For a long time, “iPhone” and “smartphone” were practically synonymous. Everyone who was anyone — at least in the United States — had an early-gen iPhone, bulky and glitchy though it might have been.
Imitators appeared on the scene in due time, and today’s smartphone market has a healthy number of well-capitalized competitors. Sure, Apple has done a great job of gatekeeping an ecosystem built around the iPhone, but you can get by just fine with an Android-equipped Samsung or LG or Google device.
Few remember a time before legitimate iPhone competitors, let alone a time before the iPhone itself. But that really wasn’t too long ago — less than 20 years, well within living adult memory for tens of millions of Americans.
Let’s refresh our collective memory with a look at four iPhone precursors (and the companies behind them) that have very nearly been lost in the mists of time.
Helio wasn’t exactly a mobile phone company. It made an important contribution to the pre-iPhone mobile phone space, despite keeping a low profile for most of its existence. Helio was first to put the “blue dot” on Google Maps, and many other innovations we now take for granted.
Helio’s backstory is instructive for students of the early smartphone era too. The idea came to founder Sky Dayton, the tech whiz behind EarthLink and later Boingo, in the mid-2000s after trips to Asia and Europe revealed just how behind-the-times the U.S. mobile phone industry was. He envisioned Helio as an upmarket mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) that would utilize incumbent wireless networks to deliver on-demand content and communication.
At the time, North America was a MVNO desert, despite what Dayton believed was considerable demand. In the end, Helio was a bit ahead of its time, but its legacy lives on in thriving MVNOs today — including Metro by T-Mobile and Google Fi, which are so successful that many users don’t realize they’re MVNOs at all.
2. Palm (The Palm Pilot)
Palm’s devices weren’t really smartphones, at least not as we think of them today. They were more like miniature electronic workbooks, complete with little styluses for on-screen writing and navigation.
It’s difficult to overstate just how innovative the Palm concept felt back in the 1990s. But once you’ve interacted with a Palm device, it’s easy to see why they went the way of the dodo. The modern smartphone — even the O.G. iPhone — is much more intuitive and much easier to use overall.
Blackberry was another iPhone predecessor that did a lot to prepare consumers for the modern smartphone. Like the Palm Pilot, it had a secondary writing interface (a drop-down keyboard) and a retro-looking black-and-white screen. It was pretty innovative for its time, though, and caught on like wildfire with business users in particular.
Blackberry’s fortunes turned for good when the iPhone came out. Its leadership was slow to jump on the touchscreen bandwagon, probably in part because they’d invested so much in the external keyboard. Today, Blackberry is no more, and it remains one of the biggest failures of the smartphone era.
For a few years in the early 2000s, it seemed like everyone had a Motorola flip phone. The devices were sleek (for the time) and powerful (also for the time) and they could take pictures with impressive clarity (for the time).
But Motorola made a critical error in failing to embrace high-speed data networks. The state of the art at the time was 3G, which is unusably slow today, but it would have been a bridge to 4G and beyond. Though it’s still around, Motorola has nowhere near the tech influence it once wielded.
The Blackberry of Tomorrow?
No founder or executive in their right mind wants their company to be remembered as “the Blackberry of ___.” Unfortunately, some will be. That’s how business works, especially in fast-evolving sectors like this one.
Predicting the smartphone industry’s future winners and losers is no easy task though. For years after the iPhone’s debut, Blackberry bulls continued to toot the company’s horn, certain a turnaround was right around the corner. Ditto Palm, albeit to a lesser extent.
Perhaps some still-unknown disruptor will come out with an iPhone-level breakthrough that turns the mobile phone space on its head. Or maybe the incumbents will continue to dominate for years to come, iterating as they go.
Whatever happens, the mobile future won’t be boring.