How much can your mobile phone really do? Do you remember the early days of cellular phones and just how little you could actually accomplish with one? Texting was a new fad when I was in high school, and the idea of having an Internet connection on a phone that cost less than your car was laughable.

Today, folks can watch movies on their phone with little to no buffering involved. You can pinpoint your location and receive turn-by-turn directions from virtually anywhere you can get a signal. Need to send a text message? You can speak to your phone and have it send one on your behalf.

We’ve come a long way in the mobile world in the past 15 years. Here are five things you wouldn’t have seen on most phones in 1997.

Color Screens

Forget the idea of a Retina display. Phones didn’t even have color screens back in 1997. You were stuck with grey, blue, or green backlit displays with grey text.

The first mobile phone to include a color screen was the Siemens S10. It was released in 1998 and featured basic colors on a muddy screen. Still, it worked.

It wasn’t until late 2001 when Sony Ericsson released the T68i that mass-produced phones were adorned with a color screen. There were a few minor exceptions out there, but they were often extremely expensive and lackluster in their performance.

Nextel’s announcement of a color phone for the US market was a big deal in 2002. It feels like just yesterday.

Today, high-definition displays with rich colors and extreme contrast are commonplace. Further to that, you can touch these displays and control the phone without having to press a single physical button. It’s quite a remarkable achievement.

Internet Connection

Do you remember the days before Internet on a mobile phone? You need only look as far back as 1999 to find the first mass-produced mobile phone with Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) support. The Nokia 7110 featured a slide-down button cover and a very basic on-board browser.

Today, you can have a faster Internet connection on your phone than you do at home, and that’s an incredible thing. The idea of browsing the Web from a device that fits in your pocket was hardly believable until only very recently.


Believe it or not, it wasn’t until the year 2000 that GPS was actually made reliable for civilian use. Until that year, the government purposely weakened civilian GPS capability and made it difficult to use. For that reason, GPS took off in a big way that year with early mobile GPS integration being only somewhat useful.

In the mid 2000s, GPS integration became more prevalent in mobile phones. It wasn’t until 2007-2008 that it became a mainstream feature found on most smartphones. Even today, GPS integration is being developed and improved upon with significance.

Capacitive Touchscreens

The IBM Simon, released to consumers in 1994, was arguably the first smartphone. It featured a resistive touchscreen and basic PDA (Personal Data Assistant) features to become something more than just another bulky mobile phone of the era. While it did exist well before 1997, it was hardly the productivity device we see smartphones as today. You could mark dates on the calendar and perhaps make basic calculations, but you couldn’t do terribly more than that.

Unlike most phones of the era, it included a built-in 2400 baud modem, which could send and receive email and fax messages. You could also install third-party apps, though the only aftermarket app produced for the phone ran you about $2,200 for the desktop client and another several hundred for the phone app. It wasn’t exactly Angry Birds.

The first mobile phone to feature a capacitive touchscreen that did not require a stylus was the LG Prada. This phone was announced in December of 2006 and was quickly buried by the introduction of the iPhone (and multi-touch) in 2007.

Camera Phones

While there were some exceptions, the first mass-produced commercial phone to feature an on-board camera was actually produced as recently as the year 2000. The J-SH04 by Sharp featured a 0.1 MP camera and was sold primarily in Japan. It wasn’t until 2006 that more than half of all phones sold included a camera of some kind.

Taking a photo with a phone is a relatively new experience, and it quickly took the world by storm. Despite not being as widely available as it is today, it took camera phones just three years to overtake stand-alone digital point-and-shoot cameras in sales.

That’s a pretty impressive record of innovation. Next time you look at a phone announcement and call it boring, think about just how new most of the features that phone has really are, and how far the technology has come. I’d like to see more technologies advance as quickly as the phone has.