Missed calls and milestones: at the 50-year mark, a timeline of the mobile phone

Analog of AI: There were once networks that were retroactively called 0G. They depended on radio waves and operated car phones for example. The switch from analog to 1G, which used high-frequency microwaves, was a dramatic advance. Japan’s Nippon Telegraph and Telephone was the first company to develop such a commercial cellular network in 1979.

Snake was the first mobile phone game to go viral.  Tetris, as it came before, is still available, but in a more colorful avatar.  Today's most popular phone games include Candy Crush. premium
Snake was the first mobile phone game to go viral. Tetris, as it came before, is still available, but in a more colorful avatar. Today’s most popular phone games include Candy Crush.

In the mid-1980s, there were companies offering cellular service all over the world. The early 1990s saw the birth of 2G, the first network where speech was digitally encoded into encrypted signals. Digital exchange of data has enabled features like SMS, conference calling and caller ID. 3G represented a boom in speed and portability, allowing the exchange of images and videos, email and emojis.

We are currently transitioning from 4G to 5G, both of these networks are embedded in smart fridges and washing machines, cars, speakers, fans and even lights. 6G is now in the research and development phase and will likely be the phase of artificial intelligence-enhanced telephony.

Were they playing your tune? According to data from Jupiter Research, ringtones were a $6 billion industry as recently as 2006. Lovers gave gifts to girlfriends, parents gave gifts to children. Users paid for them monthly, and switched them frequently to keep track of chart-topping tunes.

At their peak, customers were paying up to $5 per month in the US and 50 per month in India, for a unique tone. It was a revenue spinner for service providers and music labels. T-Series, Saregama and Sony Music have earned till 150 crore annually to telecom companies from their music licenses, according to IMI (Indian Music Industry), the national association of music labels. Custom ringtones and color tunes are still available, but who calls or keeps a ringer these days?

Missed calls and milestones: 50 years on, a timeline of the mobile phone
Missed calls and milestones: 50 years on, a timeline of the mobile phone

Playing the field: Tetris was the first game built on a mobile device (the Hagenuk Globalhandy in 1994), but Nokia’s Snake was the first to, in a sense, go viral. A simple interface of black lines on a two-inch backlit screen, consuming dots, growing and moving fast, was launched in 1997. But it began to be packaged in every Nokia phone after the 3310, and that model launched in 2000. was durable and widely used.

The game used a cyclic loop (the snake went from the bottom and came out at the top of the screen) and haptic feedback (a happy buzz signaled when it was opened, a horror one as it collapsed on itself and died). It was slow, plain, but oddly riveting.

For a time, one could buy more exciting games on memory cards: poker, pool, golf, bowling, racing. Then, in July 2008, the iPhone App Store launched, and it changed everything. Android Market was launched about three months later.

Users no longer have to rely on built-in apps. Today’s popular games – whether PubG Mobile or Candy Crush Saga – remain largely free but must be downloaded, and rely on ads and in-app purchases for revenue. Versions of Snake and Tetris are still available, but most are so colorful, they don’t feel like the real thing.

Close the call: Should the Internet be involved in the exchange of data? In 1994, the idea for Bluetooth was conceived by Jaap Hartsen, an Ericsson engineer in the Netherlands. He created a small module that can sit inside the device and communicate wirelessly with any nearby device that has the same module without using the net.

It was such a revolutionary idea that the world of telecommunications followed suit. In 1998, the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (BSIG), an informal association between Ericsson, IBM, Intel, Nokia and Toshiba, was established to develop and promote the technology and deploy it seamlessly. Bluetooth was added to mobile phones in 2001.

BSIG now has more than 30,000 member companies, incorporating technology into a growing range of devices that include headphones, printers, smart home systems and gaming controllers.

IBM Simon Personal Communicator, the world's first smartphone.  (Wikimedia)
IBM Simon Personal Communicator, the world’s first smartphone. (Wikimedia)

Software Market: Launched in 1994, the IBM Simon Personal Communicator was the world’s first smartphone, the world’s first touchscreen phone, and the world’s first phone with apps. These included a calendar, address book, notepad, e-mail app and calculator.

Early mobile phones had pre-installed apps – games, ringtone editors, even an SMS inbox – but no one thought of them as such because the app world generally offered limited functionality, mainly because these devices weren’t connected to the Internet.

Apps as we know them only became popular with the launch of the App Store in 2008. That first iteration gave users more than 500 apps to choose from, forever changing how we interact with our mobile devices and how our devices interact with the world. It’s a marketplace envisioned by Steve Jobs in the early 1980s, when he talked about a place where software could be bought over the phone.

There are now apps for wearables like smartwatches. There are mobile apps for banking, e-commerce, school, stock trading. Vipassana Meditation Retreats also suggests booking your digital detox break on their app.

Message received: One of the reasons we have SMS lingo – LOLs, GTGs, TTYLs – is that early versions of the short messaging service only allowed 160 characters, and most phone plans only offered 35 free SMSes a month. It was in 1990.

By mid-August, things were already changing dramatically. The development of mobile technology introduced multimedia messaging service or MMS, which allowed users to exchange image, graphic and text files. In 2005, Research in Motion or RIM, the makers of BlackBerry, introduced BlackBerry Messenger (BBM), the world’s first phone messaging service used over the Internet. Users are charged for data usage, but not per text. BBM also offered read receipts, stickers, group chat features, and ruled the texting world until WhatsApp arrived in 2009 and was available on every smartphone.

The iPhone’s iMessage feature was launched in 2011, Telegram in 2013, and Signal in 2014. Today’s SMS inbox, as a result, is just a graveyard of bank alerts and OTP prompts. Especially in India, where OTP is used for anything.

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