This is the IBM Simon Personal Communicator, often referred to as the first smartphone ever. A prototype of it was introduced in 1992, but it wasn't until two years later when BellSouth Cellular released the handset in the U.S. for $899 on a 2-year contract or $1099 without commitment.
In a nutshell, the IBM Simon was a cellphone with PDA features – something that business users must have been very excited about. The Simon offered utilities such as a calendar, a world clock, and an appointment scheduler, it could send and receive emails, it could exchange faxes over its 9600-bps modem, and it was even technically capable of running third-party applications stored on a memory card or on its 1MB of internal memory. That relatively huge screen in its front is a monochrome, backlit touchscreen with a resolution of 160 by 293 pixels. Using the handheld's stylus, one could draw sketches and input hand-written text, although our guess is that the accuracy of the latter feature was underwhelming.
Over 50,000 units were sold in the U.S. until February 1995, when the carrier discontinued the Simon.
The first of the Nokia Communicator series of smartphones was introduced in 1996, and featured a giant LCD screen plus a QWERTY keyboard when opened from its clamshell format. A long-time business favorite for its time, it was as capable, as it was expensive - both the device, and the apps written for it.
While the IBM Simon was, technically, the first commercially available mobile device that could be called a smartphone, it wasn't referred to as such. The first smartphone ever marketed using the term "smartphone" was the Ericsson R380, which hit the market in 2000 at a price of about $700. It was also the first smartphone running the then-new Symbian operating system.
Unlike other smartphones at the time, the Ericsson R380 was about the size and weight of a typical cellphone. It weighed only 164 grams, while the Nokia 9210 Communicator, in comparison, was a 244-gram brick. Its form factor also made it an interesting device. The R380 featured a standard numeric keypad that revealed a spacious resistive touchscreen when flipped open.
Feature-wise, the Ericsson R380 came loaded with an arsenal of organizer functions, such as a calendar, a to-do list, a world clock, voice memos, and a contacts manager. It also featured an infra-red port for exchanging data and offered a built-in modem for accessing the internet via the phone's WAP browser. Exchanging emails back and forth was also in its feature set. However, as advanced as it was for its time, the R380 could not have additional apps installed on it.
After the purchase of Handspring, in 2002 Palm labeled its Treo line, too. Laden with Palm OS, those Treos took off, as they offered multitasking features, like the option to check the calendar while talking on the phone, dial a contact directly, and send emails, which quickly became huge for Treo owners.
With a large, color touchscreen, the Samsung SPH-i700 made its way on Verizon as early as August 2002, featuring Windows Mobile Professional, and mobile versions of Office. The fledgling mobile OS was concocted by Microsoft in a jiffy to answer the Symbian threat, and had a mobile IE browser, too. Samsung's phone had an innovative swivel camera, as well as a 1200 mAh rechargeable Lithium Ion battery, plus an extended 2,000 mAh battery, both user-replaceable.
With the Canary, also known as the Orange SPV, HTC reserved its place in the pantheon smartphone pioneers, as the handset was running a Windows Mobile Standard version way back in September of 2002.
With a funky flip QWERTY keyboard, a rear camera, and light blue plastic for a chassis, the unorthodox Symbian warrior SE P800, announced October 2002, was a favorite of trendsetters at the time, and started a line of innovative Symbian smartphones for Sony. It did sport a stylus, too, letting you draw, annotate, or play games on the resistive touchscreen.
Oh, how the mighty have fallen - need we introduce BlackBerry, and what happened with it? The thumb-busters received calling capabilities without a headset for the first time with the Quark series, and soon became an all-time favorite of businessmen and government workers for their security and emailing features.
The renowned brand name of HP did wonders for popularizing the smartphone with its WinMo iPAQ line, and this is the one that started it - you could barely see a techie, a nerd, or a corporate warrior, without one of these in their hands.
This world GSM phone featured a color TFT display, built-in camera, bluetooth, high-speed GPRS data, Infrared, polyphonic ringtones, MMC card slot, J2ME support, E-Mail client, wireless Internet, voice dialing, voice recording and streaming multimedia - all wrapped up in a convenient to carry around package.
Who said that phablets started with the Note family? With a gigantic for its August 2004 release 3.5" touchscreen, this Windows Mobile Professional handset was for the heavy-hitters, sporting mobile versions of IE and Office, as well as a sliding QWERTY keyboard. These made the HTC Blue Angel, also known as the T-Mobile MDA III, Siemens SX66, i-mate PDA2k, a productivity powerhouse in a fairly sleek package.
Some say that the N95 was Nokia's last great phone, but it simply hinted at the iconic camera-oriented smartphones it was able to churn out later on. Nokia took the crazy for its time camera with Carl Zeiss lens from the N90 cameraphone, made it the whopping for the time 5 MP with a giant sensor size, and placed it in a more convenient form factor, leaving us with the ultra popular N95, unfortunately announced briefly before the first iPhone was introduced, too, and became a gamechanger.
While Microsoft was trying to cram a desktop OS into the smallish mobile form factor, and Nokia was sniffing at touchscreens whatsoever, one newcomer smashed the playing field to pieces. Fresh and unburdened by legacy design and operating systems paradigms, Apple rethought the always-connected pocket personal computer from scratch, and came up with the first iPhone. It fulfilled Steve Jobs's dream about a direct interaction with its computers by having an all-touch input on a largish display with the innovative capacitive tech, making pinch-to-zoom, inertial scrolling, and all the other goodies that we take as standard for interacting with our devices now, a reality.
Above all - it introduced us to effortless mobile browsing, putting the wonders of the Internet at our fingertips, and gave us the Apple Store, which quickly expanded the functionality of the humble rounded phone to unforeseen heights. We gave it 8.8/10 at the time, because of its carrier-exclusivity, and lack of features that many WinMo and Symbian handsets already had, but the iPhone shifted the paradigm from specs to usability, and people never looked back.
Windows Mobile was still going strong at the time, and HTC, as one of the smartphone pioneers, decided to show that smartphones with it can also be thin, compact, and trendy. It also married design with interface through its own WinMo TouchFLO overlay that matched the prismatic glass looks of the Touch Diamond - this was perhaps the first indication that HTC will become the master of premium design that it is now.
Blindsided by what Apple was able to achieve with the iPhone, the brainiacs from Google, who thought Microsoft was their main competitor at the time, had to put their mobile effort in overdrive. They quickly reinvented their smartphone ideas so far, and tasked HTC with making the G1 - the first phone with the Linux-based mobile OS called Android that was wholesomely acquired by Google. The G1 introduced some more great concepts for interacting with a touchscreen device, like the widget system and pull-down notification bar, but still hedged its bets with a slide-out QWERTY keyboard, in sync with the times.
The original DROID arguably made most for Android than any other handset at the time. Introduced by the biggest carrier in the world's most visible and innovative mobile market, and backed up by an unprecedented marketing campaign, Motorola DROID was the first with Android 2.0 and Google Maps, and really made Google's mobile OS a household name back in 2009, putting it on the map as the foremost iPhone and iOS competitor.
The first phone in Google's Nexus line was done by HTC under the direct supervision of the Mountain View giant. Later on, this line will become synonymous with instant Android updates, and great value-for-money propositions, helping to take the fledgling mobile OS to the commanding market share it has now.
Starting as what Apple tried to prove in court is a blatant ripoff of its iPhone franchise, Samsung's Galaxy S Android phone still really impressed us at the time, introducing a much larger 4" screen with the unique AMOLED technology that made for some bright and gaudy colors, but also a capable 5 MP camera, all wrapped in a very thin and light plastic chassis. Fast forward a few years, and the people have spoken, taking Samsung to rival Apple in terms of mobile profits, mostly thanks to this same Galaxy S line.
Samsung took a big risk with the first Note representative, equipping it with a whopping 5.3" display and a stylus, and marketing it as a media consumption and productivity powerhouse. The Note might not be the one for whom the word "phablet" was used for the first time, but its surprising success showed that Samsung stroke gold in a new and unexplored market niche of big-screen handsets that has only now stopped growing the diagonals around the 6" and change mark. The Note also resurrected the stylus as an additional input method - something we thought was left in the glory days of WinMo, yet Samsung created a commendable new use for it.
Bracing the turmoil of its dwindling sales and market share, Nokia managed to reinvent itself in the new Windows Phone format, and was later acquired by Microsoft, for better or worse. The Lumia 1020 hints at some hopefully great things to come from the buyout, as it managed to bring Nokia's hallmark innovations from the Symbian era, like the crazy 41 MP PureView camera and and excellent stereo audio recording, to the modern smartphone realities.
We are putting the Mi 3 model of the up and coming Xiaomi as a bonus at the end, despite that it is not a popular brand name in the West, but because it is one of the best examples for the changing smartphone realities that the nascent Chinese phone makers made possible. By offering flagship specs for half the price of the big dogs, and in a thin and light chassis, the Mi 3 managed to sell more than 10 million units already, indicating a seismic shift in the smartphone market that will inevitably lead to dwindling profit margins and saturation, as with every mature industry. We can safely say that the wild disruption days have passed now, and nowadays we can get great handsets that do most of what we need for a price that won't make you cry - and that's all we humble users want.