IBM Simon: World’s first smartphone is now 20 years old

by: Andrew GrushNovember 26, 2012

IBM Simon

Today we live in a world filled with quad-core smartphones and handsets with 1080p screens, but it certainly didn’t start out that way. The first smartphone was announced at COMDEX on November 23rd of 1992, making last Friday the smartphone’s 20th birthday.

The IBM Simon Personal Communicator was a massive device with a battery guzzling design, and its processor was quite laughable by today’s standards at just 16MHz. Other specs included a 4.5-inch B&W 160×293 LCD display, stylus support for touch input, 1MB of RAM, 1 or 1.8MB memory card support, and a nickel-cadmium battery. Other capabilities included the ability to make phone calls, add contacts, task lists, check “mail” and use third party apps. When it came to installing new apps? You did that using special PCMCIA cards through the bottom of the device.

The IBM Simon Personal Communicator would finally arrive to the market in 1994 for BellSouth (Now AT&T) customers in their 15-state network and cost $899 with a two-year contract. By the time the phone was being phased out of the market, it had dropped to $599 and had managed to sell about 50,000 handsets after around six months on the market.

Looking back at this ancient smartphone, it’s hard not to laugh a little, though at the time it likely served its user quite well. In IBM’s defense, this was certainly an impressive device back in 1994 and in many ways it is still somewhat similar to the basic idea of what a smartphone is today: a touchscreen device that works with apps to help make our everyday lives easier.

Imagine how this thing will look when we stop to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the smartphone. Anyone want to attempt a guess at what the phones of 2032 might possibly look like?

  • opesys

    Can’t wait to see Apple suing IBM now :D

  • Christopher Clark

    Smart phones in 2032 will be a 5400p OLED contact lens that uses brain gestures to navigate through apps and screens. Coupled with a bluetooth 10.0 ear bud, the Nexus 4 will be the focus of sarcasm and ridicule like the IBM Simon is today.

  • rsanchez1

    Wow, even back then, carriers insisted on two-year contracts.

  • Wait…are those rounded corners on those on-screen rectangles? And on the bezel? Man, the courts got that one wrong…

    • raindog469

      It even has the “weirdly asymmetrical screen” feature, like Windows Phone. Though in this case it seems to be implemented in hardware.

  • hrishi

    No phone but (google) glasses

  • MasterMuffin

    I thought that the Nokia’s communicator was the first smartphone?

  • K S

    By 2032 phones will either be incorporated in glasses or contact lenses or possibly and most dramatically into our body (ear, eye or even brain)in the form of a microchip. Either way one thing is for sure by then : holograms within the next 20 years will replace the need for screens completely. Current 3D screen technologies are the first step towards this huge change.

  • FrankCanova

    Andrew, I just came across your post from 2012. Thanks for recognizing the birthday of the Smartphone! I was luck enough to have been at IBM to create it with a wonderful team. By today’s standards it’s comical how brick-like it was, but that was the best miniaturization had to offer back then. (Incidentally, the LCD was 640×200) There were also many other features we talked about and envisioned for it that are in common use today (eg GPS maps, cameras, etc). In a great many ways it was ahead of its time. It’s also interesting to see how many smartphone companies think they invented something new, when in fact Simon had already set the bar. (and yes it was even before Nokia’s communicator) Thanks again for your post.