Revisiting the history of the cellphone

Much of the adult population today has grown up with mobile phone networks, even here in India, where we were late to the game but leapfrogged the developed world

Updated - April 17, 2018 01:44 pm IST

Published - April 16, 2018 05:35 pm IST

Special Arrangement

Special Arrangement

When the first feasible cellular mobile phone went on sale back in 1983 — the Motorola DynaTAC 8000X — it was laughably large by today’s standards, but a revolution then. Not being able to communicate at the appropriate time had been a plot device in cinema forever; no longer! The mobile industry has seen accelerating development at an amazing scale. Here’s a rundown of some significant milestones in the history of the cellphone.

Special Arrangement

Special Arrangement

Invention, early services

While 1983 saw commercial availability of the cellphone, it was first demo-ed way back in 1973, again by Motorola. At the time, it was a device weighing 2kg. The first commercial mobile phone network was introduced in Japan in 1979 by NTT, with many European nations following in the 80s. Cellular networks used analog CDMA tech.


2G, GSM, mobile internet

In 1991, Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM, originally Groupe Spécial Mobile) made its début as the first ‘2G’ network in Finland. This was the precursor to the mobile data boom. Initially offering internet access via GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) and moving to the faster EDGE (Enhanced Data rates for GSM Evolution, or EGPRS). In India, we skipped the entire analog generation of mobile phone services, going straight to GSM and 2G.

Evolution of the mobile phone The mobile industry has seen accelerating development on an amazing scale  special arrangement

Evolution of the mobile phone The mobile industry has seen accelerating development on an amazing scale special arrangement


The company’s telecom wing was a major contributor to the GSM standard and the first 2G GSM network. However, they only started taking the mobile phone business seriously in 1992. Phones like the 5110 and 3300 became iconic and dominated the market. But then, the iPhone happened, sparking off a revolution in touchscreen smartphones. The mobile phone business was eventually bought by Microsoft in 2014, who tried to use the brand for their own devices using the Windows Mobile platform, but even those came to a quiet end.


Camera phones made their début in 2000 in Japan or South Korea, with laughably tiny 0.11-0.35 megapixel resolutions. This was before social media, Bluetooth, WiFi or decent mobile internet, so one wonders what people did with those photos. In India, one of the earliest was the Nokia 7650, Nokia’s first. Announced in 2002, it used a 0.3 megapixel camera. It could transmit photos using GPRS, Bluetooth or Infrared.

Bluetooth, WiFi

With Bluetooth making its début in mobile phones, users could — for the first time — send and receive files, photos and contacts from other Bluetooth-enabled phone users wirelessly. Bluetooth was designed to enable wireless headsets, and continues to be the standard for most devices to interconnect across short distances. The first Bluetooth-enabled phone became available in 2000 — the Ericsson T36.


In 2001 came a new, more efficient, faster (for data services) type of mobile network, 3G, first deployed in Japan. In India, we’ve seen different types of 3G networks starting in 2008, including the earlier Reliance network (based on a standard called CDMA2000) and the more recent W-CDMA based networks. 3G networks and standards allowed wireless broadband to be practical in India for the first time, and provided varying levels of speed.


BlackBerry is best known for its rock-solid email integration, and has been the mainstay of corporate and government mobile devices. The smartphone-style devices have been around since 2002 and seemed impossible to match. Unfortunately, like Nokia, BlackBerry was also caught unawares by the smartphone revolution unleashed by the iPhone. After trying their own versions of touchscreen devices and a lot of development with their own software, they eventually began using Android for their operating system in 2015, and license the BlackBerry brand to several different Android-based models made for the Asian market.


Android is a mobile operating system acquired by Google in 2005, that runs on a vast majority of smartphones today. If you aren’t buying an iPhone, chances are your smartphone will be running Android. While Android pre-dates the iPhone, they had to “go back to the drawing board” once the iPhone was announced with its new touchscreen. The first Android touchscreen device (G1) came out in 2008 for the US market.


With new capacitive touchscreen technology (earlier devices used resistive touchscreens that required pressure from a finger or stylus) and unprecedented performance, the first iPhone in 2007, gave a massive boost to mobile computing, networks and applications. It launched with built-on Bluetooth, WiFi and EDGE (2G) network support at an unprecedented price of $599 (later dropped to $399). It also significantly changed the power structure of the mobile phone market, away from service providers toward device manufacturers and consumers.


The first 4G network, based on the LTE standard, made its début in 2009 in Sweden. India received its first through Airtel in 2012. 4G relies heavily on internet protocols, and most Indian services have had a strong focus on data services such as music, video and social media. Reliance Jio has also pioneered the use of VoLTE (Voice-over-LTE), which allows the transmission of high-definition voice for phone calls. The Jio network launched with 4G services in 2016 with rock-bottom prices and focus on mobile data consumption that started a price war. The average data usage per month per user has gone up from 70MB in 2014 to 1.6GB in 2017, according to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India.

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