The evolution and history of smartphones

I have been answering the question about matte touchscreens on SuperUser and at some point I got completely distracted. As a result I wrote this post, which is meant to be a natural extension to the story told by my answer. It’s based mostly on my memories and experience as an editor of PDA.pl, a Polish site dedicated to mobile technology. It went offline in 2011 when Dawid Gatti, the guy who was running it from the very beginning, decided that it’s time to leave the scene. Big thanks to Dawid who helped me practice my writing skills and share my tech addiction with others! I’d also want to thank everybody who made PDA.pl’s community so great.

Now, back to the track. If you haven’t read my answer yet, you should do it first. This post is a sequel to the story I’ve told there.


HTC Touch P3450 was released the same month the first iPhone was. While iPhone used swiping too, it’s UI was better suited to it because it was developed with finger-based usage in mind. What HTC did was an advanced driver for Windows Mobile 6 that added Cube and global „kinetic scrolling”, ie. scrolling by swiping over scrollable content. Before that, scrolling was only possible with scrollbars that were too thin to be comfortable without stylus.

HTC Touch Diamond was the first device with HTC TouchFLO 3D, which has later evolved into HTC Sense that’s still one of HTC’s flag features. Diamond was the device that made HTC famous and, as many believe, also the last device that was truly „quietly brilliant”. You could love it or hate it, but there was no smartphone geek that would be neutral about Diamond and HTC. TouchFLO 3D took swipe-based UI to the next level and nobody would question that.

These days it was only HTC that was revolutionary, everybody else just tried to keep up with their pace. But they hadn’t created any game-changing devices until HTC Dream, the very first Android. It became famous because it was ugly and because at some point someone has noticed that when he types reboot in a new message, the phone reboots. Later it turned out that a critical bug caused everything typed on a hardware keyboard to be executed with root privileges. That’s how first Android devices got rooted.

Dream and it’s successor, HTC Magic (running Android 1.5) were mediocre devices. But HTC’s third Android, HTC Hero, was just great. Then came Nexus One, the first Nexus. And then once again, nothing revolutionary for a longer period of time, just minor hardware and software modifications.

HTC made an agreement with Qualcomm that let them get their CPUs at very good prices. They were good because they had everything already integrated on the chip (like GSM module, GPS etc.) but the performance was terrible – MP3s were stuttering when you were using the phone while listening to music. They were using that poor CPU since Diamond (June 2008) for more than a year. At some point HTC was selling 14 different phone models, all based on 528 MHz Qualcomm CPU. Compare it with Samsung’s first Omnia (August 2008) based on their own 624 MHz CPU of much better performance and you’ll see it’s not going anywhere.

(And that’s where we are now – Samsung is the global smartphone leader and HTC is having serious problems.)

In the meantime, Microsoft tried to save Windows Mobile. WM6.5 was a major UI update. It has introduced uniform kinetic scrolling across entire OS (before that every manufacturer had its own implementation of that feature) and new honeycomb Start menu that turned out to be a poor idea in the end. They were developing next major update that moved Start and OK/Close button from the top bar to the softkey bar at the bottom, so the user doesn’t have to reach to the farthest corner to access Start menu, most important part of Windows OS.

Many developer builds of that OS have leaked. Community had merged best parts of them, patched bugs, removed timebombs and ported them to popular devices. Official development took way too long and only few devices were released with that OS. Updates for older ones were prepared, but Microsoft disallowed manufacturers to release them to the public – for example Samsung customers could update their Omnia IIs, but only when they explicitly asked for the official update.

This bizzare strategy of Microsoft was expected to increase popularity of Windows Phone 7, which was based on Windows CE kernel too, but wasn’t backwards compatible with Windows Mobile. 2 years after the (already delayed) release of WP7 they were still earning 2 times more on WM than on WP. This way Windows Mobile became the XP of smartphones… and WP7 became the Vista.

Just before the release of Windows Phone 7, HTC started to sell HTC HD2. They had promised that it will be later upgraded to WP7 when it comes out. But Microsoft had changed their mind and said that HD2 doesn’t have enough hardware buttons, so they won’t let HTC upgrade it. Community went mad and, as usual, they have ported WP7 themselves.

How was that possible? The interesting thing about HD2 was that it had pretty powerful hardware combined with capacitive touchscreen. Those weren’t officially supported by Windows Mobile, but HTC had developed a driver that emulated resistive one-touch touchscreen, while their own API allowed developers to use its full multitouch potential. Just like with kinetic scrolling, it was a feature that didn’t really fit the OS and was quite limited, but HTC decided to implement it because they had Apple at their tail and they were expecting to get WP7 update, which was already said to require multitouch support.

HD2 was released in November 2009. It’s now more than 4 years old and so far it seems to be immortal. List of OSes that were ported to it includes Windows Phone 7, Android (including KitKat), Firefox OS, MeeGo, Ubuntu and Windows RT. It’s not a performance daemon, but its CPU is still performing better than those used in most cheap Android smartphones.

Microsoft had acquired Nokia and rolled out Lumias that have finally killed Windows Mobile. WP7 is dead too and Windows Phone 8 finally starts to be competitive with iOS and Android. It’s built on the NT kernel, because Windows CE couldn’t handle more than one CPU core.

Android is preparing to switch from Dalvik (their second VM that improved performance 3 times!) to ART, which offers not only better performance, but also improved energy management (and app compatibility problems). They have made Galaxy Nexus users angry by not releasing KitKat for their device and Nexus 4 users mad because they had to wait for the update. They are also selling Nexus 5 and they won’t call the next one Nexus 6 because Philip K. Dick had already sued them once.

Apple now prefers colors that hurt your eyes and Facebook thinks it’s cool to use them on Android too. Besides that, they have Siri which will happily show you your secret notes without unlocking device.