While the 2010s may be remembered as a decade of political turmoil, it should be remembered as the decade of the smartphone.
For something so small, smartphones have had a huge impact on human lives. They’ve changed the course of politics, providing the platform for ubiquitous social media apps ripe for exploitation. They’ve allowed people to forge careers online, from vlogging to posting thirst-traps on Instagram. They’ve even had an impact on the human body – from widespread carpal tunnel caused by too much texting, to creating small indentations in the middle of pinky fingers.
But how did we get here? And which phones have been the most significant players in the past decade? We take a look back over the past ten years, charting the ups and downs of the phones that changed the world.
Here's the list:
- Apple iPhone – The most important phone ever?
- HTC First – A failed attempt to integrate Facebook and its growing popularity with Android
- Amazon Fire Phone – An interesting, innovative phone from Amazon that ultimately flopped
- Apple iPhone 6 – Apple ditches its tried-and-trusted smaller handsets for two bigger models
- BlackBerry Leap – BlackBerryOS' last hurrah didn't even have a physical keyboard
- Microsoft Lumia 650 – The final underwhelming instalment of Windows Phones
- Apple iPhone 7 – Apple says au revoir to the 3.5mm auxiliary jack; it was controversial to say the least
- Motorola Moto Z3 – The first commercially available 5G phone, it wasn't perfect but it was a start
- Samsung Galaxy Fold – Samsung reveals a bold new design that might become the new standard for smartphones
Admittedly, the first iPhone launched back in 2007, so it technically falls outside of our remit. However, trying to discuss the history of the smartphone without mentioning the iPhone is an almost pointless task.
The iPhone was perhaps the first phone to be conceived as a portable computer first, rather than a device that makes phone calls and can also connect to the internet. In fact, when launching the first iPhone, Steve Jobs claimed that it was three devices in one: a “widescreen iPod with touch controls,” a “revolutionary mobile phone,” and a “breakthrough internet communicator.”
Looking back, the iPhone’s impact may have seemed inevitable, but its success was far from guaranteed. At the time, Nokia had been on top of the smartphone game for years, and it looked set to stay that way. The Finnish company’s N95 outsold Apple’s first attempt at a phone, and was widely considered to be the best phone of 2007.
In fact, the first iPhone was far from the specs powerhouse it is widely considered to be. It had a two megapixel camera, but couldn’t capture videos. It couldn’t send MMS messages to other phones, and initially only had 4GB of storage. In fact, it couldn’t even connect to the new 3G networks.
This didn’t put off buyers, however. “The lack of 3G wasn’t an issue,” said Reddit user yellowaircaft, who queued outside Apple’s 5th Avenue store on release day. “The storage was OK, and considering there was no selfie craze back in 2007, not many people were using their phone as a camera.”
“My favorite feature at the time was being able to zoom in and out by pinching my fingers,” said yellowaircraft. “I played with it all the time. Even my coworkers used to come to me to play with the zoom in and out feature when they had time.” It was, truly, a different time.
Read more – Which iPhone Should I Get?
Software False Dawns
Speaking of different times, can you remember buying a phone that wasn’t an iPhone or an Android device? Back in the early 2010s, you could opt for a BlackBerry, or a Windows phone; there were some Symbian phones still kicking around, and you could even pick up a phone running Amazon’s FireOS.
Amazon’s Ill-Fated Fire Phone
Looking back, it seems inconceivable that a company with Amazon’s size and scale would allow itself to lose $170 million on an ill-conceived phone project. But, back in 2014, that’s exactly what happened.
The Fire Phone was announced in June 2014, while rumors had abounded about Amazon joining the phones market since 2011.
Reviews were mixed: Engadget, for example, praised the phone’s Dynamic Perspective feature, which automatically changed how things appeared on-screen relative to the users’ face. However, it didn’t launch with Bluetooth, and some found the phone’s insistence on tying in almost every action to an Amazon service frustrating.
The Fire Phone itself ran a forked version of Android 4. Amazon claimed that its reworking was so extensive that it was essentially a completely new operating system – it included loads of new gestures, menus, and sub-menus compared to Android.
FireOS didn’t get access to the Google Play store – this wasn’t as significant as it is today, but it still required developers to invest time and money creating apps for its unique OS with no guarantee of widespread use. In truth, the Fire Phone failed because it was expensive (costing $650 unlocked or $199 with a two-year contract), under-featured, and ugly.
No Light at the End of the Lumia Tunnel
Microsoft had been trying to sell Windows Mobile devices to enterprise customers since the early 2000s, but hadn’t found much success. Then, in 2010, the company announced that Windows Mobile would be getting the chop, and was to be replaced with a new consumer-focused OS called, erm, Windows Phone.
The first wave of Windows Phone phones were manufactured by genuine powerhouses at the time in HTC, LG, and Samsung. Then, in 2011, it was announced that Nokia would be mothballing its own Symbian operating system in favor of Windows Mobile. Nokia’s confidence in the OS, however, was misplaced. Windows Phone was never able to challenge the growing Android/apple duopoly – it only ever managed to control 3.6% of the global OS market.
By 2014, the writing was on the wall for Windows Phone. Fewer people were buying the phones and, despite Microsoft even buying Nokia to bring phone production in-house, the interest could never be resurrected.
Find out more – Best Nokia Phone for 2020
The final Windows Phone handset arrived in February 2016. The Microsoft Lumia 650 is significant not because it succeeded, but because it marked the death knell of operating systems that weren’t Android or iOS. The Lumia 650 wasn’t even a bad phone – it was praised for its stylish looks and impressive cameras and display. However, no hardware could save the dying OS.
The Facebook Phone
The HTC First was the first and only phone to feature Facebook’s custom Home user interface. Released in April 2013, the First sold a paltry 15,000 units, despite its low price $99 price tag (which was lowered by AT&T to just $0.99 with a two-year contract).
While the phone itself was fairly unremarkable – it had a 5Mp rear camera that produced “muddy” photos, but a pleasingly sharp 720p display – its biggest feature was obviously the Facebook skin.
Facebook’s Home UI essentially replaced HTC’s usual Sense Android skin. It curated Facebook posts from your friends, groups, and pages, displaying them on the phone’s home screen – all the time. It even controlled notifications from other apps on the phone, no doubt making sure that Facebook’s were the most prominent.
To us in 2019, it seems remarkable that anyone would allow Facebook(!) to have direct control over your phone’s notifications. But, back in the halcyon days of 2013, privacy was more associated with locker rooms than the internet.
The HTC First demonstrated that software gimmicks were not enough to sell a phone. No one needed a dedicated Facebook skin – the app was already on their phone.
It also demonstrated that there were limits to Facebook’s popularity and growth. At the end of 2012, Mark Zuckerberg’s former hot-or-not browser game became the first social network to claim a billion users, and it looked set to keep on growing, swallowing up every person on the planet.
Had the HTC First sold well, however, there’s a chance that we could be living in a very different, possibly dystopian world today.
Refinement and Reductionism
Phones all look the same these days. Loads of glass on the front, with slim or non-existent bezels, metal or plastic around the sides, a rear camera bump, and a rear case made from either glass or plastic. Most phones don’t have headphone jacks, but some have space for microSD cards. How did we get here? How did we end up in a world where (arguably) the most important thing each of us owns looks just like everyone else's?
Again, looking back, it seems like we were destined to end up with touchscreen phones. However, the dominance of the touchscreen was far from inevitable.
Leap of Faith
The real death knell for the touchscreen was the BlackBerry Leap. BlackBerry had previously been the got-to phone brand for busy office workers, who were able to email on the go with the company’s signature physical keyboards and relatively big screens.
However, successive iPhones and Samsung Galaxy Note-series phones proved that touchscreens were as just as tactile as keyboards. By 2015, even BlackBerry could see the writing on the wall – the touchscreen was king.
The BlackBerry Leap was announced in March 2015 at Mobile World Congress to, frankly, mediocre reviews. Its design was sleek, sure, but there was precious little to write home about aside from the looks. The most significant thing about the Leap was that it saw BlackBerry abandon the keyboard, almost for good.
The physical keyboard had been a cornerstone of BlackBerry’s success in previous years, but consumers were becoming increasingly turned-off by rows of small QWERTY buttons. After the Leap, BlackBerry began producing forgettable or gimmicky Android phones.
Big Screens, Small Profiles
Phone screens have been growing continuously since, well, forever. But when, in 2014, Apple decided to ditch the 4-inch screen found on the iPhone 5 in favor of a 4.7-inch display on the iPhone 6 – and an even larger 5.5-inch screen on the 6 Plus – the world was shocked.
Many feared that the enlarged screen would make the phone difficult to use one-handed. Some felt that the larger displays were simply unnecessary. However, the iPhone 6 range proved to be one of Apple’s most popular models ever – both variants sold a combined 220 million units before they were discontinued two years after launching.
In fact, the phones’ popularity even survived ‘bendgate’, whereby the aluminium case would flex under pressure. Apple assured consumers that this was extremely rare, despite blacklisting publications that tested whether or not the phones would bend.
With the launch of the 6 and 6 Plus, Apple committed itself to expanding the size of iPhone models. Android phones had been pushing the boundaries of acceptable phone screen sizes for a while, and with Apple joining the bandwagon, there was no chance of the race slowing down.
It’s tricky to stress just how controversial this change was at the time. Consumers simply expected that phones should have a headphone jack – after all, if it didn’t have a headphone jack, where could you plug your iconic white Apple earphones in?
At the launch event, Apple execs boasted how this change required “courage.” In order to make the iPhone 7 thinner than ever, they had to lose the headphone jack. And, while the company would provide a dongle to attach regular headphones to the lightning port, it was preempting a shift to wireless headphones that many people simply hadn’t envisioned.
While the iPhone 7 wasn’t the first phone to ship without a headphone jack, it was certainly the most popular model to ditch the port. The iPhone 7’s significance, then, comes not from a feature it gained, but a feature it took away. Apple had demonstrated that the future of phones was one without cables – bluetooth headphones are more popular than ever, and consumers are starting to demand wireless charging – and the rest of the industry has followed the company’s lead.
Rumors are suggesting that the next iPhone might not feature any ports at all — not even a lightning port for charging. This will doubtless be controversial, but it’s worth remembering that Apple started us down this path almost five years ago.
So far, we’ve looked at devices that, in retrospect, have marked the significant points in the development of phones. Often, many of the phones weren’t considered to be significant when they launched. We can now turn our attention to the most recent phones which we will look back on in years to come.
Need for Speed
The Motorola Moto Z3 is, at first glance, a pretty unremarkable phone. It cost around $480 when it debuted in August 2018. It had two 12Mp rear cameras. It had a 6-inch 1080p display. But it will go down in history as the first phone able to connect to 5G mobile networks – sort of, anyway.
The Z3 used Motorola’s Moto Mods system, which allowed users to clip on modules to the phone’s rear case to augment its features. One Z3 extra was a 5G attachment which, when working, allowed users to get download speeds of well over 400mbps – about ten times faster than most 4G phones.
It wasn’t perfect. It was tied to Verizon’s network – which only worked in two US cities at launch – and you had to be in sight of the receiver to get the 5G connection. Oh, and it cost an extra $200.
However, the precedent had been set. 5G worked, and it was the future.
A Folding Future
Between 2014 and 2018, it felt as though phone manufacturers had broadly decided on the perfect form factor for a phone. It should be tall, thin, and hewn from glass and metal.
However, at Mobile World Congress in February, Samsung decided that it wasn’t satisfied with the status quo, and announced the Galaxy Fold.
You probably know the Galaxy Fold’s story. Samples were sent out to journalists and tech bloggers, and subsequently broke. Samsung recalled the review samples and postponed the phone’s release in order to rework the hinge mechanism. Eventually it went on sale in September 2019, and cost almost $2,000.
Again, it wasn’t perfect. The large folding screen has a large visible crease through the middle. It doesn’t fold flush, instead leaving a large gap between the two sides of the screen. The small outer screen is almost too narrow to use effectively.
But Samsung had offered a different vision of what a phone could be. Come the end of 2029, pundits and commentators might look back on the Galaxy Fold as the start of the next generation of smartphone.