Who really invented the Smartphone?

Here on the 20th anniversary of the first smartphone, I thought it appropriate to write about the long revised history of one this cultures most used tools. This funny little device many of use every day, the smartphone, is considered by some to be “my precious”. To whom do we owe the gratitude for this both time-saving and time-wasting device? We have many candidates to choose from, some of them are obvious and others are not. Let’s look at the candidates.

1. Apple
2. Google
3. Microsoft
4. RIM
5. Symbian
6. Palm
7. Nokia
8. Motorola
9. Sony
10. Kyocera
11. Ericsson
12. IBM

All of these companies have been innovators in their own way. All of them are patent farms in every sense of the word. But only one truly invented the smartphone.

Also read:

Who invented the tablet?
Who invented the Smartwatch?

It is hard to argue that IBM was not the inventor of the smartphone. The Simon, introduced in 1992, was truly the original. You would hardly consider the Simon powerful by┬átoday’s┬ástandards, but it did incorporate many features that were way ahead of its time. I remember seeing one of these in Atlanta after I graduated from college. It was an eye opening experience.

The Simon’s innovations included a touchscreen, contacts, calendar and pager. You could even email (albeit awkwardly) and fax to and from it. Any of this sound familiar? Lets look at some of the other key features of our pocket jewels and see who invented them.

Web Browsing

It is hard to imagine life without the world wide web. I remember seeing Mosaic for the first time and I was amused. I had worked on the NeXT computers in college and used the WWW interface. The application was actually called WorldWideWeb. My memory is not clear but I believe my first use of Mosaic was a WebQuest, essentially an educational scavenger hunt on the internet. The internet was much smaller then and easier to poke around on.

Multimedia

We have to be able to play our music, read our books, look at our pictures and play our youtube! Who first shoved THAT into a smartphone?

GPS

Civilian GPS went fully online in 1994 after being a staple of the military since the 1960s. Who started planting this navigational sweetness in our pockets? Do we really know? Conspiracy theories abound in this arena.

Bluetooth

Ericsson developed the technology in the early 1990’s and released it in 1994. How many bluetooth headsets have you dropped in embarassing places? How many times have you been looked at strangely as you converse with yourself in the grocery store?

Application Marketplace

I want my Angry Birds! We live comfortably today zipping into our favorite gizmo’s factory store and grabbing whatever we want. We forget the days when we uploaded files to our phones and installed them manually. I believe this is one of the most important innovations. It created an entirely new business sector.

Icon driven interface

We take these little pictures for granted. They were an important invention for a couple reasons. Fingertip sized icons are so much easier to hit than a text string. Pictures are easier to glance at and understand the “thousand words” they can represent. Who do we thank for this?

SMS

I calculated it out, my kids spend an hour per day texting. That means they spend over a full day per month clicking away on their smartphone keyboards. This one is an infamous innovation. One to truly be ashamed of. A time waster that ranks right up there with television…

Camera

The great equalizer, the cameraphone. How many cheaters have been outed? How much abused authority exposed? How much stupidity documented? Would we even know what youtube was without the smartphone camera?

Voice Recognition

Are you Siri-ous? If there was ever an overated computing feature it is this one. Unless you are alone or in a sufficiently private place, who wants to announce their plans to total strangers? Voice recognition has been a promised life changer literally for decades. Useful? Poll car owners and see if they actually use it. I think not.

Smartphone Inventors

The curious case of Apple

I bet if you asked ten people who invented the smartphone, five of them would say Apple. Apple is certainly the holder of many patents, but they have not invented much. Their portfolio of popular products is strong. The iPod, iPhone and iPad just being the most recent. You can go back in history and find a number of other hits like the iMac series and even the old Apple computers. All of their products have been exceptionally well executed and marketed, but they were not invented.

What Apple has done extraordinarily well with the iPhone was consistency and quality of the user experience. They went back to their Mac roots and just made it work. It was a brilliant move by the company and brought what had been reserved for the nerds among us to mainstream users.

I plan to do a follow up article on Apple. As a old timer in the tech industry, I remember when they last had a chance to rule the computing world. Arrogance eventually led to Microsoft bailing them out in the late 90’s. If you want a laugh, google “Gates MACWorld keynote” and watch the video.

At any rate we should marvel at what Apple has done for the industry. It is not always invention that deserves respect. Sometimes it is simply well executed ideas.

4 Comments

  1. AC September 27, 2012 at 12:09 PM #

    Thanks for this. Very interesting.
    One quibble: voice recognition is not what Siri’s about. Siri’s (limited) ability to contextualize comments, commands and questions (I need to get to the airport quickly. Send an email to my wife. Do I need a jacket?) is significantly different than voice recognition. Siri will ask which airport and then provide turn by turn directions, will know who “my wife” is, and will check the weather, not the closet. As Siri improves, with more data, the intelligence and breadth of actions should as well, taking it far from voice recognition, I submit.

    • Michael September 27, 2012 at 2:17 PM #

      I agree with you completely. But in the context of the article the speaker independent voice recognition seemed like the “smartphone” feature to discuss. The real power of Apple’s SIRI and Google’s NOW are the server side usage of that recognized voice. It will be interesting to see them develop.

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