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Looking Back: The Smartphone at 20

Paying Homage To The Grandaddy Of Mobile Computing

The so-called ‘Screen Generation’ is coming of age; a child today has not only grown up in a world where everything comes to them through a screen, but they see touchscreens as the norm. Six-year olds know more about technology than 40 year olds, and an existence untethered from mobile access to the digital world seems increasingly far-fetched.

With this in mind, it’s difficult to imagine that the first smartphone came on the market just 20 years ago – although you’d be forgiven for racking your brains to recall the model of mobile computing before Apple blew the dam with the first iPhone in 2007.

IBM’s Simon (so named because they wanted to suggest that using it was as easy as ‘Simon Says…’) was first released on 16th August 1994. It was available only within a 15 state network in the U.S., cost $899, and sold around 50,000 units. Six months after its release it was off the market, but it still stands as the grandfather of the devices which every person now carries in their pocket.

Although it wasn’t called a smartphone (it was a ‘personal communicator’), it had many of the features which even the pinch to zoom kids of today may recognise. It had a calendar, could send and receive email, and even had a game called Scramble which involved moving squares around the screen to reveal a picture. It also functioned as an actual phone, of course, and even had some features which modern phones seem to lack: it had a built-in pager function and could be hooked up to a fax machine.

It’s fair to say that while Simon’s heart may have been in the right place, it was a little too ahead of its time to be a really viable option. It was released at a time with no mobile data, when no Web browsers had been released, and its battery could last an hour – 30 minutes if you were in an area with poor coverage. It did feature a rudimentary system for what we would now call apps, via a slot where cartridges could be inserted.

Despite weighing half a kilo Simon did find some popularity among the business community, although the lack of infrastructure meant that it was too revolutionary to really catch on. It was also a victim of IBM’s own corporate meltdown: the company had lost $16 billion and shed 100,000 employees in the three year’s prior to Simon’s release.

All this serves as an apt reminder that while ceaseless technological innovation is, of course, vital and exciting and fun to write about, equally important is the boring stuff which rolls on behind the scenes. The iPhone is a beautifully designed object, but what is less discussed is the beauty of Apple’s distribution network, or their marketing, or their investment and research and development strategy.

But for now it’s enough to celebrate the engineers who, with Simon, created perhaps the defining object of the modern age. It’s fun to speculate about what smartphones will look like 20 years from now, but it’s also important to take a moment to remember that everything we have today stands on the shoulders of 500g, 1MB, 160x293 display giants.

Douglas is an English Literature graduate who has written about everything from music to food to theatre, now a content creator for Social Media Frontiers. No topic too large or too small. Follow him @DouglasAtSMF.

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Looking Back: The Smartphone at 20 Reviewed by Anonymous on Monday, August 18, 2014 Rating: 5
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