Smartphone evolution: a history of radical design that led to foldable screens
FT telecoms correspondent Nic Fildes joins phone nerd Ben Wood of CCS Insight to discuss innovative phones including Mobira's Talkman, the Nokia 3310, the BlackBerry and the iPhone, and how they paved the way for the latest so-called 'bendy phones' from Samsung and Huawei.
Produced and edited by Petros Gioumpasis. Filmed by Petros Gioumpasis and Joe Sinclair
Almost two billion phones were sold last year, one and a half billion of which were smart. Yet, over the past decade, the design has slowed down. So we're going to look back through the history of the phone to try and work out what past designs can tell us about where we might be going in the future. With us we have Ben Wood, chief analyst for CCS Insight, and also the biggest phone nerd I've ever met.
So, Ben, cast your mind back through time. Where did this all start?
Let's go back to 1984. And you got two key products here. You've got this Talkman phone from Mobira, one of the first phones that calls were made on cellular networks. And you've got this product, the Motorola 8000X, made famous in the Wall Street movie. These early phones from 1984 were some of the original commercial products that allowed people to make a phone call wirelessly, and that was a revolution.
Doesn't look very portable now. But what would the reaction to something like that have been at the time?
This is the sort of thing that you would see a stockbroker in London getting onto the train, slamming onto the table, and then making a phone call to say, darling, I'll be home in 20 minutes. It was a status symbol.
What would I've been looking to pay for one of these to get that status symbol back then?
These products cost thousands of pounds. This product, when it launched in the US, was $4,000. In fact, in those days, people didn't buy phones. You leased the phone.
So leaving the prehistoric age, let's go to something that's probably more familiar to many, many people when Nokia dominated the Earth, and phones started selling in the millions and tens of millions. What was the knockout product at the turn of the century?
The truly iconic product in that range would be this, the Nokia 3310. Year 2000 - this came to be born. And 120m units of this phone were sold. It was a phenomenon in its own right, a simple talk and texter. And in those days, it was very much about a voice interaction with a phone, not the vision interaction we have today. This phone was a tipping point in terms of the story of the mobile phone. It was the once you broke through that hundred million units, that really democratised the mobile phone for the world.
Fast forwarding a few years, Ben, we get to a phone that in terms of design, really, really changed the market as well, didn't it?
Absolutely. I think you're talking about the Motorola Razr. This was an incredible product. This was the product everybody wanted - beautiful, sleek design, aluminium keypad. The first time that we really saw fashion striking big in the mobile phone.
So let's move on to what was an interesting phenomenon. I guess you could argue it was the first fruit-based entry into the phone market, but not the one you would think of, which is the BlackBerry, which started out, I guess, in an odd way. It was a what Canadian messaging company? Pagers... were they pagers?
Essentially, pages. So it was a little, yeah, paging was a huge thing. They took the paging network. And they realised that they could push data over it. And it gave you the ability to get into your email. And that evolved into the point that then the phone integrated into the device. And this was the first colour BlackBerry, the 7200.
And finally, to take us to the modern age. Even though it was launched quite a long time ago, we have the obvious candidate for the evolution of the smart phone, is the iPhone.
The Apple iPhone, pulled out of Steve Jobs' pocket in 2007. And this is the phone that changed the world. In fact, what you're looking at here is one of the first ever iPhones. And it has become the dominant design for the smart phone of our era. When it was launched, it didn't seem that impressive.
From memory, it wasn't even a 3G device, was it? It seemed a bit odd. And here was a company that was going to dictate terms to the network operators, wasn't going to have subsidy on the device. It was a 2G device in a 3G world. People were wondering what Apple were doing.
But as soon as you got your hands on the device - and I had this one flown over on the day of launch - you immediately realised this was something very special. Right from the moment you slid open the box, the cardboard engineering on the packaging was a revolution. And that was before you even turned it on.
It was like a computer in your pocket. And it had this whole new interaction model, finger-touch, where you didn't need a stylus anymore. You could just interact. And of course, at this point it didn't have apps. The apps came later. But that was the next wave of the revolution.
The iPhone set the tone for the next decade of phone designs and pretty much triggered what Ben here calls a sea of sameness. But if we looked at the diversity of the past and as we enter this year talking about foldable phones and flexible displays, that perhaps this gives us a clue as to where the phone market could go in the future. So one, one of the ones that really leaps off the table for me is this Nokia, which looks a bit like a Game Boy, but was actually a phone. About 15 years ago, you would have seen people walking around like this.
Very ambitious project by Nokia. They were going after the Game Boy Advance, which was a very popular portable, handheld gaming device. And Nokia realised that the phone lent itself to that. And it's interesting how we're seeing a renaissance now with gaming coming back as a big pillar for the way that people are selling modern smart phones.
What about this, Ben?
This is an incredible line of products. The Xelibri. This is the number 4. These were fashion led. This was a device that was supposed to be worn. And the way they were going to sell these devices was not through traditional mobile phone stores, but in fact, haute couture fashion outlets. These were being sold in places like Selfridges. It never took off. But potentially, it was ahead of its time, because now we're seeing people wanting to wear phones again.
Ben, we've seen incredible innovation here across a variety of products that didn't really make it. Let's face it. But what can we learn from this in terms of where we're heading in the smart phone market?
Well, we saw these two decades of incredible innovation. And then we landed on this dominant design defined by the iPhone of a rectangular monobloc with a touch screen. Now, we enter a whole new chapter with the advent of the flexible screen.
And this opens up a whole world of possibilities in terms of design. We'll be able to see phones that fold and bend and do all sorts of weird and wonderful things. And if you're going to make those kind of designs succeed, you need experimentation. And that's what this history tells us.