9 greatest breakthroughs in cell phones

by: Simon HillOctober 21, 2013

It has been 40 years since the first cell phone call was placed in New York in 1973. It was made by Motorola’s Martin Cooper. In a move that has been echoed by the fierce rivalry in the mobile market ever since, he used the Motorola DynaTAC to call his biggest rival, Joel Engel, who was head of Bell Laboratories at AT&T. It was a full decade after that first call before cell phones went on sale to the general public in 1984.

The Dynamic Adaptive Total Area Coverage, or DynaTAC for short, cost just under $4,000 and it was 10 inches tall, weighed 790g, and was capable of 30 minutes talk time. We’ve come a long way since then. The latest ITU research suggests that there will be 6.8 billion cell phone subscriptions by the end of the year and there are only 7.1 billion people on the planet.


What drove the enormous success of the cell phone? Let’s take a look at the greatest breakthroughs in cell phone history and chart the rise of our cellular companions.

1. Mobile network in 1979

The first mobile networks, 1G, were based on analog technology and they really paved the way for widespread cell phone use. Japan’s NTT launched the first commercially automated cellular network in Tokyo in 1979 and by 1984 it covered the whole country. Many more followed throughout the 80’s, including Ameritech’s U.S. network.

Cell Tower

It wasn’t until 1991 that 2G networks began to roll out, starting in Finland. 2G allowed call encryption, greater capacity to handle more cell phones, and data services like SMS. 3G followed in 2001 and quickly surpassed the previous generation allowing for much greater speeds. We are now in the midst of the 4G roll out and you can read about the leading standard in our guide to LTE.

2. Text messaging in 1993

The development of SMS (Short Message Service), which was to become known as texting, grew out of the work of many engineers. Matti Makkonen may have had the idea, but Friedhelm Hillebrand is credited with working out that 160 characters is the ideal length to convey any message. The first text message said “Merry Christmas” and was sent from a PC to a cell phone on the Vodafone network in the UK in 1992. The following year Nokia introduced the first cell phone to be capable of sending and receiving text messages.


When first launched you could only send SMS to people on the same network. Texting took a while to really take off and it was definitely boosted by the development of T-9 (Text on 9 keys) in 1995. This predictive text technology dramatically sped up the process of typing a text message. Full physical QWERTY keyboards, and later touchscreen keyboards, would take texting to new heights. Today over 200,000 text messages are sent every second and texting accounts for 1 minute in every 7 spent on a mobile phone.

3. Touchscreen in 1993

The brilliantly named IBM Simon could lay claim to being the first smartphone, though the term had not yet been coined. It combined the cell phone with the PDA and it was the first phone to feature a touchscreen. Early touchscreen technology was pretty poor and there was a reason most touchscreen devices shipped with a stylus.


Over the years there were a few touchscreen phones from Motorola, Sony Ericsson, HTC, LG, and others, but it was Apple’s iPhone in 2007 that really cemented the move towards touchscreens as a standard. As the technology has improved and come down in price it has become ubiquitous.

4. Internet access in 1996

The Nokia 9000 Communicator was the first cell phone to offer proper Internet access, but it was really expensive and carriers were not set up to deliver Internet services. The Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) project started the following year, and worked successfully toward a standardized protocol for wireless technologies. Anyone who remembers WAP browsers will be familiar with how slow and irritating they were to use.

Nokia 9000 Communicator

The quality of mobile browsers has improved pretty quickly and, as mobile traffic has grown, more and more websites have optimized to cater for it. According to Walker Sands research 29% of all web traffic came from mobile devices in the second quarter of 2013 and that’s growing fast because Adobe Digital Index put it at 15% back in March (8% for tablets and 7% for smartphones). The latest smartphones are perfectly capable of rendering full version websites, but a greater understanding of how people surf the web on cell phones has sparked some clever design. The experience of surfing the web on a cell phone is improving all the time.

5. Email in 1996

The same year as the Nokia 9000, the RIM 900 [email protected] Pager also offered email functionality. Email was to be a major part of RIM’s success with the BlackBerry brand, especially when combined with that patented angled keyboard that inspired the name. The BlackBerry email service launched in 1999, enabling the first wireless device to sync with corporate email systems, though voice calls on a BlackBerry weren’t possible until 2002.


Nowadays the vast majority of people check email on their cell phones. For many smartphone owners the first thing they do each morning is reach for that phone to check the latest emails. According to O2 research the average person spends 9 minutes per day on email on their cell phone.

6. GPS in 1999

The Benefon Esc! was the first commercially available cell phone to boast GPS functionality. It was designed for outdoors types. It was splash-proof, and allowed users to load maps onto it, navigate and send their co-ordinates via SMS with an emergency key. It took a while before GPS became a standard inclusion in your average cell phone.

Benefon Esc!

GPS could take a long time to establish a fix, especially when people were inside, so Assisted GPS (A-GPS) was developed. It combined GPS with the cellular signal to pinpoint locations. The improvement was partly driven by the Federal Communications Commission pushing for a way to accurately locate people making 911 calls, as the percentage of 911 calls coming from cell phones rather than landlines has soared in recent years.


It was the app revolution that really allowed smartphones to take advantage of GPS functionality. Large screens and navigation software have transformed cell phones into realistic alternatives for standalone GPS units and Google led the charge towards making navigation free in 2005 with Google Maps. All the major platforms now offer some kind of navigation and mapping service for free as standard.

7. MP3 player in 2000

The Samsung SPH-M100, also known as the UpRoar, was the first cell phone to play MP3s. It took a while for cell phones to rival standalone PMPs (Portable Media Players). Sony’s Walkman phones were pretty popular, and this general trend definitely contributed to Apple’s push towards the iPhone. Consumers seized on the idea immediately and the ability to play various music formats (not just MP3s) soon became standard.

Samsung M100

Smartphones are killing the PMP market. Not only can they match them for functionality, but the addition of apps and services like Spotify, and access to Internet radio, combined with the fact they’re always in your pocket, makes them much more attractive. Sales of iPods and other MP3 players are falling fast as a consequence.

8. Camera in 2000

The first real cell phone with a camera was the Sharp J-SH04, which boasted a 0.11MP sensor. It was only released in Japan, but camera phones came to the U.S. in 2002 with the Sanyo SCP-5300. The megapixel war has raged over the last few years as cell phone cameras have grown better and better. Vast improvements have led to the cameras in cell phones rivaling decent compacts today; as you can see in our Sony Xperia Z1 review (it has a 20.7MP camera).

sony xperia z1 review aa 15

In 2012, 83% of all cell phones in use had a built-in camera. More people use smartphones to capture photos now than use dedicated cameras, but that’s also because we have our phones on us at all times. Cell phones combine simplified convenience with the ability to share instantly, and camera technology is a major point of competition in the market.

9. Voice control in 2009

Voice dialing has been around for years, but it wasn’t widely used outside of hands-free situations like driving. Thanks to drastic improvements in software and voice recognition, the ability to control your phone with your voice has really bloomed. Voice controls and actions, beyond dialing, started to roll out in Android from 2009. A number of apps for dictation popped up on all the major platforms, and this seemed to spark more and more options.

Moto x motorola broll (20)

Apple introduced Siri in 2011, but the intelligent personal assistant Google Now took things to a whole new level in 2012. You can talk to the Moto X without even touching it first. Voice control is improving fast, our cell phones can understand us and talk back, the possibilities are exciting.

What’s next?

Much of the history of the cell phone has been about finding ways to do the same things better, but as you can see there have been plenty of influential breakthroughs and there will be more. Flexible displays are on the horizon now. At first we can expect greater durability and the option for manufacturers to consider new form factors, but if they can find a way of making the rest of the components in your smartphone flexible, we may see a real break from current designs. A portable smartphone that folds out to become a 10-inch tablet would make it onto a lot of wish lists.

We’re also seeing the beginnings of the wearable technology market. Initially smart watches and glasses are going to interact with our existing smartphones, but the right wearable tech device could supplant them altogether. Will we still be using smartphones in another ten years, and, if so, what will they be capable of by then?

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  • Balraj

    Internet access n mobile network..
    Awesome article :-)
    You guys had taken a break of 24 hrs !! ( no article)

    • not a spark

      They deserve Sundays off too

  • Mitali Raj

    awesome article and i thought that ….only i made it via my startup at http://www.menuse.net/ ,….just joking :)

    • APai

      so being a girl, why don’t you also start something that womenUSE ?
      ,….just joking :)

    • Mitali, thank you for visiting Android Authority, but please stop spamming our comments section with links that aren’t relevant. Thank you.

      • jjordan

        I want to work for android authority…I share your passion

  • Navetech

    I still have a Samsung Uproar in a box somewhere. :)

  • APai

    wow, the REAL list of innovation, not some touchy/ roundy ones claimed by fruits

    • MasterMuffin

      Damn you Bananas and Oranges! ;D

  • Luka Mlinar

    Microsoft killed Nokia.
    RIM killed BlackBerry.
    And Google is in the process of killing Motorola.

    We came a long way :/

    • Jack Parker

      If anything Motorola are killing Google. Google bought Motorola, gave it the Moto X and Motorola are still costing Google money..

      • Luka Mlinar

        It would take a lot more to make a dent in Google’s wallet.
        Anyhoo; any company that put all their chips on the US market would lose. That’s not even mentioning the fact that they got only one phone. It’s been a year FFS. It’s taking forever to fire Dennis Woodside and put someone competent at the position of CEO.

      • chanman

        Google didn’t “give” Motorola the Moto X. In fact, according to a few sources (among them Android Authority, I believe), Google pretty much refused to cooperate with Motorola engineers because they didn’t want to appear to be showing favoritism.
        Besides, they hadn’t sold anything good and new for a good logn while before Google took them over.

        • Luka Mlinar

          So their idea of running the company is not to run it. Ahh well. Thank god for OPPO.

          • chanman

            I mean, their main motivation for acquiring Motorola was for patent protection, not really to enter the hardware market. Their mentality was to maintain the market status quo and let Motorola keep doing what they were doing, but apparently the relations between the two actually deteriorated after acquisition.

        • Magnetic1

          It could be indecisiveness at the company that is holding them back. It’s a very costly thing in this very fast changing industry.

  • Marcus Constantine Cavalida

    Sadly though, the evolution of the cellphone did not include voice call enhancement. Back in the late 80’s, my analog phone allowed calls with landline-like voice quality. With the advent of 3g and smartphones, voice quality seemed to have taken two steps back and from then on went downhill. You just can’t recognize peoples’ voices anymore because everyone sounds tinny and “digitized”, I guess. It’s like the codec chips used in the phones only work on a very narrow range of the voice audio spectrum.

    • Simon Hill

      Apparently something called HD Voice (wideband audio) is coming and it should offer significant improvements to voice call quality.

  • Dt Bell

    personal vitals (BP, blood sugar, heart rate),
    immediate ambient temperature (not local airport)

  • Wade

    Of course Mobile Network in 1979 is the most important! None of this would even posible without it. Way to be original, people.

  • Kettzy

    Wonderful article. One of the best ones I’ve read on AA. Definitely on my fav list. Thanks Simon. :)

    • Simon Hill

      Thanks, glad you enjoyed it.

  • jayray78

    Yeah…so between 2000 and 2009 basically nothing happened? No mention to the mobile operating system?

    • Cal Rankin

      I know. I called it the app revolution, because that was what really allowed phones to run applications like computers, even though the original iPhone didn’t have third-party apps.

    • Simon Hill

      No, obviously loads happened, all of the above improved, but what major breakthrough would you add? Tough to pinpoint the first OS or app on mobile.

  • RanRu

    I’m incredibly impressed with the names that OEMs gave phones in the 90s. Like, inexplicably impressed.

    • Simon Hill

      It’s my name.

  • Magnetic1

    I thought they were going to list the phones:
    Brick phone, micro tac elite, star tac, razor, iphone, galaxy s1, iphone N+1(S), galaxy S(N+1), etc…

  • Cal Rankin

    The mobile network was a massive accomplishment, I am choosing others because this is so important that this should just be a given. Touchscreens really helped and along with mobile internet, paved the way for the app revolution.

  • Jose Roman

    In my opinion the best phone breakthrough was a real OS on cellphones

  • Bob Huenemann

    In recent months, I have seen several accounts in
    the press discussing Martin Cooper’s role in the development of the cell phone.
    I worked for Martin at Motorola Communications and Industrial Electronics
    (C&IE) from November 1959 to June 1960. Motorola was developing the latest
    in a series of two way radio products of ever smaller size. These developments
    were part of an evolutionary process that led eventually to the cell phone. I
    was fresh out of school and my contributions were of no particular significance.

    But let me tell you about something I observed on a
    daily basis at Motorola’s plant in Chicago. Motorola C&IE had two black
    employees. They tended an incinerator on the opposite side of the parking lot
    from the plant. They were not allowed into the building. Not to take a break or
    eat lunch. Not to use the rest rooms. Not to warm up in the middle of Chicago’s
    sub zero winters. And my fellow employees would take their breaks at the second
    floor windows overlooking that parking lot, and they would make insulting,
    racist comments about the two black employees.

    I went to human relations, and in the most
    non-confrontational way that I could muster I asked why Motorola did not employ
    on the basis of ability, without regard to race. And at my six month review, I
    was terminated.

    You don’t have to take my word concerning Motorola’s
    employment policies. In September of 1980, Motorola agreed to pay up to $10
    million in back pay to some 11,000 blacks who were denied jobs over a seven-year
    period and to institute a $5 million affirmative action program, according to
    the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

    I have a question for Martin Cooper. Marty, what did you
    ever do to challenge the blatant, toxic racial discrimination at

    Robert Gilchrist Huenemann, M.S.E.E.
    120 Harbern
    Hollister, CA 95023-9708

  • Charles Chambers

    I’m an android fan through and through, but I think the iPhone was a humongous break-through. It did so many things well. It was great for music and it had an actual browser, not the WAP Internet. It was very user friendly and brought the appeal of smartphones to the masses. I’ll step off my soapbox now.

  • mendy817

    “All the major platforms now offer some kind of navigation and mapping service for free as standard.”
    and yet Verizon insists on including VZ Navigator on every…single… android phone! why vzw, why?

  • Gary Graf

    Voice control has been available in android before 2011.