Posted on June 28, 2021 in History, Innovation, Technology

Portable Phones: A Brief History and Selection

The smartphone of today has a lot of ancestors, and some of them were pretty bulky.

Translated to Modern Times

The first couple of portable phones were… weird.

The brick phone: the brick phone’s pretty well-known! It was sometimes used in movies to demonstrate how high tech the star’s organization was. Portable phones were huge for a long time, so a brick phone being slightly less huge than the suitcase phone or the car phone was cool. DynaTAC’s version was initially the most popular in 1984, and it took 10 hours to charge enough for 30 minutes of talk time.

The car phone: it was new! It was innovative! It was stylish! Luxury cars were the primary installees of car phones, as the phone itself was both expensive and heavy, and relied on the car’s power to actually run. This came before the brick phone and ran concurrent to it for quite a while, and gradually faded out of manufacturing as mobile technology got better and better.

The suitcase phone: the suitcase phone carried all of its important bits and bobs in a suitcase, discretely, so the caller didn’t have to hold the weight of the battery up to their ear to talk. The original case for the suitcase phone was kind of ugly, but having the tech at the time made it worth it.

Pay Phones: This wasn’t technically mobile, but it was possible to find one out and about in public, and that was usually good enough. Most pay phones even in earlier days took payment first and then would place the call, an artifact of the quick-call stations and cashiers that they replaced.

Slides and Other Moves

Manufacturers got pretty wild when designing devices for children in the 2000s.

The Razr phone opened with one screen pivoting away from the other on a joint, so the top screen was upside down when it was closed. The keyboard inside it was tragically small – texting was even more of a hassle, and the screen was tiny. It was also sometimes awkward to hold while on a call, but the unique design meant it took up very little pocket real-estate, so it all evened out. Not a good phone for games or texting, but fine for the kids it was marketed to.

If you were fancy, you’d get a slider phone: the top screen would slide upwards to reveal a full keyboard with tiny, tiny little keys underneath. Back in this era, the screen being exposed was considered a real risk: what if your keys or coin change scratched it? Then what? If only they could have seen what we’d have now. These phones were a little more expensive than other phones on the market, but they made texting a little easier. Txt speak was still more efficient because the keys were so tiny it sometimes took the edge of your nail to actually press them, but it was the thought that counted.

And if your parents had business obligations that sometimes meant emailing from their phone, you might have had access to a hand-me-down BlackBerry: all the buttons were on the same plane as the screen. There were the crude beginnings of a ‘free roam’ cursor for phones, a track ball that behaved the same way arrow keys did but faster.

Flips N Such

The flip phone I had also had the 9-button keyboard: it was designed for calling first, and texting second. It could open a browser… kinda… if all you wanted to see was broken graphic boxes and white squares. Internet access over a 3G or below network was slow and expensive, so you weren’t exactly meant to read the news on it. The ringtone store also didn’t work all of the time. It was great. An ordinary flip phone was difficult to break and easy to answer calls on, so it was perfect for kids of the time. You could play games on it, but not very many, and you could text, but only slowly. It wasn’t an active distraction.

However, that slow texting could get annoying when the phone was allowed out. That’s the source of modern text speak: if you wanted to type out Good Morning, for example, you’d hit the 6 button a total of 16 times to get all the letters stored in that key while writing. Shortening to Gd Mrng only made sense – you’d tap the 6 key 5 times to get two characters, a much better ratio. To compare it to telegramming, the fewer taps there are, the faster the message gets out. Only using the number was also often faster, too: “Before” takes a total of 21 keystrokes, while B4 takes three. Three.

Decorative casings for smartphones

For a brief period of time, pocket-unfriendly phone cases hit the market. From the hamburger phone to the rotary phone purse, all sorts of weird add-ons and cases designed to make the phone look like something else graced Hot Topic and other ‘teen’ stores. Nowadays, most cases are pretty close-fitting to the phone, likely because people realized bulky phones had been shrinking over the years for a reason. Still, quite a few of these oversized cases were popular, particularly with classmates who always had a bag and/or lacked pockets in the summer. They were cute, they offered better corner cushioning (dropping an iPhone used to be catastrophic), and quite frankly I wouldn’t be too sad to see them come back.

Modern Times

Nowadays, phones come in many colors and sizes, but generally one shape. The smartphone’s ease of storage and use makes it a winner among telecommunications. Cases tend to be close fitting to the phone, now, but a lack of character cases is a small price to pay for full access to the internet, email, phone, texting, all sorts of telecommunications that the first sci-fi writers could have only imagined. Flip phones are still around, and they’re a great option for a lot of people, but generally they’re not a first choice for reasons mentioned above. That being said, they are a lot tougher overall than an average un-cased smartphone, and significantly cheaper. Just look at how many memes there are about the Nokia!

Samsung’s new folding phone is a loop back to the olden days, but it’s obviously not exactly the same as the flip phones of yore. Screens cover both halves of the folding bits, and it’s designed more to prevent scratching than to provide convenience, like the first ones did.

A Sidenote: The first “Txt Speak”

Telegraph operators use abbreviations anyone might recognize: BRB, GTG, etc. all for the sake of cutting time. Morse code and push-button flip phone strategies are a lot alike in a lot of ways: shorten the message to make transmitting it easier. Whether it’s taps or clicks, shortening speech by cutting vowels has always been around.

Abbreviations can cause confusion, yes, but telegraph operators were paid to go fast, not to be perfectly understandable.

Sources: (Wikipedia does a fine job at an overall explanation)