The History and Evolution of the Smartphone: 1992-2018

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The modern smartphone has taken a long 26-year journey to reach us in 2018, and it's changed a lot along the way. It’s an evolution that's taken the market by storm!

What were once large and bulky luxury items have become small, compact devices we can’t live without. In fact, 77% of Americans own a smartphone, according to Pew Research Center, and 95% of Americans own a cell phone of some kind.

The history and evolution of the smartphone is important to understand, because it gives us a glimpse of where we've come from, and of what's coming. That goes for improvements in technology as well as consumer trends.

So let's take a look at just how far we've come.

History and Evolution of the Smartphone

IBM and The World’s First Smartphone

In 1992, IBM revealed a revolutionary device that had more capabilities than its preceding cell phones. This prototype smartphone was known as the Simon Personal Communicator, but it wouldn’t see its way to consumers until 1994.

The device had many of the modern elements we attribute to current smartphones and mobile devices. Highlights included:

  • Touch screen
  • Email
  • Fax
  • Notes and Calendar
  • Apps and other widgets that would become widespread decades later

While it was a bold entry into the market, it wasn’t exactly the smoothest starting point for a mobile device. You could say it was ahead of its time, and most consumers didn't jump on board.

The Simon was advanced for it's time, but has nothing on the smartphones of today. It only had a small monochrome LCD screen and a one-hour battery life.

One thing that was cool, it did let you make landline calls instead of being at the mercy of expensive carrier rates. Unfortunately, at $1,100 retail MSRP, it only sold 50,000 units in 6 months.

Clearly, though, the Simon created a great launching pad for others to innovate.

Then Came Blackberry

The first BlackBerry mobile device was the BlackBerry 5810. It had most of what you think of when you hear "Blackberry":

  • Calendar
  • Music
  • A full keyboard
  • Advanced security
  • Internet access

But you had to make calls through a headset.

BlackBerry primarily targeted business professionals. They kept releasing more and more advanced devices, and became the market leader in smartphones until the iPhone gained steam.

They seemed to lose sight of their target customer, though, and bottomed out with 0% market share in 2017.

Apple Enters The Smartphone Race

Apple had already begun transforming how people use portable technology with the iPod, and the stage was set for them to unveil their latest device in 2007.

The iPhone was one of the most advanced consumer smartphones the market had ever seen. Priced at $499 for the 4gb unit and $599 for the 8gb model, users flocked to the device - and to the AT&T carrier it was exclusive to. 

Apple sold 1.4 million iPhones its first year on the market, and the device exploded to 11.6 million sold in 2008.

iPhone Sales 2007-2018

Apple already had the iPod Video, but one large drawback was its small, 4:3 aspect ratio screen. The iPhone came with a wide LCD screen that was perfect for video.

It’s extended battery life allowed for 8 hours of talk time and 250 hours on standby. This battery was a huge improvement over IBM’s Simon! It also made the iPhone a much more consumer-friendly device, particularly for daily use.

Related: How Much Time Do People Spend on Their Mobile Phones in 2018?

The hardware was impressive, but the software - in the form of 3rd party apps - expanded the iPhone’s capabilities and created a revolution for the industry.

Millions of apps arrived on the iPhone, adding to the device’s feature set daily. Before long, the smartphone market exploded, and in 2015, 84% of Americans said they couldn't go a day without their phone.

The Modern Smartphone of 2018

There’s a large difference in hardware from 2007 to 2018. In short, everything is more advanced.

  • There's way more memory
  • Devices are far faster and more powerful
  • You can use multiple applications at the same time
  • Cameras are HD
  • Music and video streaming are easy, as well as online gaming
  • The battery lasts for days instead of minutes or a couple hours


Mobile Phone Ownership Over Time

Two primary operating systems have evolved within the smartphone market. Google's Android has been adopted by a number of hardware manufacturers to compete with Apple and their iOS.

For the moment, Android is winning.

According to StatCounter, Android holds the majority worldwide market share, with more than 42%. This is larger than even Microsoft Windows on desktop and laptop PCs.

StatCounter Operating System Worldwide Market Share

Thanks to these advancements, most people have been able to replace their digital cameras and iPods (mp3 players) with their phone. While iPhones are worth the cost for their feature set, Android devices have likely spread more because they're more affordable.

On average, Android devices are almost 1/3rd the cost of an iPhone, according to ABI Research findings. This is thanks to a diverse amount of hardware manufacturers using the Android OS for their smartphones.

The Future of Smartphones

The early smartphones like IBM’s Simon showed us a glimpse of what mobile devices could be. In 2007, their potential was fully realized by Apple and the iPhone. Now, in 2018, they continue to become a staple of our everyday lives.

From replacements for our digital cameras and music players, to personal assistants like Siri and voice search, we’ve ceased using our smartphones merely to communicate with each other.

So what's next?

The advances of smartphones continue to grow constantly. It's hard to predict what will come next, but it seems like a throwback to the flip phone (with folding touch screens) is likely. Voice commands are also expected to continue growing.

Gone are the days where we had to sacrifice many of the capabilities we enjoy on our laptops or desktops while on the go. The improvement of mobile technology has allowed us more options in how we approach both our work and leisure activities.

Related: How Much Online Traffic Comes from Mobile Devices?