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In case you haven't heard, the cellphone celebrated its 40th birthday this past week. In its brief lifespan, the mobile phone has had an enormous impact on human society, including in developing regions where the personal computer remains prohibitively expensive.
How big of an impact? There are 6.8 billion mobile cellular subscriptions worldwide this year, according to the United Nations' International Telecommunication Union. To put that number in perspective, that's nearly as many subscriptions as there are people on earth (more than 7 billion).
Of course, this doesn't mean that cellphone technology has reached its limits of innovation. Far from it, in fact. Those of us who live in areas with so-called advanced 4G LTE mobile networks still suffer from the occasional dropped call, spotty reception or poor audio quality.
The mobile industry can do better, which is precisely what 85-year-old Martin Cooper, the retired Motorola engineer better known as the "father" of the cellphone, said in an interview last week with the BBC. The technology exists to improve coverage and capacity of cellular networks, but wireless carriers thus far have focused on speed instead, Cooper opined.
Although the cellphone was invented in 1973, it didn't emerge as a viable commercial product until the 1980s. Early mobile handsets were expensive, heavy and bulky; they were luxury items enjoyed by the privileged few. There's an iconic scene in the 1987 film Wall Street where ruthless corporate raider Gordon Gekko, standing on the beach in his bathrobe, is chatting on his 2.5-pound Motorola DynaTAC, the first commercially available wireless phone that cost a cool $3,995.
At the time of the movie's release, the scene conveyed Gekko's wealth, power and arrogance: "Wow, he's on the beach, talking on a phone ... with no wires!" Twenty-six years later, the massive, shoe-sized DynaTAC looks laughably oversize and about as technologically advanced as an 8-track tape player. And with the majority of the human race now possessing smaller, cheaper and far more capable mobile phones than the one used by the diabolically greedy Gekko, the device's elitist aura is a distant memory as well.
The cellphone went mainstream in the '90s, and manufacturers began rolling out a wide variety of handsets designed to be both functional and fashionable. In honor of the cellphone's 40th birthday, we've decided to spotlight the best and worst mobile phones from the past two decades.
You might have used one or more of these phones in its heyday. Others you might have forgotten -- or wish you had.
The legendary Motorola StarTAC was the first clamshell flip phone, although earlier handsets such as Motorola's MicroTAC did have a partial flip design. The StarTAC was a big hit with consumers, who loved the device's petite size and ergonomic design, despite its initial $1,000 price tag. The black-clad StarTAC had a good run -- Motorola reportedly sold about 60 million of them -- before fading away in the early 2000s. Inspired by the Star Trek communicator, the venerable flip phone is still around; although it's gradually being replaced by the far more capable, and increasingly inexpensive, smartphone.
Early efforts to build a fashion-forward handset didn't always succeed. Siemens' Xelibri line, for instance, was a design abomination that almost certainly would have made Richard Blackwell's Worst Dressed List, had one existed for cellphones.
Featuring eight oddly shaped handsets that never quite caught on with either the couture crowd or the rest of us, the Xelibri series vanished after a brief two-year run. Strangely enough, nobody wanted cellphones shaped like digital thermometers, powder compacts and other peculiar designs.
Tech writers today love to dump on the BlackBerry, and understandably so. The once-hip handset, a pre-iPhone favorite revered for its powerful email capabilities and well-designed physical QWERTY keyboard, now seems hopelessly outdated, despite valiant efforts by its manufacturer to give it a modern makeover in an increasingly Android- and iOS-dominated world.
But to paraphrase Shakespeare, we come to praise BlackBerry, not bury it. In its mid-2000s heyday, the BlackBerry was so popular among business users in the U.S. that it earned the nickname "CrackBerry" for its seemingly addictive qualities. The once-great handset also helped smartphones gain acceptance as secure communications devices in the enterprise.
Four years before Apple merged the iPod with the cellphone, Nokia unveiled a hybrid device of its own. The N-Gage was a mobile phone/portable game console built for the Game Boy crowd. Sadly, it failed on both fronts. As Wikipedia recounts, the N-Gage made a poor gaming device, in part because its buttons (note the right-side keypad) were designed primarily for phone use. And the handset's clunky design, which some critics referred to as a "taco," made the N-Gage one of the ugliest smartphones known to humankind.
The flip phone reached its artistic zenith with Motorola's sleek and slim Razr, the thinnest clamshell of its time. Reigning supreme in the mid-2000s -- right before the smartphone went mainstream -- the Razr was a minimalist beauty well-suited for talk and text. As the decade progressed, Motorola released updated versions of the Razr, including models with touch-capable external displays. There was even a hot pink version that 15-minute celebs like Paris Hilton couldn't resist. But despite Motorola's efforts to keep the flip phone relevant, the Razr faced declining sales as consumers switched to more feature-rich devices. In 2011, the Razr brand was resurrected for a new line of Motorola's Android-based Droid phones.
Two years before the iPhone's debut, Apple and Motorola teamed up to launch the world's first mobile phone to integrate an iTunes music player. Featuring a candy bar design (popular at the time) and a 176- by 220-pixel display, the Rokr E1 suffered several shortcomings that made it unappealing to iTunes aficionados. For instance, it could load only 100 songs at a time, and it lacked wireless transfer or high-speed USB, according to Wikipedia. The next version of the Rokr, the E2, ditched iTunes for RealPlayer, and also supported more music formats. The Rokr line played on for a few years but never quite found its pitch, particularly after Apple released the iPhone in 2007.
The iPhone revolutionized the smartphone market and was an immediate hit with consumers. Its long list of innovations, starting with its huge (for 2007) 3.5-inch multitouch color display, exposed the hard-to-use clunkiness of just about every smartphone that came before it. And the iPhone's App Store, which opened in 2008, brought an app-oriented culture to mobile devices that thrives to this day.
Perhaps the best example of the iPhone's influence is the imitators it has spawned, most noticeably Google's Android platform, which has surpassed the iPhone in global market share (and arguably influence as well). Recent iPhone upgrades may seem less than inspired, but that's probably because Apple got the smartphone right the first time.
A clean, minimalist design works well in consumer tech. Apple, obviously, has done very well with that motif. But practicality and usability always trump beauty, a tech rule that Bang & Olufsen didn't quite grasp when it launched its crazy-expensive Serene phone in 2005. With its retro, rotary dial-inspired keypad, oddly positioned camera and limited feature set, the Serene was a very hard sell at $1,275. CNET's 2006 review of Bang & Olufsen's pricey faux pas summed it up beautifully: "The Serene is more suited to be showcased in a museum rather than carried around in your pocket."
The first Android phone debuted in 2008 -- just a year after the iPhone's arrival -- but Google's mobile OS was a slow starter, chugging along with incremental improvements and sales. Early Android phones strove to mimic the iPhone's elegance, power and usability, but never quite pulled it off until Samsung's Galaxy S series came along. The Galaxy S III, released in spring 2012, was arguably the first Android handset to surpass the iPhone in some areas. Its 4.8-inch HD display made the iPhone 4S's 3.5-inch screen look puny and outdated; it had 4G LTE (the iPhone 4S didn't); and it had innovative (if somewhat gimmicky) features like S Beam for wireless file sharing. The S III continues to sell well, and has helped establish Samsung as Apple's top rival in the global smartphone market.
Perhaps it's unfair to dump on Nokia's X5-01, which debuted in China in 2010. A perfectly decent feature phone with a slider QWERTY keyboard and a 2.36-inch, 320 x 240 display, the X5-01 has an undeniably unique design. If you love boxes, squares and game boards -- and believe your phone should resemble one -- this handset's for you. But if you find the X5-01 hideous to behold, well, you're certainly not alone.