Slideshow

In pictures: Before the iPhone -The kings of mobile

The iPhone redefined mobile computing four years ago, but several other devices from the BlackBerry pager to the iPaq once enjoyed the same reign

  • Motorola StarTAC Mobile phones had existed for several decades, but they were big and clunky — more like the radios you'd see in ships than anything we'd think of as a cellphone. Even the first portable cellphone — Motorola's 1983 DynaTAC — was a 2-pound monster more suited for a backpack than a picket. Motorola's 1996 StarTAC changed that: It was small, slim and pocketable — all revolutionary attributes for a phone of that primitive era just 15 years ago. The StarTAC became the executive's badge of honor, a sign that he or she had arrived.
  • Palm Treo 180 In 2002, we saw what seemed to be a springboard season for mobile device, led by Palm's Treo 180, a device that combined voice communications, apps and Internet access — it was the first smartphone of the kind we think of today. (Palm had become an independent company by then.) RIM was hot on its heels with its first BlackBerry smartphone, and Windows Pocket PC smartphones also appeared that year. This trio of devices stayed pretty much the same for the next five years, with incremental improvements but no dramatic shifts. Then, in 2008, Palm jettisoned Palm OS in favor of webOS (which new Palm owner HP killed last week). And in early 2010, Microsoft killed off Windows Mobile (the new name for Pocket PC) in favor of Windows Phone 7, a mobile OS whose first version was pretty bad, though a reboot version is due next month. The BlackBerry line remains, with incremental improvements.
  • Hewlett-Packard iPaq In Christmas 2000, every geek and well-paid exec seemed to get an iPaq under the tree. It was the "it" device of its time, the equivalent of the original IBM ThinkPad or today's MacBook Air in cool factor. Based on technology that Hewlett-Packard acquired from Compaq, which had received it from Digital Equipment, the original iPaq was a grayscale LCD-based PDA that introduced a Windows-like interface — because it ran Microsoft's first Windows-based mobile operating system. Color-LCD cellphone versions followed, but the iPaq's glory days were short, even though the product line survived a decade. Longer lasting was the Windows mobile operating system that persisted under various names as a standard in many government agencies and some businesses until Microsoft killed it in 2010 in favor of the new but poorly received Windows Phone 7.
  • U.S. Robotics Palm Pilot 1997's Palm Pilot redefined the clunky pocket organizers of the day (which traced their ancestry to 1984's Psion), giving them both handwriting recognition capabilities using a special script and a suite of applications in a package that felt more like a computer than a calculator. Yes, four years earlier, Apple MessagePad running the Newton OS did largely the same thing in a larger package, but although it became an iconic product, it never sold many units and never reigned as a mobile king.
  • Apple iPhone After five years of little significant change in the BlackBerry, Windows Mobile (the new name for Pocket PC) and Palm OS devices, Apple debuted its gesture-based iPhone in 2007 — to much derision. InfoWorld's own review gave the original iPhone an "unacceptable" rating, for example. Some of the criticism was fair, but much was driven by a dislike for Apple, a company whose reputation was ruined a decade earlier and was still looked on with suspicion despite the success of the iPod and iMac lines. Apple plugged away, releasing a new version every year since. Today, it's the top-selling smartphone in the world (though all the Android smartphones combined beat it in sales) and usually the top-rated. More than that, it's defined the paradigm for what a smartphone today is; Google, HP (which bought Palm in 2010 and then killed it last week), Microsoft, Nokia and RIM all are trying to play by the iPhone's rules in their current offerings.
  • Motorola Razr Motorola's StarTAC glory days were long over when in 2004 it resurrected the spirit of that design on the thinner, sleeker Razr, which quickly became the "it" cellphone and retained that position for several years. Its aluminum design was particularly striking, evoking the precision-cut aluminum cases that Apple had introduced a few years earlier and has kept as Apple's signature look today. Motorola again went hitless until it adopted the "Star Wars" movie series' "Droid" name and "Battlestar Galactica" dark-chic imagery for its Android smartphones in 2010.
  • Comlink and communicator OK, so these weren't real. But they set the parameters for what people imagined the future would be, thus helping ensure we went in that direction. The comlink from the 1956 classic sci-fi movie "Forbidden Planet" (left) was a wearable communications device that later bulky cellphones in some ways resembled. But it was the communicator (right) from the 1966-69 classic "Star Trek" TV series that defined the look of the modern flip-phone-style cellphone — 30 years ahead of the real thing.
  • Research in Motion BlackBerry The original BlackBerry in 1999 was a pager, one whose keyboard let executives and salespeople easily send each other text messages, not just simple pages. That ability to communicate revolutionized executive travel and made the BlackBerry into a corporate standard. Three years later, as pagers became more of a tool for drug dealers than for executives, RIM introduced the BlackBerry smartphone that grafted the text-messaging capabilities onto a cellphone. That device reigned as the corporate standard until 2011, when the iPhone finally displaced it in new sales.
  • Nokia 9000 Communicator At the same time as the Motorola StarTAC debuted in the United States, Nokia's 9000 Communicator debuted in Europe, a messaging-plus-voice device that was very much a precursor to the BlackBerry. The first version (left) looked like a phone, but quickly Nokia shifted to the landscape orientation (right) it still has today, which had people of think of it not as a phone but as more of a messaging device. Although it has been relatively popular ever since, the Communicator series has remained a niche product that looks and feels like a cousin of the modern smartphone.
  • The devices that once ruled the mobile market Today, with everyone trying to copy the iPhone's gesture-based interface and mix of messaging, applications and Internet, it's hard to believe there was a time the iPhone and its wannabes didn't exist. But in fact, before the iPhone's 2007 debut, mobile technology was defined by several different makes and models. Here's a tour of the key mobile devices that gained mass appeal and redefined the mobile market in their own times.
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