11 tech breakthroughs that led to today’s smartphones

With the imminent release of the next generation of iPhones, let's look at what early pioneers did to get us to where we are today.

11 tech breakthroughs that led to today’s smartphones
Pixabay (Creative Commons BY or BY-SA)

In this tenth year of the iPhone, and with a new model’s imminent release, people tend to concentrate on what we currently hold in our hands and what Apple has done to advance the smartphone device and user experience.

It’s true Apple has done many good things in making the smartphone the go-to device that it is today — from the UI to app store to enhanced security to screens, to voice control, etc. But it’s important to also look back and realize that many of the fundamental technologies that allow such breakthroughs came about years ago — before the iPhone was available — by some groundbreaking technology companies.

[ Also on Computerworld: Apple’s next-generation iPhones to ship in September? ]

My point is not to belittle what Apple has done for the market. It has done an huge amount to reinvent the market in its own image and in the image of what its consumers want. But it’s also important to understand that the market was built on the shoulders of many that came before with their own innovations with their own contributions, and we should give them their due in making the smartphone what it is today.

Technology that created today's smartphone experience

What are some of the key underlying technologies that make our phone experience the compelling “device of choice” that it is today? And who were the pioneers that made them happen? Below are a few highlights of important steps in the evolution of the smartphone and the technologies we now often take for granted.

  • Cameras — Sharp introduced the first integrated camera phone in Japan in late 2000. Samsung also introduced one at about the same time. Both were very limited in capabilities and implementation. Since then, nearly every vendor of phones has integrated ever-increasing quality cameras in their devices. In fact, Nokia even staked its brand reputation for a while on how well it could take photos with its phone and deliver quality pictures with built-in editing. Embedded cameras made the smartphone the ubiquitous go-to device for the vast majority of photos. And we’ll likely continue to see advances in camera technology going forward, such as augmented reality, virtual reality and 3D, as improving phone processor chips from key suppliers support it.
  • GPS — Benefon launched the first commercially available GPS phone in 1999, called the Benefon Esc! The GSM phone was sold mainly in Europe, but many other GPS-enabled mobile phones would soon follow. In 2004, Qualcomm introduced “assisted GPS” technology, allowing phones to use cellular signal in combination with GPS signal to locate the user to within a few feet. This is the primary model for the current generation of smart phone GPS. And although it is often taken for granted, it provides one of the most fundamentally important features for powering all manner of apps (from Uber/Lyft, to social media, to location based services, etc.)
  • High-speed data modems — Today we take high-speed data over 4G/LTE (and soon 5G) for granted. Indeed, without 4G/LTE, it’s highly unlikely we’d have the smartphone marketplace we currently have. The Samsung SCH-r900 was the first LTE mobile phone (September 2010), while the Samsung Galaxy Indulge was the first LTE smartphone (February 2011). The HTC ThunderBolt offered by Verizon was the second LTE smartphone. In June 2013, Qualcomm's Snapdragon 800 powered the the first LTE-Advanced Smartphone, the Samsung Galaxy S4 LTE-A, with data speeds of up to 150 Mbps. Today, 4G/LTE is ubiquitous and speeds continue to increase, with Gigabit LTE launching this year and 5G by 2020.
  • Seamless roaming — In the early days of cellar phones, it was difficult to move beyond your given local area, let alone make and receive calls anywhere across the globe. It was not until the European Telecommunication Standard Institute (ETSI) released phase 1 of the GSM specification in 1990 that the early roaming standards emerged. These capabilities were improved over subsequent generations of the spec and now result in our phones’ ability to seamlessly cross network providers and geographic boundaries — a service we simply take for granted despite the significant infrastructure required in the background to make this happen.
  • Touchscreens — The IBM Simon (1992) was the first phone with a touchscreen and is often referred to as the first “smartphone.” While groundbreaking for its time, it was extremely primitive by current standards. In the 1990s, most devices with touchscreens were more like PDAs than current phones. Apple’s original iPhone (2007) redefined the notion of what touchscreen interfaces could do. Apple did not invent the touchscreen, but it innovated the interface through advanced gesture recognition with the acquisition of FingerWorks (2005). However, a year before the iPhone was released, the LG PRADA boasted the first capacitive touchscreen. Samsung and Nokia also had touch-based mobile phones in the works, although less compelling than the iPhone user interface.
  • SIM cards — The ubiquitous SIM card is what gives nearly every phone its unique identity to virtually any network. The first SIM card was developed in 1991 by Munich, Germany, smart-card maker Giesecke & Devrient. Today, SIM cards ubiquitously allow over 7 billion devices to connect to cellular networks worldwide. Apple was key in reducing the size of SIM cards with Micro-SIM cards introduced in the original iPad. The iPhone 4 (2010) was the first smartphone to use a micro-SIM, and the iPhone 5 (2012) was the first device to use a nano-SIM.
  • Fingerprint scanners — The first mobile phones with a fingerprint scanner were the Toshiba G500 and G900 in 2007. In 2012, Apple acquired AuthenTec, a fingerprint reader and identity management company. The iPhone 5S (2011) was the first phone on a major U.S. carrier since the Motorola Atrix to feature the technology. Recently (September 2016), Xaomi showed a phone that incorporated ultrasonic fingerprint scanning using technology that Qualcomm acquired with its purchase of Ultrascan that enables more accurate and potentially “through the screen” recognition.
  • App stores — Despite the current dominance of Apple’s App Store, it wasn’t the first to implement one. In November 2001, South Korea’s KTFreeTel (KTF) became the first wireless network operator in the world to launch Brew-based services after Qualcomm introduced Brew as an open app platform for CDMA-based devices. While Brew never really took off due to the limited capabilities inherent in phones of that era, it did provide a model for future generations of app stores. Once the iPhone launched, Apple virtually took over the app store market for a time, but now it has significant competition from the Android app marketplace.
  • Displays – Super AMOLED — These have  been used in some Samsung Nokia devices since 2012 and even before that for lower resolution/pixel displays on non-smartphone devices. But taking advantage of the new super AMOLED displays makes the most sense when you include fast video compression capabilities in the processor (including recently added 4K video) and fast download speeds over high bandwidth networks like LTE Advanced that came to market in the past couple of years.
  • Wireless charging — Wireless charging efforts are not really new and indeed go way back to Palm when they offered a wireless charging option on their devices. And Samsung offered wireless Fast Charging starting with the Galaxy Note 5 and S6 Edge+. Nokia offered wireless charging on its Windows 8-powered Lumia 920 in 2014. Wireless charging solutions were mostly proprietary in nature, and it wasn't until the past couple of years that various (and competing) standards emerged. But wireless charging itself was not sufficient as companies developed “fast charging” techniques that reduced charge times by 2X-3X. With a coming together of standards, it’s apparent that much more wireless charging will be available in new devices.
  • Android — The launch of the T-Mobile G1, manufactured by HTC, in October 2008 was the world's first Android-based mobile device. Although it was not up to par with what Apple had done with the iPhone, it signaled that Android was going to be a fierce competitor. With many hundreds of devices produced since, Android has captured a majority share of worldwide smartphone sales.

The above is a short list of technology breakthroughs along the path to our current generation of smartphones. Apple has done a masterful job aggregating and potentially improving technologies it didn’t necessarily invent and getting two plus two to equal more than four.

However, it’s important to acknowledge that its success was often not an industry first, but built on pioneers who implemented and experimented with cutting edge technologies, even if not always successfully. No doubt Apple will continue to give its customers a premium experience. But it will also very likely continue to borrow technology along the way. For that reason, we must continue to reward technology advancements no matter who makes them and not simply assume everything is being invented by the biggest players.

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