The Evolution of the Cell Phone: A 40 Year Retrospective

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the first cell phone call, and one would be hard pressed to think of a more ubiquitous high tech device. Market research firm mobiThinking puts the total number of worldwide cell phone subscribers in 2012 at more than 6.8 billion. That’s equivalent to about 96 percent of the world’s population!

How did the cell phone become the most widely used communication technology in human history? A major factor is the ongoing advancement of high-performance, low-power semiconductor components. These advancements improve battery life and enable the continuous addition of new features and functionality that make today’s smartphones a reality. Taking this one step further, the advancements in semiconductor technology are largely the result of work by thousands of engineers and scientists to push the limits of the physical and material sciences.

Using advances in precision materials engineering, chip designers have been able to create multicore processors and GB-density flash modules that hold billions of transistors and memory cells, integrate more technology on chip, reduce power consumption and heat output, and take advantage of greater economies of scale. In turn, these factors have given cell phone designers reduced component counts, more powerful mobile capabilities, longer battery life, smaller and thinner form factors, and increasingly aggressive price points. This allowed the industry to move from the “brick” phones of the 1980s (remember the Motorola 8000?) to the sleek, feature-rich smartphones of today, like Samsung’s Galaxy S4. A teardown of the Galaxy S4, which includes some of the most advanced semiconductor technology available, is a case in point. When the Motorola 8000 hit the scene, 1 micron (1000-nm) was the state-of-the art in semiconductor technology; the Galaxy S4 uses 28-nm technology (Moore’s Law, anyone?). For a more visual representation of this, compare the size and component count of that teardown to these images of chips and PCBs used in a Motorola 8000 to see just how far semiconductor technology has progressed.

Sometimes it’s hard to comprehend exactly how far we’ve come as an industry.  We’ve put together a timeline examining the evolution of the cell phone over the last 15 years with the added context of other historical events to help remind you where you were when the various cell phones listed were the “must have” device of their time. Take a look below at how the size and performance capabilities of the cell phone have progressed over that time, and let me know what your favorite device was.

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