Smartphone retrospective

In these days of Android and iOS dominance and BlackBerry (RIM) and Symbian (Nokia) decline, it's hard to remember that even half a decade ago, RIM, Nokia, Microsoft (Windows Mobile OS), and Palm shared the market much more evenly. Yes, it's true--before there was the iPhone, there was the iPaq.

It's no surprise that the old guard of smartphones was comparatively bulkier, slower, and leaner on features, since each generation of hardware improves upon the next. Even more than speed and specs, what differentiated them from today's dual-core, 4G mini computers was their purpose and audience. Companies issued expensive, bricklike smartphones to business professionals, or tech-savvy early adopters flashed them from shiny new hip holsters. They were e-mail-centric, calendar-heavy PDAs that also just happened to make phone calls. When apps emerged, there was little in the way of centralization to find them.

Apple changed all that. The iPhone, released in June 2007, didn't just disrupt the smartphone scene; it revolutionized what smartphones should do (everything) and who they should be for (everyone). The design was clean and sleek; it was dead simple to use. Games and apps were abundant, and mostly free or cheap. Android emerged soon after, and surged into a threat; meanwhile, the original crew struggled to catch up.

Revisiting the first wave of smartphones is entertaining to be sure, but also an instructive look at how far we've come in just a decade, and how much the former front runners have had to adapt in the wake of the iPhone.

Note: All release dates U.S.

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Palm: Kyocera 7135

Kyocera was one of the first manufacturers for early smartphones running Palm's operating system. The Kyocera 7135 made its mark two ways. Not only was it the "first color-screened hybrid with a flip-phone design," wrote CNET editor Roger Hibbert, it also "has a phone-first design, incorporating a keypad--rather than a thumb keyboard like that of the Treo--in its base."

The Palm phone had convenience keys for launching the calendar, contacts, messages, and the WAP browser, in addition to space for using Palm's handwriting recognition software, called Graffiti.

Release date: December 1, 2002

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Palm: Treo 600, 650

When PDAs (personal digital assistants) roamed the Earth, the Treo line was an iconic series of specimens that combined cell phone service with personal organizer and communications tools. Treos were characterized by the now-familiar five-way directional navigation toggle, a compact keyboard, and a candy bar design.

An Editors' Choice Award winner, the Treo 600 featured a 2.5-inch LCD screen that supported 3,375 colors and IMAP and POP3 e-mail. It sold for $500 with a service agreement.

Release date: October 21, 2003

Two years later, the Palm Treo 650 improved on its predecessor's screen quality (320x320 pixels and 65,000 colors on its 2.5-inch screen). CNET liked the 312MHz processor "that provides the muscle for multitasking," as well as audio and video apps, but not the lack of integrated Wi-Fi.

Release date: October 24, 2005

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Palm Pre, HP Pre 3

The forthcoming HP Pre 3 sees new parent company HP continue with Palm's WebOS plans. WebOS was a troubled Palm's dramatic attempt to modernize its smartphone software, and from one angle, it succeeded. The OS included new touch-screen interaction and organization into "cards" you can swipe away when you're done, plus multitasking and gesture-based navigation below the touch screen. The inaugural device, a vertically sliding Palm Pre, was well-received, even though its screen size and keyboard tended toward the small side.

Unfortunately, Palm's legacy, now under HP's dominion, continues to struggle with small, cutesy devices like the disappointing HP Veer. The OS as a whole lacks app store clout and mainstream appeal, despite its promise. Our hope rests now with the HP Pre 3, but we have a hard time envisioning WebOS taking a larger slice of the pie.

Release date: June 6, 2009

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BlackBerry 7230

For its time, the BlackBerry 7230 was a fairly advanced design--and another CNET Editors' Choice Award winner. It featured BlackBerry's signature scroll wheel on the right side, and its typically well-considered keyboard, which CNET's reviewer preferred to the competition. Even then, BlackBerry was synonymous with the Enterprise, supplying secure e-mail retrieval and support for read-only e-mail attachments. Judged by today's eyes, the candy bar QWERTY smartphone is a chunky 0.94 inch thick (most smartphones now measure 0.5 to 0.6 inch around the middle.)

Release date: Septemeber 25, 2003

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BlackBerry Pearl

Taller and leaner than most other BlackBerry handsets, the Pearl was youth-friendly, consumer-friendly, and yes, we said it: sexy. It was the first to adopt the central trackball for navigation in favor of the scroll wheel. It was also the first BlackBerry to come with an integrated camera (1.3 megapixels), video and music playback, and expandable media. While BlackBerry was behind on the multimedia front, the Pearl showed signs that RIM was listening to consumer demands, and finally starting to catch up.

Release date: September 12, 2006

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BlackBerry Bold 9780

Once the enterprise titan, RIM has perhaps been the slowest to make dramatic change. The BlackBerry Curve and Bold series (like the BlackBerry Bold 9780 pictured here) retain excellent keyboards and RIM's hallmark security, but hew close to the typical candy bar design. The Storm and Storm II were poorly received attempts at a touch-screen-only device, and despite some appeal in the Torch, which combines a touch screen with RIM's signature keyboard, the designs, OS, and specs are too safe. While there are more handsets on the horizon, RIM has serious problems inside and out.

Release date: November 17, 2010

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Windows Mobile: HP iPaq hw6510

Before HP bought Palm, it built iPaq smartphones for Windows Mobile OS. The HP iPaq hw6510 packaged Microsoft's typical mobile office apps--Outlook and Word, for instance--and also integrated GPS, a fairly advanced feature for its day. However, it lacked Wi-Fi, and multitasking severly strained performance.

Release date: October 18, 2005

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Windows Mobile: Motorola Q

One of the sleekest, sexiest phones of its day, the Motorola Q was Microsoft's attempt to introduce hardware that appealed to casual consumers in addition to the worker bee. At 0.47 inch thick, Motorola claimed the Q as the thinnest smartphone in the world. It ran on Windows Mobile 5, packed a 1.3-megapixel camera, impressive data speeds for the day (averaging between 400Kbps and 700Kbps), and one of the sharpest video playback experiences around. However, the Q lacked integrated Wi-Fi, among other features.

Release date: May 24, 2006

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Windows Phone 7: Samsung Focus

Even after the iPhone's smash success, Microsoft was slow to respond. Windows Mobile 6.5 launched a year and a half after the iPhone debuted, and while it added an app store and a refreshed interface, at its heart the software hadn't much changed, a fact for which Microsoft later apologized when it reorganized its mobile leadership and started over.

The Samsung Focus best epitomizes the result: a brand-new operating system with a bold, urban look. The Samsung-made Windows Phone 7 handset is glossy black and sleek, with a 4-inch Super AMOLED touch screen and a 5-megapixel camera with LED flash.

Yet as top-tier as the Focus was nine months ago, it and its brethren have now fallen to the middle of the pack led by 4G-enabled, dual-core handsets. On the software side, the Windows Phone 7.5 Mango update this fall will help deliver a much-needed boost, but the OS has kinks to work out regardless.

Release date: November 8, 2010

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Nokia 9290 Communicator

Nokia naysayers would do well to remember the 9000i Communicator, Nokia's gigantic (and heavy: 8.9 ounces!) PDA/cell phone that debuted in 1996. Six years after that, the slightly lighter, 8.6-ounce Nokia 9290 Communicator hit shelves. Running on the Symbian OS 6.0 Series 80 operating system, this Communicator resembled an overgrown portable phone, then flipped open to reveal a 4.5-inch screen with a 4,096-color TFT display (640x200-pixel resolution) and a QWERTY keyboard. It cost $600 unlocked.

Release date: June 2002

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Nokia N95

Shiny and modern, the Nokia N95 was known for its great hardware, like the novel two-way slider design and a high-end 5-megapixel camera with a VGA camcorder and a designer Carl Zeiss Vario-Tessar lens. Running Symbian Series 60, it also included GPS and mapping, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth. The 2.6-inch QVGA display supported 16 million colors through its 320x240-pixel resolution--we called it gorgeous at the time. Although it was sold unlocked, it was in such high demand that Nokia decided to sell it in the U.S.--it was originally destined for Europe only.

Release date: April 7, 2007; General: September 26, 2007

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Nokia 'Sea Ray'

Nokia's future is uncertain. The Finnish device-maker still has global clout, but its Symbian OS (nevermind MeeGo and Meamo) was falling further and further behind. That's when newcomer CEO Stephen Elop, most recently of Microsoft's ranks, decided to join Nokia's hardware with Microsoft's Windows Phone software. Nokia's first Windows Phone has yet to receive an official introduction, although it has in all likelihood been spied. Based on that, CNET created the concept art you see here.

Analysts are hopeful that with Nokia's help, Microsoft's Windows Phone OS will achieve some traction. High-end Nokia hardware could also inject the Windows Phone offerings with some premium specs like a dual-core processor and 4G capability. In the meantime, we're still waiting for Nokia to make its first Windows Phone happen, and imagining what its strengths and weaknesses may be.

Release date: To be announced

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Photo by: Josh Long/CNET / Caption by:
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