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September 25th, 2012
01:31 AM ET

The changing shape of mobile handsets

Some of the old phones you see in that video came from a street market in Hong Kong. Browsing stalls full of old handsets brought back plenty of memories for me.

There was the Nokia 6110, the first phone with Snake. There was the Ericsson T68, the first phone I'd ever seen with a color screen. And the Nokia 7650: My first experience with a so-called "smartphone".

It made me realise something: The phones I loved weren't necessarily the most important ones. The most important ones were the phones that completely discarded the logic of their times and established something genuinely new.

I remember falling in love with the Nokia 3210 as soon as I first saw it. It had a simple, clean, modern design. It looked slim and streamlined, not at all like the chunky blocks of plastic that other phones resembled. One of the main reasons for that was that it didn't have an external antenna.

I also remember people scoffing at it... because it didn't have an external antenna.

Other companies would continue to ship phones after the 3210 with external antenna. But Nokia believed that the slight trade-off in call quality would be more than offset by the phone's design. And history proved them right: They sold millions of 3210s.

The 3210's success helped Nokia overtake Motorola as the world's biggest handset maker. Motorola, desperate for a hit, came up with a phone that was like nothing before: The Motorola RAZR V3.

I'll be honest, I hate the RAZR. I don't like the look, I don't like the keypad, and I hate how difficult it is to use. But I appreciate how it changed the phone industry. And I appreciate the fact that Motorola abandoned their own rules to create it.

Motorola's internal guidelines suggested that a phone wider than 49mm would not fit in a person's hand. The RAZR was 53mm wide. In the end, they went with their own opinion that the phone felt good in the hand instead of research that said it wouldn't. And guess what? Almost every phone today is wider than the RAZR.

The street market where I found the RAZR had plenty of newer phones, too. And it's hard to look at them and deny the influence of the most disruptive device to hit mobiles in over a decade: The iPhone.

There's little point in listing the ways the iPhone changed handsets. Today, its success seems obvious. But at the time, there were plenty of critics.

John Dvorak said Apple should pull the plug on the iPhone... three months before it launched. CNET gave 13 reasons to doubt the iPhone hype, saying it was so expensive only Paris Hilton could afford it. And Microsoft's Steve Ballmer famously laughed at the threat of the iPhone.

So what will the next revolutionary handset look like? History shows that radical thinking can be mistaken for a ridiculous idea. It's entirely possible that Samsung's comically over-sized Galaxy Note could be the next mobile trendsetter.

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Filed under: Gadgets • General • Technology
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