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Do You Remember Your First Mobile Phone?

We asked a father and son to compare their first cell phones.

Since handheld mobile phones first appeared in the 1970s, cell phones have evolved rapidly. To younger generations first mobile phone from the 1990’s looks like an ancient artifact.

Father and son, Bryan and James Mills decided to compare their first mobile phone devices to see how far technology has come since 56-year old Bryan was a young man. Twenty-one-year-old James had many questions for his dad. He remembers seeing a bulky phone when he was a kid, with actual buttons, whereas his user-friendly device, the iPhone 12, is more streamlined with a glass screen and camera. So, what was this first phone, and was it even mobile? 

Bryan’s First Mobile Phone Call

In the early hours of New Year’s Day 1985, Bryan phoned his father Henry to wish him a happy new year. He was making one of the first mobile phone calls in the UK, using a network built by Vodafone, while sitting around the corner in a pub in the City of Westminster.

At the time, mobile phones were barely portable, weighing in at almost a kilogram, costing several thousand pounds, and in some cases, with little more than 20 minutes of talk time available. The networks themselves were small: Vodafone had just a dozen towers covering London. 

“We had no idea of the dramatic impact that mobile phones would have on society over the next 25 years or the potential for wireless communications”, explains Bryan, an architect at The Francis Crick, London. “Or how much phones would evolve by the time my son James bought his first smartphone in 2018.” 

Cell Phone Evolution

first mobile phone

The Motorola DynaTAC 8000x arrived on the market in 1983. Although by today’s standards it was huge, it was actually the first genuinely mobile phone because it was small enough to carry.

“We bought the first car phone, and it was incredibly expensive, but we liked new things,” says Bryan. “The phone was being used by on-screen characters like Gordon Gekko in Wall Street, and on TV series’ like Miami Vice.”

At this point, cell phone use hadn’t really spread to the general public.

“I would see my dad’s bulky phone at his office and be in awe of the technology,” says Bryan’s son, James, an industrial designer at Centreline, Nottingham. “They were not for personal use like you see today, but primarily used in the sales and business world.”

Though the subsequent models and DynaTac were smaller, mobile, and more stylish, they still were bulky. Portable models like the Motorola 2900 Bag Phone and the Nokia Mobira Talkman had more talk time and longer battery lives, making them more popular back then. With the advancement of technology, cell phone companies worked out how to combine all the features their customers wanted into a more affordable, smaller, portable model. 

The Tipping Point

According to James, “In the first decade, predictions that mobile communications would not be mass-market seemed correct. By 1995, 10 years into the history of mobile phones, penetration in the UK was just 7%. In 1998 it was 25% but by 1999 it was 46%, that was the ‘tipping point’. By the time I was born, one mobile phone was sold every 4 seconds.”

Since then, cell phones have been an everyday part of people’s lives, and have gone from being expensive devices that complement landlines for busy workers and travelers, to the only phones many people use or carry. They’ve evolved from oversized, awkward devices with bad signals to dependable tools that can easily be carried in a pocket or purse.

The sector has also altered cell phone infrastructure and policies across the board over the years, from standardizing networks so phones can roam from one carrier’s system to another, to introducing unlimited calling plans without dropping calls or incurring fees.

A Growing Capacity

Though early cell phones were meant for talking like their predecessors, features were gradually added such as voicemail. Though  the main reason to have one was still to communicate verbally. Over time cell phone manufacturers slowly realized they could expand their features and integrate other technologies into their phones. You’ll probably remember that early smartphone users could use the phone as an address book, fax machine, email, and even a pager.

It has only been in recent years that the capacity of a cell phone has changed from a traditional communication handset to a powerful multimedia tool, where people just refer to it as their “device”. Today, many people don’t actually use their device for placing calls but more for checking email, snapping photos, surfing the web, and updating social media.

“I don’t remember having a phone without the touch screen”, says James, “but I have seen their improved screen resolution, expanding software titles, and constantly updated interface. Cell phones are much easier to navigate, it’s an ever-expanding market.”

But that’s not all they offer. When cameras were first introduced on phones in 2000, images were low quality and the camera feature would just be an afterthought. However, today’s cell phones are also replacing our other electronics, such as video cameras and point and shoot cameras.

“In the 1980’s I used to carry my separate camera bags around, not to mention music players, now, we’re seeing a fast shift to where modern consumers don’t even bother carrying their point-and-shoot cameras anymore, they use their cell phones,” says Bryan.

Changing Everything 

blackberry as a first mobile phone

The short message texting service that we know today didn’t appear until 1992, and those downloadable ringtones to signal an incoming message weren’t available until 1998. The very popular addition of Emojis, representing users’ moods, was introduced a year later.

The BlackBerry made its debut in 1999 and was one of the first globally used devices to give consumers an option to send and receive email from their handheld, compact phone, changing the way people communicated with work colleagues outside the office.

The Apple iPhone and other modern smartphones have drastically evolved; adapting to what consumers need from their phones. The growing and lucrative app market has transformed the phone into an online shopping cart of useful solutions for every need.

Cell Phone Future

cell phone future

According to James, “the cell phone has developed so rapidly in the past decade that anything is possible for the future. He anticipates that, “the majority of the hardware and the software can be moved to ‘the cloud’ and the product will mainly consist of the input and the display with the convergence of all our tech gadgets into one mobile device.”

Today, evolving cell phone networks are running LTE and 4G technology, with 5G approaching rapidly and reassuring the fastest connections to the internet across the globe.

“I believe that in the near future, our cell phones will become even more naturally in sync with our body’s reflexes such as kinesthetic, cultural preferences, eye movement, and thought processes”, James says, while Brian is happy to have experienced the early days.

Of course, what the next incarnation of the smartphone looks like, remains to be seen.

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