A recent BBC piece makes some factually incorrect and outlandish claims about the history of the smartphone. It boggles the mind that an otherwise excellent news organization gets this so wrong. It’s the sort of thing you get when a lazy (or stupid?) journalist appears to us a bad Motorola commercial as their source.
Smartphones Are Older Than iPhone
The first claim, which is about as wrong as it can get, is that Apple invented the smartphone category in 2007. Sorry, not true. Not even close. Smartphones were already more than 10 years old when the iPhone was announced (despite the breathless and, again, incorrect claim in the article that smartphones didn’t exist in the decade before the iPhone). In his 1997 keynote/Q&A at the WWDC, Steve spoke specifically about smartphones (and he used that exact term). The fact that the supposed “inventor” of the category speaks about them a decade before his own product is launched would seem to be pretty strong evidence on its own.
The first device we would recognize as a smartphone that was for sale in volume was the Nokia Communicator, released in 1996. It featured a data connection to send and receive email, could run apps (which were initially just the built-in apps from Nokia), but it also made phone calls and could send and receive SMS messages. It was large, featured a physical keyboard, and was pretty expensive at the time. But it was a smartphone. It was the first attempt at a connected PC in our pockets.
Technically IBM’s Simon predates the Nokia Communicator by 2 years, being released in 1994. It was a device similar in form and design as the Nokia product. But the only reason it isn’t the “first” is that it sold in tiny, tiny numbers and wasn’t for sale to just anyone. It was Nokia the truly broke ground in the smartphone category.
Long before we got the iPhone (and Android, which cannot be ignored or overlooked), we had several versions of the Nokia Communicator, multiple models of the Palm Treo, dozens of Windows Mobile devices with phone capability, and a host of Blackberries. All of these are smartphones. Trying to call them something other than that is flat-out wrong.
What Makes A Smartphone?
The BBC piece claims, among other things, that a smartphone is only a smartphone because of things like an Internet connection and a touchscreen. Sorry, this isn’t just wrong, it’s silly. The Blackberry was very much a smartphone. It didn’t require an Internet connection on the phone to work, and work well. It ran apps, allowed for email, calendar and contacts synchronization for those using Blackberry Enterprise Server. Sure, it could connect to the Internet. For people who wanted to use Blackberry Information Server (like BES, but for people without all the other infrastructure), you needed an Internet connection. And your BES server needed to connect to Blackberry’s infrastructure to work. But the device itself could work just fine without the presence of the Internet.
The Blackberry did not have a touchscreen. You could (if you were determined) install 3rd party apps. But it was very much a smartphone, as much as the Nokia Communicator, Palm Treo and the host of Windows Mobile devices out there. To claim otherwise is speaking from ignorance.
A smartphone is basically the merger of a phone, PDA and PC. It is a device that does more than make phone calls and deal with SMS messages. It can also run apps (even if they are only the built-in ones), can handle e-mail, contacts, calendars and notes, and basically do more than be “just a phone”.
What Did Apple and Google Change?
Apple and Google changed two things: the market focus and the philosophy. They did not invent a “new product category”.
The change of focus shifted the spotlight from the enterprise to the consumer. Prior to 2007, Blackberry, Nokia and others focused on enterprise users. This is pretty typical for a lot of technology. For example, prior to 1981, the personal computer was a machine for hobbyists and small businesses willing to take a chance. But the PC really took off as a business machine when IBM released their version of it. The PC didn’t start to become common in the home until after 1995, and consumer sales of PC’s didn’t outpace enterprise sales until the 21st century.
Owning a smartphone was an expensive proposition, mainly because of the data costs. Businesses were best suited to absorb these costs, in part because they could justify the cost because of the (real or perceived) increase in productivity, and they would write the costs off as a business expense.
Apple and Google virtually ignored the enterprise initially, focusing instead on making it easy for the average person to get and take advantage of what a smartphone could offer. Trying to integrate an iPhone or early Android into your enterprise was actually rather hard. Instead, Apple worked with the carriers to make it cheaper to use a smartphone’s data features. Google worked with a broad set of manufacturers to get Android on a range of devices, from the very cheap to the very expensive. But all of it was initially focused on consumers, not the enterprise.
Smart Phones Or Small Computers?
The two companies didn’t change change the focus, they changed the philosophy around the role and design of the smartphone. Before the iPhone and Android, smartphones were “phones that were smart”. The companies that made them generally called them “handsets”. They made models specific to particular wireless providers (even if the only difference was the SKU and not the hardware itself). They were seen as phones first, with the “smart” bit being something of a secondary element.
Apple and Google didn’t view them that way. To them, the smartphone was “a small computer that made phone calls”. They weren’t “handsets”. Apple in particular didn’t brand or build iPhones specific to one carrier. You couldn’t get an “iPhone from AT&T” with the carriers stickers on the box, their logo on startup and custom apps just for their network. Although there are some hardware differences to account for different wireless technologies, an iPhone is an iPhone. Carriers weren’t allowed to put their branding on the packaging, and Apple was not going to let them determine what apps were installed, could be available, or put custom apps just for the carrier on them. The carriers could not stop a user from upgrading the operating system.
Consider that Apple used the exact same operating system, iOS, on the iPod Touch. Here was a device that ran the same apps, and had almost all the same features, as the iPhone, just without the “phone” part. By itself, that clearly shows the shift in philosophy.
This was a new way of looking at these devices, and their relationship with the carrier and user. Before, the carriers generally called the shots. With Apple, that wasn’t going to happen. It drives the carriers nuts, but there’s nothing they can do about it if they want to sell and support iPhones. Apple and Google, for the most part, took our smartphones and made them more like our PCs, something under our control.
This Isn’t Hard To Get Right
That the BBC article (and that stupid Motorola commercial) gets this wrong is baffling. A brief scan of the Wikipedia page on smartphones basically refutes the “facts” in the BBC article. That the BBC would overlook the contributions of Nokia, Blackberry, Microsoft, Palm and Google, all of whom are about as important as Apple in this, is beyond astounding. To make the outlandish claim that Apple invented the smartphone category isn’t supported by history or the facts.
Sadly, this isn’t even an outlier in the world of tech reporting and tech industry analysis. We see over and over again so-called “experts” who are completely ignorant about the history of computing and technology. They fall for things like the Reality Distortion Field that tends to surround Apple, Google, Microsoft and others. It isn’t that the information isn’t out there, and readily available. These people choose to ignore it because it doesn’t suit the narrative they want to tell at the time. In some cases, they are too lazy or too stupid to make the effort to get it right. And people in the media wonder why the rest of us don’t trust them anymore.