Thursday, September 29, 2011

An apocryphal history of the "Smart Phone" (1/2)

I had some issues with the length and quality of this post, so I broke it up in parts.

Some time ago a friend asked me "What actually is a smartphone?"

While we joked about it, we never actually answered the question. And, thinking about it, I found that the modern "smartphone" is pretty much an evolved concept. Here's my little take on the 'history' of the smartphone and how it came to be what it is today.

During what, in terms of Mobile Telecommunications, would have been Ancient Times, when mobile phones were something of the Elite and the Internet at any speed worth mentioning was something restricted to a few well-connected (…) Universities and major Corporations, there was… the PDA…

The PDA, or Personal Data Assistant, was a geek's dream and hope. The PDA allowed data to become mobile, without the need of a cumbersome laptop. It was hand-held and allowed you to run a host of applications, albeit very small ones. A company called Palm was the absolute and only market leader and its Palm Vx had conquered the known world.

They offered applications for download and these applications were Legion and a proper PDA allowed you to fine-tune your 'apps', as they were called back then, to your specific need. 

The little gem I owned had an alternate and customizable desktop-application, a StarTrek turn-based strategy game, a decent calendaring app, a gas/mileage app, and a host of very geeky but cool things (like an app that emulated the sounds of a star trek tricorder if you waved the thing around).

Many PDA's had one more trick up their sleeve… They had an infrared-port, through which these amazing devices had a window out into the world that was not strictly wire-based, and allowed short range communications with, say, a laptop or a (then rapidly gaining in acceptance) mobile phone… 

At the height of the PDA's reign, the truly committed geek could actually connect to the internet with it, through his Mobile Phone. This at the amazing speed of 9600 baud, or roughly 1/10.000th of the speed of a decent DSL line these days. Browsing to a website was cumbersome, slow, black&white and expensive.

We might compare this time to a kind of Pax Romana, where a surprisingly high level of civilization was achieved with fairly limited means.

Then, an upstart Finnish company, called Nokia, decided that it could be a fun idea to cut out this bothersome infrared bit and simply weld the mobile phone modem onto the PDA into a single device. They called it the Nokia 9000 "Communicator". When you flipped it open, it was a PDA. When you kept it closed, it was a (rather large and cumbersome, even for those days) mobile phone. 

But what made the Communicator into the first true "smart" phone, was the fact that the apps running on the Communicator were aware of the capability of communication; in stead of a few dedicated tools (on the PDA) that were meant for nothing but communication over the serial/infrared port, the Communicator's apps often had ways to integrally make use of the advanced communications means at their disposal. Thus the Mobile Internet was born…

As the Communicator was aimed mostly at very rich business men who couldn't be bothered to do cool stuff like emulate star trek tricorders with their phones, the ability to add and customize 'apps' largely went away.

Phone's got equipped with slightly faster "modems" (about 1/3333th of the speed of a modern connection) and got web browser software that did "WAP". But. rather than offering things to do with it, Mobile Phone Providers started pushing the technology.

WAP came with a lot of pomp and fanfare and ended whimpering in the corner. The Internet Bubble burst. The Telecom Bubble burst (but not before operators had paid a mint for the vaunted 3G licenses auctioned by the governments).

The Mobile Internet Revolution stumbled.

Barbarians conquered Rome.

And Civilization was plunged into a Dark Age of Mobile Telecommunications.