Once mobile technology caught on in 1983, it took off. 

We laughed at Maxwell Smart’s shoe phone in the 1960s TV show “Get Smart,” which in retrospect seems visionary. Now our laughter is directed at vintage “portable” phones that were the size of a Subway sandwich and had only two relevant features—gasp!—talk and listen.

Car phones had been around since the 1940s; Motorola engineer Martin Cooper’s 1973 call to his chief competitor at Bell Labs marked the world’s first mobile telephone call from handheld subscriber equipment. But when the Motorola DynaTAC 8000x hit the market as the first commercial handheld cellular phone 10 years later, we were witnessing a new tech frontier.

Though it may look Flintstonian by today’s standards, if it was cool enough for Zack on “Saved By the Bell,” it was cool enough for us. Eventually earning a berth on Time magazine’s list of the all-time top 100 gadgets, the 8000x was 13 inches tall, weighed almost 2 lbs., and could be yours for just $3,995.


Sure, you could only use it for an hour and a half before the battery gave out. Sure, it was such a load to carry that even its creators called it “The Brick.” But it was new and cool and everybody was talking about it and it had more utility than the Pet Rock, even if not by much.


According to Mashable.com, “Motorola spent $100 million to develop the 8000x—with no idea if the public would ever even want one.” The FCC may have agreed: It didn’t approve the phone for use until seven months after its release.


Given the 8000x’s price tag, it wasn’t intended for the average American. It was basically a toy for business people and celebrities. Still, approximately 1,200 were sold in 1983—enough to signal that the public’s appetite for mobile communication was voracious.


Simon changes the game


As is often the case with technology, subsequent iterations showed incremental progress. The Nokia Mobira Talkman and the Motorola 2900 Bag Phone had more battery life than the 8000x but with many of the same limitations. NEC and Nokia were among the other early players in this competition.


Eventually, cell phone features such as voicemail brought added practical value up to the dawn of the smartphone, which changed the phone game forever.


IBM’s Simon Personal Communicator, launched in 1994, is generally regarded as the first commercially available device that could accurately be called a smartphone—even if that term did not exist then. The Simon (which sold for $899) had the ability to receive emails, faxes and pages. It also had an address book, calendar, and a way to schedule appointments. The Simon may not get enough credit for its impact on mobile tech, given that it came 13 years before the first iPhone.


In the latter half of the 1990s, we saw improved design and portability manifested in popular models such as the Motorola StarTAC, Nokia 6110, Nokia 5110 and the BlackBerry 850.

And by the turn of the century, the cell phone had become a near-omnipresent device. Topping the list was the Nokia 1100, which sold more than 250 million units from its 2003 launch until being discontinued in 2009—making it the best-selling consumer electronics device in the world.


The much-anticipated 2007 Apple iPhone is generally considered the forerunner to the ubiquitous devices that millions carry on their person today, with myriad functions, touchscreen devices, applications and internet capabilities. The iPhone was the result of years of experimentation by Apple in its quest to take the computer out of the office.


One of the company’s forgotten but influential efforts in that realm was the Apple Newton, a series of personal digital assistants that began shipping in 1993 (a year before the IBM Simon). Perhaps most important, the Newton solidified the impact of the ARM processor, now synonymous with delivering high performance computing and power efficiency.


Wired.com wrote: “The Newton wasn’t just killed, it was violently murdered, dragged into a closet by its hair and kicked to death in its youth by one of technology’s great men.” (That man was Steve Jobs, who is quoted in Walter Isaacson’s biography of Jobs as saying of the Newton, while waving his fingers: “God gave us 10 styluses. Let’s not invent another.”)


The Newton ($700), with a more than adequate 2MB of expandable memory for that time, was the first PDA to feature handwriting recognition. Unfortunately, it didn’t do this well. Critics who mocked the Newton’s tendency to misread characters included Gary Trudeau, who mocked it in his “Doonesbury” cartoon strip. Jobs had it scrapped in 1998.


Of course, many other mobile devices too numerous to mention have brought various firsts and contributions to mobile technology, with much more to come. By the way, if you happened to have the kind of money to pay for an 8000x back in the day but have misplaced yours, you can get a “museum-quality” example on eBay for $5,200. Prepare for the envy, or the laughter.