21 years ago, this was the smartphone of the future – and I just bought one

This article may contain personal views and opinion from the author.
21 years ago, this was the smartphone of the future – and I just bought one
It was 1998: a time when boy bands and GameBoy dominated popular culture. The Pokemon invasion was around the corner, renting VHS was still a thing, laptops were prohibitively expensive, and the Y2K bug was about to start sending satellites crashing down to earth. Times were simpler back then. We had no YouTube, Facebook or Spotify, Sony made digital cameras that stored images on floppy disks, and downloading custom ringtones was the hottest feature the typical cell phone could offer.

It is hard to imagine that in 1998, there was also the Nokia 9110i Communicator – possibly the most advanced cell phone you could buy then. It was literally a pocket-sized computer and it looked like something out of a James Bond movie next to the average 90's cell phone. And after all that time, I finally have one in my possession.

It is 2019, time to buy a Nokia Communicator!

21 years ago, these phones were like unicorns. I had only seen a Nokia Communicator in high-tech magazines – praised for the large display, QWERTY keyboard, and the ability to connect to this exciting new realm known as the internet. But I had never seen one in real life. A geek like myself could only imagine what having such a capable phone would be like. Driven by my desire to find out, I turned to eBay.

As you can probably guess, Nokia Communicator phones were super expensive back in the days. It is difficult to find records pointing at an exact figure after all this time, but it is safe to say that they sold for many times more than a typical contemporary mobile phone. The first device in the series (mine's the 2nd-gen model) was released at a price of 1000 British Pounds, which equals to $2590 in today's money. Yikes!

And today, they're not cheap either. I was lucky to find a functioning unit with a charger and a working battery for about 100 bucks. 21 years later, the Communicator phones are sought after by collectors, and well-preserved units command prices of up to several hundred dollars on eBay.

It works. It works!

"Made in Finland" – that's what it says on the back of my 9110i. Some readers may be too young to remember this, but back in the 90's, Nokia was a leader in the cell phone market. The company's phones were not only rich in functions, but also well known for their durability and reliability. It's the reason why Nokia 3310 memes exist.

Case in point, the Communicator that I got runs like a champ, and while it's not particularly pretty, it feels built like a tank. Every single keyboard button is functional. Every single pixel lights up. The closing mechanism snaps in place with a nice click. The only thing that seems to have been serviced on my unit is the 1100mAh battery, but that's understandable given the limited lifespan of lithium-ion cells, including the ones we still use today.

So, what can you do with a Nokia 9110i Communicator?

The truth is that every bit of technology has a limited lifespan. No matter how emotionally attached we get to a piece of hardware or software, there comes a day for it to be replaced by something faster, cheaper, and/or more efficient.

Back in the 90's, the Communicator must have looked super cool and futuristic, like a 2020 Tesla Roadster parked next to a 1992 Ford Taurus. It is the product of Nokia having a vision for the future of mobile tech – a future where the internet was in people's pockets and enabled them to communicate in new and exciting ways. Clearly, Nokia had the will and resources to experiment in the field.

And I don't think that I can stress this enough: the Nokia 9910i's set of features may seem laughable today, but in its time, it was at the cutting edge of technology. For example, the amount of notes, texts, and contacts it could store was only limited by the amount of available storage memory (a whopping 8MB, for those wondering). The phone I used at the turn of the millennium could only store 30 text messages and 150 contacts. The 9910i offered a web browser, could send and receive email, and had a full QWERTY keyboard. 90's phones had none of this, and typing in a simple text on a numeric pad was a laborious process. On top of all this, the Communicator had a voice recorder, a scientific calculator, expandable storage, support for documents and spreadsheets, and let you install additional applications, such as tools or games. 90's mind: blown!

The things we take for granted nowadays

It is sad that most of the Nokia 9110i's advanced features are now unusable. It does make calls and can send texts, but the web browser, for instance, spits out an error message even when I try to open the simplest of web pages. The email client appears to be incompatible with modern services like Gmail. The voice recorder requires an MMC storage expansion card which I don't have. And the fax function..., well, I'm not even sure what to do with it.

Installing new software proved to be practically impossible in my situation. You see, this Communicator phone came without an app store. It didn't have Wi-Fi or Bluetooth either. One of the few ways of copying anything onto it was by connecting it to a computer – an endeavor requiring a data cable, a Windows 98 machine, and the right drivers, all of which I don't have. Alternatively, stuff could be sent to it from another computer via its infrared port, but again, I don't have any device old enough for the task.

All this playing around with the Communicator made me realize how much of the modern smartphone experience we take for granted – and not only because the 9110i lacks basic commodities like a camera, a media player, location services, and even an FM radio. It was funny how I intuitively started poking at the monochrome, 640x200-pixel display even though it wasn't a touchscreen. I was baffled by the lack of a home screen and app icons – concepts that may have been too sophisticated for the software and hardware capabilities of the phone. But the most shocking part was the internet connection experience.

The 90's internet experience

Today's phones are pretty much always connected to the internet, whether we're at home or in the wild. This wasn't the case back in the old days even for home computers. We now hear of modems when reading about LTE, 5G and chipsets, but for those of us who grew up during the 90's, a modem was a white box that hooked up to your phone line. It is what we used to connect to the internet when we needed to – the modem would literally dial a phone number and then emit meaningless beeps and boops for a few seconds to get you online.

This is also the kind of modem the Nokia 9110i Communicator had. If you wanted to check your mail or open a web page, you had to literally wait about 30 seconds for the phone to go online before content – mostly text – would even start loading at a blistering speed of 9.6 kbps. And at the same time, you could not receive calls because the phone was "talking" to the internet over the same line!

How history repeats itself

I highly doubt that the Nokia 9110i Communicator was a big moneymaker for the company. Despite its high price, it must have been costly to make and even more expensive to develop, not to mention that the number of units shipped must have been ridiculously low compared to those of the company's hit phones from the era – phones like the Nokia 3210 from 1999, 160 million units of which have been sold.

But there's no denying that the Communicator series deserves its spot in mobile history. In a way, it was the "Galaxy Fold" of the 90's – an experimental device for a niche audience meant to push the boundaries of technology and see where that takes us. The mission must have been a success in Nokia's eyes, given that the company released several new models in the years that followed.

I hope you found this quick trip back in mobile history as fascinating as I did. I may not know what the smartphone landscape will look like in 20 years, but it was sure interesting to learn more about how we got to the point where we are today. Is there an old phone you'd like to see us revisit? Let us know down in the comments!

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