Evolution of mobile phones: from fridge to cutting board

by Maarten Swemmer Leave a reply »

I bought my first mobile quite late, at the end of the 90’s. It was a Siemens C35. It was quite popular at that time and one of the reasons was that it was small (it was also remarkably easy to use). People that bought their phones just one or two years before were now frowned upon for walking around with a so called ‘fridge‘. That’s what we called the huge phones made just a few years earlier.

In the following years phones continuously became smaller and thinner. There were exceptions: Nokia slowly changed the phone market (for ever, as it now turns out), by introducing the smart phone. These phones with larger screens were also frowned upon. Who would ever need all that functionality on a phone? And who would be prepared to carry them with you the whole time!

Today, the smartphone market in Europe is larger than the traditional phone market. Remarkably, phones are getting bigger and bigger, mainly influenced by the screen size. The Nokia N73 (in my view one of the best smart phones ever made: compact and highly functional, considering the state of technology at that time), had a 2.4 inch screen. The first iPhone had a 3.5 inch screen and my 2010 HTC desire has a slightly more comfortable 3.7 inch screen. Screens have continuously been getting bigger in the last 10 years but recently HTC and Samsung have even announced and launched  phones with 4.7 inch and even 5.3 inch screens. Such phones don’t decently fit your pocket anymore. And thus while they are not pocket phones anymore, you can even question if these phones are truly mobile.

Phone size evolution through time

From left to right: Philips Fizz (1996), Siemens C35 (1999), Nokia N73 (2006), Apple iPhone (2007), HTC Titan (2011) and Samsung Galaxy Note (2011)

The larger and bigger screens slowly close the gap between tablets and phones. Who wants to own or carry with them two devices, if the only difference is a slightly larger screen? One downside of larger screens is similar to that of tablets: you cannot decently use them in busy public transport, without the people around you reading your Facebook with you. Despite that, I can perfectly understand why larger screens are popular. Apart from the show-off factor, it’s also easier to use our fat American and European fingers on the (less tiny) touch keyboards.

Fortunately there is another development going on. In a few years we will all carry devices with foldable screens. Those screens will be stored rolled-up inside our device. We unroll just the part of screen we need for a certain activity. People still carrying around a huge 5+ inch unfoldable phone will be frowned upon as carrying around a cutting board.