Comparison between an old Nokia phone and a modern smartphone with multiple cameras.
The evolution of smartphones / tecnoandroid ©

Mobile evolution: the 'terrible' first smartphones

From physical buttons to touch screens, we review how the smartphone revolution began.

Martial Triguero
By Martial Triguero
Fast answer

The first smartphones were a challenge compared to today's technological gems. The setup was an odyssey without cloud storage, where transferring data and contacts became an almost impossible mission, and do you remember those proprietary chargers and ports that forced us to carry an arsenal of cables? Personalization was an illusion sold through ringtones that you had to pay for, and the Internet connection was reduced to the frustratingly slow EDGE. These hard beginnings make us appreciate even more the wonders that fit in our pockets today.

Looking back, it's hard not to feel a tingle in your stomach about the path we've taken in the world of mobile telephony. Today's smartphones are true entertainment, productivity and communication centers that fit in our pocket. But do you remember what they were like back in the mid-2000s? Those devices that seemed to us to be the eighth wonder of the world would seem almost useless when compared to the impressive and powerful mobile phones that we have today.

Today, from the comfort that our current terminals provide us, we are going to pay them a small tribute, remembering everything we have advanced, throwing in a little nostalgia (both good and bad).

The torture of setting up a new smartphone

Nokia N95 8GB mobile phone showing home screen with date 19/01/2008
Nokia N95 8GB / tecnoandroid ©

I remember as if it were yesterday that feeling of unpacking my newly purchased smartphone a few years ago. The excitement and excitement was mixed with a slight fear, knowing that I had hours of manual configuration ahead of me, contacts to go through one by one and photos to transfer in the hope of not losing anything along the way. It's true that I enjoyed the first ones, but with each new one I bought, the fun faded, as did my patience.

The absence of cloud storage and the complications it entailed

At that time, the idea of ​​cloud storage was as far away as traveling to Mars. We were tied to the phone's physical memory and rudimentary data transfer methods. Connecting the smartphone to the PC through proprietary (and sometimes unruly) cables was the daily bread.

As an anecdote, the first time I tried to transfer my contacts to a new phone (from Symbian to Symbian...), it was a process that took me an entire afternoon and, to make matters worse, I lost several in the attempt. And let's not talk about the photos and videos, which required monastic patience to be transferred without errors (with a PC). That makes us value, at least I do, services like Google Photos or iCloud.

The peculiarity of proprietary chargers and connections

In those years, each manufacturer was committed to creating its own ecosystem of accessories, and chargers were the standard bearer of this trend. A charger for Nokia (I had several, including the Nokia N70, Nokia N-Gage, 6600 or the Nokia N95 8GB...), another for Sony-Ericsson, another for HTC... and so on, a drawer full of cables and connectors that only They were used for one device.

Sony Ericsson specific charger with proprietary connector.
Sony Ericsson charger connector / Marcial Triguero / tecnoandroid ©

And what about the unique headphone ports for each device? That was a pretty shameless way to tie us to their accessories. If you lost or broke your charger, you were faced with a scavenger hunt to find a compatible replacement. Luckily, today standardization such as USB-C has made our lives easier.

Note

If you still have any of these old chargers, don't throw them away! They may be true museum artifacts for future generations or, who knows, maybe they will have some nostalgic value on the collectors' market.

Personalization in diapers: the charm of the basics

Personalization is today one of our greatest examples of personality on our devices (with Apple's permission...). However, if we go back to the time of the first smartphones, the options were, shall we say, a little more “modest”. Those menus with limited options had their charm, although the truth is that they left little room for creativity.

Exploring the customization options of yesteryear

Change the wallpaper. That was almost all the customization that those terminals allowed us. And what about the ringtones? They were a declaration of intent, a way to express our musical tastes every time the phone rang. Of course, to get the latest hit of the moment, you had to go to the checkout and buy it; nothing from Spotify or MP3 files that you could assign directly.

The golden age of ringtones

Nothing was more exciting than hearing the polytone of your favorite song every time someone called you. The ringtone industry was huge, and carriers and third-party services knew how to capitalize on our need to differentiate ourselves.

Note

If you've ever paid for a ringtone from your favorite band, don't feel alone. Many of us fell into the temptation of personalizing our mobile phones with those tones that were so characteristic of the time and that were announced on TV as a revolution (to put our hands in our pockets).

EDGE: Internet browsing was torture in itself

The connectivity of those devices was so slow that it taxed our patience more than the web pages themselves. EDGE was the most, although today it seems prehistoric to us. And I'm not exaggerating when I tell you that watching an image load line by line was a true test of patience, that although at that time it was a revolution, desperation was already overtaking me.

Opera Mini to the rescue in the pre-3G era

Opera Mini was a real lifesaver back then. This mobile browser It optimized the pages to make navigation a little more bearable, although it was still a slow process compared to current standards. Thanks to Opera Mini, many of us were able to access content that would otherwise have been practically unreachable.

Note

If you're complaining about the speed of your current 4G or 5G connection, try to imagine what it was like to try to open a simple email with EDGE. Perspective changes everything!

Archaic communication: SMS reigns in the absence of WhatsApp

Before WhatsApp transformed the way we communicate, SMS was the standard of the time. And while we had instant messaging apps like the old Windows Live Messenger, there was no comparison to the immediacy and features we enjoy today.

The beginnings of instant messaging and email

Email also presented its own set of challenges. Setting up your account was a process that involved more technical knowledge than desirable, and it didn't always work the first time. Those of us who managed to configure our email on our mobile phone undoubtedly felt like advanced hackers.

Before app stores: a wild territory

When I think about the era before app stores, I can't help but remember the feeling of exploring unknown terrain, without maps or guides. And, before the arrival of the Google Play Store or App Store, finding and downloading applications for those primitive smartphones was quite an odyssey.

The difficulty of finding and downloading applications

Back then, there was no centralized place where you could rely on finding safe and compatible apps for your device. We were at the mercy of third-party websites, with all that that meant in terms of security and reliability. Each download was a leap of faith, crossing my fingers that the app wasn't malicious or simply useless.

Nokia's missed opportunity to lead the app store market

It is ironic to think that Nokia, at the time the undisputed leader of the mobile market with Symbian at the helm, had the opportunity to get ahead of everyone with its Club Nokia. But as in so many 'almost success' stories, external pressures and perhaps a not so clear vision of the future caused that golden opportunity to be lost. If history had been different, would we be talking about the Nokia Store today instead of Google Play or the App Store?

Note

If you ever ventured into downloading apps back in the day, you'll know that every successful attempt was a small personal victory. And if you still have any .sis or .jar files lying around, you have a piece of mobile history with you!

Positive aspects of the first smartphones

Despite the difficulties and limitations, not everything in the first era of smartphones was a rocky road. There were flashes of ingenuity and features that, even today, could be considered ahead of their time.

The importance of memory cards and innovative device designs

Memory cards were a blessing in those days, offering flexibility that many of us miss today. And in terms of designs, creativity was the order of the day: flip phones, sliders, with a physical QWERTY keyboard... Each new model was a surprise. Innovation was the order of the day. Do you remember the Nokia mobile console? Yes, the N-Gage...

Nokia N-Gage with the Tomb Raider game on the screen.
Nokia N-Gage / Source: Legends & Video Games

Looking back without nostalgia

It's tempting to look back nostalgically, but if I'm honest, the thought of having to use one of those early smartphones again gives me more chills than nostalgia. Technological advances have accustomed us to a level of comfort and efficiency that, compared to those devices, seem from another galaxy.

Reflecting on the path taken in the universe of smartphones helps us evaluate the comforts that current devices offer us. We learned, we evolved and now we enjoy devices that are true technological wonders. So, the next time your smartphone does something amazing with just a touch (something we'll see more and more with the advent of Artificial Intelligence), remember fondly (or not) those moments when everything was more... 'manual'.

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Technology veteran with more than 20 years of experience, passionate about mobile devices, home automation and artificial intelligence. In addition to my fascination with movies and series, I have solid experience in server and database administration. Committed to continuous learning, I always seek to stay up to date with the latest technological trends.
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