphones indispensable to the business world by giving us instant, always-on access to our e-mails.
Little did we know that blessing would become a curse.
Its QWERTY keyboard and solid ability to actually, you know, make phone calls introduced the world to the modern BlackBerry experience of web browsing, e-mails, BlackBerry Messenger and SMS. It jump-started the smartphone market and spawned a class of humans known as crackberry addicts.
The combination of leading-edge technology and an excellent keyboard allowed RIM to utterly dominate the smartphone sector until a small company in Cupertino, California, decided to join the party.
Treo 600 — 2003
After filling the pockets of nerds with its PDA (personal digital assistants), Palm set its sights on the mobile phone market with the Treo brand. The phone set the standard for smartphone features that followed.
The Treo 600 came with a camera, an MP3 player and an OS that would influence the iOS dock and the Android homescreen. Apps? Mappable keys? Everything laid out in a neat grid? Yeah, the Treo had all that, with a QWERTY keyboard.
The Treo’s 2.5-inch screen held a world of possibilities. Unfortunately, Palm was slow to update its OS and couldn’t keep up with the competition, even after releasing the Palm Pre with WebOS.
Motorola RAZR — 2004
The Razr was the first must-have phone. The thin flip phone was stylish and, if the commercials were to believed, would stick like a knife if dropped onto the floor.
While throwing the phone at walls like a knife was a bad idea, the Razr had a great four-year run, selling 130 million units. Is there any wonder why?
The Razr looked like it was straight out of the future. The numerical keyboard was cut from a single piece of metal. Its clamshell aluminum body and colored glass screen were gorgeous. And the damn thing worked like a charm. It was the last dumb phone that truly mattered.
Never mind that it also was the last Motorola phone that truly mattered.
Photo: Ariel Zambelich/Wired
Motorola Rokr — 2005
The Rokr was the first phone to play nicely with iTunes, and it was such a big deal that Steve Jobs himself introduced the phone to the public. Too bad it was a horrible, horrible phone.
Sure it worked with iTunes, but it held no more than 100 songs. And getting them onto the phone was as quick and comfortable as a root canal without anesthesia. And then there was the UI. Dear god, the UI. Sluggish doesn’t begin to describe it.
Still, the Rokr was a milestone because it opened the door to the phone as a media player. It could have been the iPhone. Instead, it inspired Apple to make the iPhone.
Nokia N95 — 2007
The N95 expanded on ideas first seen in the T68i, with features usually found in smartphones and without the gigantic physical QWERTY keyboard form factor. It was stylish and functional, two things sorely missing in the smartphone world.
The N95 wasn’t the first to feature GPS with optional turn-by-turn navigation, a 5-megapixel camera that shot video, or a radio tuner. But it packaged those features in a gorgeous phone. It made design matter. The front of the phone slid up to reveal a numeric keyboard and slid down to reveal media buttons that controlled the onboard MP3 player.
It looked good, had a ton of functions and, thanks to the camera flash, those late-night photos at the club actually looked good.
Apple iPhone — 2007
This is the phone that changed everything. It was the first smartphone with features people wanted, even if they didn’t know it yet. It was different in every way, from its stunning design to its ease of use to the things it would allow us to do.
Of course, we didn’t see that at first. All we could do was gripe about an app store with empty shelves, a single button on the bezel and the fact we couldn’t cut-and-paste anything. It seems so quaint now, when so much of what iOS pioneered has become the norm for smartphones.
No less important was how Apple changed how handset makers dealt with carriers. The balance of power shifted from the likes of AT&T and Verizon to Apple and Samsung.
Nearly six years and five iterations later, the iPhone still sets the standard.
Photo: Ariel Zambelich/Wired
HTC Dream — 2008
The Dream, marketed as the T-Mobile G1 here in the United States, was the first Android phone when it hit the market in 2008. That made it the first phone to challenge the iPhone in the touchscreen smartphone wars.
At first, it was a QWERTY-only affair, but the update to Android 1.5 introduced an onscreen keyboard so you no longer had to slide the screen up to tap out messages. The 3.2-inch screen showcased the operating system that Google purchased from Android Inc.
While the HTC Dream and the first version of Android were a bit of a dud next to the iPhone, the operating system and phones that ran it became more and more impressive as the years passed. Now Android devices are on par, or better than, the phone from Cupertino.
But as we’ve seen before, all of this could change. Like Apple did before, a company with zero history in the phone market could emerge with a new and exciting way to call your friends and tell them, “Hey, guess what I’m doing,” and change the industry again.