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A computer in your pocket: The rise of smartphones

Published: 13 November 2018

No longer simply for making calls, our phones have become versatile computing devices that most of us can't imagine life without. How have increasingly tiny microprocessors transformed mobile phone technology?

Quick facts

  • Most smartphones now have microprocessors which allow for increased computing power in a small space
  • ARM (Advanced Risc Machines) chips efficiently feed instructions to the circuits on the microprocessor, providing lots of computing power for relatively little energy
  • First RISC chip, ARM1, invented in 1985 by Sophie Wilson and Steve Furber of Acorn Computers
  • RISC (Reduced Instruction Set Computing) allows for very fast data processing by reducing the amount of instructions a computer can perform is reduced to the minimum
  • 3G (third generation) mobile networks introduced in the UK from 2003 and 4G from 2012
     

What were mobiles like before smartphones?

The smartphone has changed the way we live, and it's hard to imagine a time when we had different devices for all the functions our phones can now fulfill. 

But smartphones emerged as the dominant personal accessory and business tool from the convergence of two different products.

In the 1990s, consumers had a choice between mobile phones on which they could talk and send texts, or personal organisers to conduct business on the move.

The costs of owning a mobile phone and paying for calls had fallen dramatically as more networks entered the market, affordable pay-as-you-go contracts became available, and the phones themselves became more competitively priced.

By the end of the 1990s, teenagers were adopting them as enthusiastically as they had previously embraced other portable devices such as personal stereos. Constantly hungry for the latest version, they greeted the first phones with integral cameras with delight. 

Now they could not only take a picture, but also send it to their friends attached to a text message. Phones that could store and play music were a successful next step.

Phones gallery

Explore the predecessors of the smartphone:

Meanwhile, the business community adopted products such as the Psion Organiser or Palm Pilot (collectively known as PDAs, or Personal Digital Assistants). These provided, in one convenient pocket-sized package, calendars, calculators, spreadsheets, notepads and other business applications.

More advanced devices could connect to the internet and sync with their owners' desktop machines. Owning a PDA marked you out as a busy person who needed constant access to information.

PDA gallery

Explore the first personal digital assistants:

What is the technology behind smartphones?

It took two separate technological advances to bring about the convergence of these very different devices—the development of the ARM microprocessor, and the 3G mobile network.

Microprocessors

The first was the development of the ARM microprocessor, originally designed in the early 1980s by Sophie Wilson and Steve Furber at the British company Acorn Computers. At the time ARM stood for Acorn RISC Machines—it's now a separate company called Advanced RISC Machines.

ARM chips are important because they very efficiently feed instructions to the circuits on the microprocessor, providing abundant computing power while demanding comparatively little energy.

Microchip
ARM1 microchip, the first RISC chip produced for the mass market, made by Acorn Computers Limited, 1985

Most smartphones are now fitted with ARM microprocessors. The low-power processor means that impressive computing can be fitted into a package with a small battery, and smartphones have become progressively thinner and sleeker, light enough to drop in a shirt pocket.

At the same time they have acquired an ever-increasing array of features, such as touch screens and GPS receivers, in addition to the standard cameras and music players.

3G networks

The second advance was the upgrading of mobile networks from second generation (2G) systems to the third generation (3G). 

3G networks made it possible to transmit data at a rate high enough to send and receive video, making multimedia access a possibility. Today these networks have developed even further, with the arrival of 4G in 2012 and recent experiments with 5G.

When Britain's government held an auction in April 2000 to sell licences to operate 3G networks in the UK, six companies between them paid an astonishing £22.5 billion—four times the government's estimate.

Although at first many were stunned by the huge expenditure, in the long run these companies have not regretted their purchase. Underpinned by 3G, the mobile phone became a portal to a whole world of information and entertainment, capable of downloading text, images and video, sending emails and tweets, or browsing the web.

Smartphones take off

Apple launched the stylish, desirable iPhone 3G in 2008. It was open to anyone with the skills to add their own creations to an enticing range of apps, from games to maps to heart monitors. 

People queue to buy the iPhone 3G outside the Apple store in New York, 2012 Rob DiCaterino from Jersey City, NJ, USA [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Tech fans queue at the Apple store in New York, waiting to buy the iPhone 3G, 2012

Competitors quickly launched rival products, and smartphone sales took off. By the end of 2013, one in five people worldwide owned one. Suddenly smartphones were everywhere, including at the top of the world's highest mountain.

On 19 May 2013 the British explorer Daniel Hughes appeared on BBC News, wearing a red nose in honour of the charity Comic Relief.

He told newsreader Adnan Nawaz:

This is the world's first live video call—never been done before—from the rooftop of the world.

Using Skype on his smartphone via a satellite link, Hughes sent live video images and sound from the summit of Everest to the BBC studio, and was able to respond to questions from Nawaz about his bid to raise money for the charity.

HTC One mobile phone used to make the first video call from the summit of Everest in May 2013, manufactured by HTC, 2013.
Science Museum Group Collection More information

The event illustrates just how far mobile phones have come, from simple communications devices carrying voices and small amounts of text, to tiny computers able to roam the internet and send and receive data as complex as a live digital video.

Mobile phones, once simply tools for making voice calls, are now fully connected and versatile devices, putting all the power of a computer in your pocket.

They have transformed the way we generate, consume and share data about ourselves and the world around us.