10 Years of Mobile Industry History in 10 Minutes

Dirk Reagle

Any investor will tell you that past performance is not a guarantee of future results, but as investors of time, money, and energy in mobile enterprises, it’s important to maintain a bird’s-eye, macro-level view of the industry. The market for mobile software and devices has been steadily growing at a nearly geometric pace, and it shows no signs of slowing.

Since the mid 2000’s, the industry—especially in terms of software, apps, and web interactivity—design has absolutely boomed and gone through immense advancements in every way imaginable way. This is because during the last decade (and even more so during the last five years), mobile phones have gone from being simple phones to being fully-functional pocket-sized computers, with a mobile equivalent for almost every single feature of a full-blown desktop or laptop computer.

This general trend has naturally led to the development of an enormous industry that can basically be divided into two interrelated parts: mobile app development and mobile-friendly design. Mobile development has grown alongside thousands and eventually millions of increasingly-sophisticated mobile applications developed for ever-growing smartphone marketplaces. Modern mobile applications take advantage of built-in hardware abilities in astoundingly clever ways and perform robust web-based and organizational functions.

With the rising advancement of high-speed, large-bandwidth mobile networks like 3G, WiFi, and 4G, consumers can access the web on their smartphones as quickly and reliably as they can via a normal computer. At the same time, the growing access has prompted an explosion in the number of mobile-friendly or purely mobile websites; this in turn has increased demand for mobile design enormously, and that’s where developers like you come in.

Today, the mobile phone market is outstripping ownership and use of landline phones in virtually every country on Earth, the steady conversion of more and more of these phones into smarter, more multimedia-friendly devices that work off WiFi, 3G, or 4G networks suggests that the future of mobile development and design will only grow stronger.

Let’s go over some of the major ingredients that led to the rise of modern mobile design.

The First Cellular Networks

Starting from simple wireless analog-based (1G) portable phones, it wasn’t until the late 1990’s that cell phones turned into more sophisticated devices as the technology inside them started to spawn an ever larger number of features (features that nonetheless seem basic by today’s standards). These first phones gave basic calling abilities to users and their convenient portable capacities are what established them as widely-used communications devices.

2G/GSM Networks and the Rise of Mobile Media

It wasn’t until the mid to late 1990’s that a new communications network, known as GSM—or 2G, as it was less often called—began to develop in which more mobile services could be offered. At this point, the first pre-smartphone devices began to appear, and the fact that data transmission over these next-generation devices was digital instead of analog allowed them to carry many of the more basic smartphone features that we use as the basis for modern app development. Capabilities such as text messaging, downloadable content, and extremely basic web access gave consumers the ability to send emails, view a small selection of online multimedia, and download simple digital applications such as ringtones and music files.

The growth of the GSM, or 2G networks, is what really expanded mobile phone use so broadly that mobile devices eventually eclipsed landline communication tools. Despite the 2G networks explosive popularity amongst users of all income levels worldwide, these machines were still pretty basic compared to today’s mobile devices.

3G Arrives

It wasn’t until the early 2000’s, with the development and service offering of the first 3G wireless digital networks that true smartphones arrived. In 2002 and 2003, network operators began to offer widespread 3G access based on more powerful wireless transmission technology that depended on efficient packet switching data transmission found in computer-based web connections instead of the 2G networks circuit switching mechanism.

With the arrival and rise of 3G, the modern era of wireless mobile smartphones as pocket-sized computers truly began, especially after 2005, when High-Speed Downlink Packet Access (HSDPA) was implemented into 3G and expanded its data carrying ability even more. The resulting explosion in online media accessibility created a tandem explosion in online media creation. At the same time, in order to take full advantage of all these web-based data options that phone networks now offered, mobile applications started appearing for smart phones—at first in small quantities but later at a rapid development pace. Also, the devices themselves had to be redesigned so that they could better display digital media and other interactive systems, taking full advantage of the growing apps market.

4G Replacing 3G

Currently, even 3G itself is being slowly replaced by the much more powerful, purely packet-switching-based, data optimized 4G network. With this new technology, ten-fold increases over 3G in data transmission ability are coming into the picture, making access to digital media even more robust and further bolstering the demand for media-rich mobile applications.

Bye Bye Buttons

This is where the touchscreen phone with its large visual screen interface comes into the picture. Today, this is the replacement to the antiquated button control and small display screen based phones of several years ago.

The end result of this mix is the rapid replacement of old phones for new touchscreen devices and the deliberate obsolescence of older networks in favor of 3G and its even more powerful successor, 4G. In many countries, anything older than 3G is no longer even available and almost all new phones being sold feature a predominantly buttonless touchscreen design.

As of the most recent figures, there were over 1.6 billion 3G/4G mobile subscribers worldwide (up from only 297 million in 2007)

Mobile Operating Systems and App Marketplaces

Finally, we come to the growth of mobile device operating systems. Since modern smartphones are more like computers than cell phones in a classical sense, they naturally needed a fully-functional OS of their own. Because of this, several companies such as Research in Motion, Apple, Google, and Microsoft all came out with their own competing mobile operating systems that gave a full-scale interface to digital media access and software applications compatibility

Thanks to all these features, the mobile apps development landscape has exploded like few other industries ever have in history. Since 2010-2011, app marketplaces have grown for mobile operating system developers such as Apple with its iOS platform, Google’s Android OS, and Microsoft’s Windows Phone.

As of 2012, the Apple mobile apps market alone houses over 600,000 smartphone apps and has had over 30 billion downloads to date. Similarly, the Android OS market gives access to hundreds of thousands of additional applications and sees some 3 million downloads per day from its online platform.

These applications are developed by both major mobile market players and, even more overwhelmingly, hundreds of smaller third-party companies and teams that sell them through the major apps markets for a majority percentage of revenues per app. This mutually-beneficial sales relationship ensures an extremely robust mobile app market that constantly sees new innovation flooding in.

Mobile Website Design

Finally, the last major branch of the mobile development landscape—with the enormous growth similar to that of mobile device development—is mobile website design. The ever-faster Internet connectivity of modern devices virtually guaranteed their use for web browsing. As of early 2012, some 61% of American users were regularly accessing the internet through their smartphones or tablets, and of those, at least 30 to 40% are almost exclusively mobile Internet users who rarely if ever bother browsing from a desktop or laptop.

Naturally, this creates an immense demand for web design that’s compatible with the much smaller and simpler screens of mobile phones and tablet devices, and this search for mobile web compatibility in online domain pages has been the latest trend in web design.

Thanks to this trend, most major site owners today have both a regular site for their URLs and a mobile-friendly version that is either automatically accessible as a special domain with its own mobile designated prefix or as a downloadable app that functions as a website. In general, these mobile versions of pages are visually stripped down versions of the full-scale original website that maintain core functionality.

Do you remember the “old days” of flip phones and low bandwidth? Did you develop or utilize primitive phone apps from years ago? What do you predict will be next for the mobile industry?

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