From weighing a kilo, mobile phone is now ultra-thin, and foldable too


Smartphone is the first computer device for many Kenyans. FILE PHOTO | NMG


  • Phone manufacturers of today are working tooth and nail to deliver devices that work with minimal effort from the user.

The rate at which different brands of smartphones are hitting the market is dizzying. Every few months brands seem to engage in a scrum and tackle to have what will most often be marketed as the next best phone of the season.

The seemingly ceaseless promise of more innovative tweaks, each professing more capabilities and more powerful than previous processors, more advanced cameras, faster operating systems, are some of the assurances that are often given by the phone manufacturers.

It can be an arduous job flipping through advertisements and review websites to figure out which one is the right handset if you are trying to buy one.

Yet just three and a half decades ago all this fuss was nonexistent.

Consensus on which was in fact the very first wireless portable phone or mobile phone, is divisive. But depending on who you’re listening to or where you’re looking, the first wireless mobile phone might have been German’s railroad-military wireless phones of the 1920s.

But according to the Pew Research Center, the first true commercial mobile phone was the Motorola DynaTAC 8000X. It weighed over a kilo, could only sustain 30 minutes of talk time, and took a whole 10 hours to charge. It hit the market in the United States, in 1984, after a decade of trials, was chunky, clunky and well, overpriced with a $3,995 (Sh409,607) price tag.

Martin Cooper, an American engineer who led the team credited with building the first mobile phone, regarded as the father of the cellular phone has since passed on.

But Rudy Krolopp, lead designer of the Motorola DynaTAC 8000X, told the Associated Press in an interview in 2005 that he still got a “warm fuzzy feeling” thinking about the DynaTAC and knowing how “really significant” what they did was.

Krolopp told the AP that when Mr Cooper called him to his office one day in December 1972 and said, “We've got to build a portable cell phone.” He asked, “What the hell's a portable cell phone?”

Well, the years of Mr Cooper and Mr Krolopp may have rang in the era of talking on a phone on-the-go, but since then, a lot has changed, and wireless telephony has come a long way.

Now 35 years down the road, mobile phones are ubiquitous. And the pioneering phones have earned their rightful place in the museums of history. Successive engineering ingenuity and global business rivalries have turned the whole idea of a mobile phone on its head, and in the process revolutionising not just the way people communicate but the way they live their lives.

Not in their wildest dreams would the pioneers of the technology have imagined that what they had started would one day mutate into the waffle-thin and near-miracle worker of today.

Phone owners didn’t really care about the speed of the interface or the number of pixels in the display. In fact it is not until the close of that decade that cell phones began to shrink in size, when in 1989 Motorola made a smaller phone that had a flip and could fit in a shirt pocket. Ten years later the stakes were taken a little higher when in Japan, Kyocera released the very first 0.11Megapixel camera phone. It could only take up to 20 pictures before its onboard storage was full.

And it wasn’t until another year when another phone, Samsung released the second 0.35MP camera phone, then Sharp J-SH04 and Sanyo SCP-5300 followed suit. These were then widely publicised as “most influential gadgets” of the time. The pictures had to be downloaded to a computer first for forward sharing or editing.

Commercial cell-to-cell SMS text messaging service was not commercially available until 1994. And until 1993, mobile phones used embedded systems to control operations. Today they have acquired mobile processors the equivalent of CPUs in computers which gave them machine intelligence.

In the many years since the fast hand-held mobile device was launched in the last century, a lot has changed. Today the breadth of things one can do with a mobile phone are endless thanks to a confluence of technological advancements and increasing bandwidth since the 2000s.

The first full nternet service on mobile phones was introduced in Japan in 1999. But generally speaking, advances in mobile telephony can be traced in successive generations from the early "0G" services like mobile radio telephone systems and its successor Improved Mobile Telephone Service, to first-generation (1G) analog cellular network, second-generation (2G) digital cellular networks, third-generation (3G) broadband data services to the state-of-the-art, fourth-generation (4G) native-IP networks. Now the talk in town is the newly launched 5G network.

According to Pingdom, a Swedish website monitoring software, even though the first mobile phone with internet connectivity was the Nokia 9000 Communicator launched in Finland in 1996, the viability of accessing the internet was at that point limited by very high prices by the operators. It is not until 1999 when NTT DoCoMo launched i-Mode in Japan, which is considered the birth of mobile phone Internet services.

Old school phones could call and text, then take pictures. Today, a phone can give you access to the internet, do a video call, email and keep you connected through social media networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn and many others. You can bank on the device and even do your job on it.

The tiny devices can even help you take care of complex systems as well as secure premises from miles away through the Internet of Things (IoT).

In more technologically progressive countries, phones are coordinating tasks for other smart appliances to accomplish tasks such as cooking, cleaning among other chores.

So what has changed?

Today’s phone comes packed with ever more powerful hardware, according to a Kenyan industry gadget reviewer Kaluka Wanjala. The internal storage of phones has become beefier, and mobile processors have become speedier.

Phones now have hardwares and software capabilities that were a few years ago the reserve of computers. Coupled with vastly improved networking speeds, enabled by drastic changes such as fast growing broadband and internet access, modern telephony allows automatic and pervasive use of mobile phones for voice and data communications.

The IPhone of today for instance has 50 times faster chips than the chip in the original iPhone, and its GPU is 84 times faster, and have become even smarter than PCs. Many are now integrating algorithms, Artificial Intelligence and special sensors to enhance performance.

With many phones today, you don’t even have to touch your set for it to unlock; just put you face in front of it. Phones now have infrared face scanners for unlock. Motion Sense, a new technology in Google’s newly released handset, Pixel 4, will detect your gestures without you having to touch the screen to perform tasks like silence a call, skip songs you are listening to or snooze an alarm.

“Mobile phones have improved so much they now come installed with a web browser that allows one to view websites just as one would on a desktop computer, a GPS map that knows your location and can give turn-by-turn directions of places,” says Mr Wanjala.

“The phone of today doesn’t just connect people all over the world through voice calls. It connects its owner with a web of informative data, has become a medium of entertainment, has replaced the point-to-shoot camera as we knew it and can do much more than was ever imagined some few years back. In general a phone has become arguably an invaluable device for business and personal wellbeing. Smartphones have become an eco-system.”

For many, it has become the primary computer device. In fact in Kenya, according to Wanjala, the smartphone is the first computer device for many Kenyans.

“Mobile phones are handling many of our computing needs, than we care to give them credit for,” he told Digital.

In Kenya where many people have never owned a computer, a mobile phone is their very first computer. “People draft documents, scan documents and share them all on the phone,” he said.

He adds: “If smartphones get even more powerful, there will be no need of having a computer. Some people already don’t use PCs. We are able to do most of the tasks we perform on our computers on the phone. These are only the tip of the iceberg as more surprises await futuristic mobile phones.”

Phone manufacturers of today are working tooth and nail to deliver devices that work with minimal effort from the user. Artifical Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning have also slowly but surely found their way into mobiles phones’ processors. Devices have also been installed with information systems and programs to be able to gather tidbits of information from our daily activities on the phone, think and problem-solve by adjusting to the user’s needs.

This year’s releases by Google pixel, Huawei, Samsung, Iphones, Oppo, Oneplus, and Vivo set the pace employing AI into their flagships’ phone processors for various tasks especially photography. Others are steadily following in their step.

Phone cameras have themselves moved from being just good-enough to being standard stellar features of the phone. Some of the best phones in the market are also coming with Quad HD (QHD), which is four times the definition of standard HD, to allow the phone display ultra-HD content. We have foldable phones too.