If you weren’t around in the late 1990s, you probably won’t understand why downloadable ringtones for mobile phones represented such an exciting phenomenon.
Until that point, mobile phones were generic lumps of plastic. There weren’t many models to choose from, and it was difficult to distinguish your handset from a friend’s similar device.
Today, we look back on downloadable ringtones with a mixture of nostalgia and pity, in the same way we might think of BlackBerry handsets or extendable aerials.
Yet each of these failed smartphone innovations helped advance these devices to their current level of sophistication.
Those ringtones inspired further personalisation – phone covers, adjustable wallpapers, customisable notifications and so on.
Clearly, not every evolution in mobile phone technology has been successful. Yet some of the best lessons have evolved from misguided experiments.
These are some of the missteps and dead-ends which played crucial roles in creating the multifunctional, indispensable devices which now accompany us everywhere…
Flip phones. Despite seeming almost comically dated nowadays, flip phones were a revelation when Motorola debuted a clamshell design way back in 1989.
Phones were brick-shaped at the time, but a hinged top section enabled manufacturers to double the surface area – supporting larger screens and allowing for creative keypad designs.
Today, we expect to see updates before we unlock our devices, and iconic clamshell phones like the Motorola RAZR pioneered front-panel notifications over a decade ago.
The popularity of clamshells dwindled with the advent of touchscreens, but it’s still possible to buy a brand-new flip phone from budget brands like Doro and Alba.
BlackBerry handsets. For several years, the only handset to be seen with was a BlackBerry.
Nicknamed CrackBerries because of the addictive qualities of their email notifications, being able to check messages on the move seemed revolutionary to Noughties professionals.
Bad management triggered BlackBerry’s slow, sad demise, but failed smartphone innovations like central trackpads and QWERTY keyboards shaped how we use our phones to this day.
Without them, we might still have to press the number 3 button once for the letter D, twice to display an E and three times to get an F…
Projectors. In 2012, Samsung unveiled the Galaxy Beam, which augmented their standard Galaxy S handset with a pico projector.
The company identified a market for projecting phone content onto a large screen. And they were right. But low resolution output and a glitchy interface quickly killed the Beam.
Nevertheless, it’s commonplace today to project smartphone content onto a larger screen through a process known as casting or mirroring.
Samsung’s dream of a ‘unique shared experience around digital content…from a smartphone’ would eventually come true in, albeit a far more reliable and high-resolution format.
Gaming devices. Nokia may have given us Snake, but they also gave us an obvious candidate for any list of failed smartphone innovations – the catastrophic N-Gage.
This device attempted to combine a Nintendo GameBoy’s games library with a phone, five years before the Apple App Store brought downloadable gaming to the masses.
The N-Gage was a triumph of style over substance. Its taco shape meant having to hold the phone sideways on to make a call, while changing games involved removing the battery.
However, it pioneered multiplayer gaming over Bluetooth, and it also offered MP3 audio playback at a time when most people were forced to carry around separate music players.
3D cameras. It’s interesting to speculate about why 3D has never caught on, despite the best efforts of film companies, TV manufacturers and games developers.
The HTC EVO 3D’s ground-breaking combination of two rear cameras blazed a trail for today’s multi-lens smartphones. Without it, we might still be reliant on a single camera lens.
Yet the EVO 3D was a spectacular failure. Images occupied large amounts of data even though there was limited storage. Worst of all, files couldn’t be viewed on other devices.
Events and memories captured with those 3D cameras were lost forever when the EVO was replaced. Little wonder phone makers soon began embracing universal file formats like JPG.