A few years ago, I was on a commuter train, tapping out an email on my brand new iPhone (it was a first generation one that I’d queued up to buy on launch day like a nerd), when a kid, who must have been about ten, sat next to me. “Nice phone” she said “It’s much better than mine.”
She pulled out her mobile, looking at mine longingly. I was sort of thinking, well, you are a small child and I am a person with a job and clients and stuff I need to be in touch with at all hours of the day, of course I have a better phone than you – I need it. The kid, however, had other ideas. She started reeling off to her poor mother all the reasons why she would be a happier, more productive person if she had a smartphone, and I have to say, they were quite convincing.
These days, smartphones aren’t just there for business people to wear in a holster – they’re a must have for people from all walks of life, from schoolgirls to my granddad. This just goes to show how far mobiles have come since their official release in 1992.
1992 – 5 Million European Mobile Phone Users
The ORBITEL 901 phone, manufactured by a company that was, at the time, owned by a partnership of Ericsson and Vodafone, was given approval to connect to GSM networks back in May of ’92. Motorola received the same approval just a few weeks later in June. These devices were all analogue, and were riddled with problems due to the rush to get them to market, and the new and untested network infrastructure. Things we now take as a given like international roaming were not even possible, as networks in different countries didn’t have the agreements or infrastructure in place to support international phone use, and parts of Europe didn’t even have service coverage. In spite of this, 5 million people in Western Europe were, according to FT, registered mobile phone users at this time.
In the UK, there was a market penetration of about 2.2%, which was actually considered relatively high compared with other countries, though Scandinavian countries led the global market due to stronger network competition. In the UK you only had the choice of Vodafone or Cellnet, which was later owned by BT before turning into its current incarnation – O2.
Phones… That Were Just Phones
These phones, being solely analogue, didn’t do much. They made and received calls, and that was about it. The screens only showed the number dialled, much like a pager screen, and there certainly wasn’t any colour or graphics. My first phone, a Phillips device on BT Cellnet, had text messaging and a calculator, and basic calendar features, but this was several years later in 1999. The 1992 phones were also incredibly bulky, had enormous aerials, and ridiculously low (by today’s standards) battery life. Calls were also extremely expensive, meaning that the phones became kind of a status symbol for people who wanted to look like they were incredibly important.
Compared with what we see today – cheap deals, smartphones which act as a media player, camera, videophone and, essentially, a computer, and market penetration in the UK of 130% (meaning there are a lot of people out there with more than one registered phone), it is easy to see how in just two decades a piece of technology can go from something rare and expensive to a lifestyle essential.
With sim free mobile phones, smartphones and even tablets being all the rage now it’s hard to look back to the early 90’s and imagine living our lives without them.