If the photo above this article elicits a pang of nostalgia, you’re old enough to remember that mobile phones haven’t always been sophisticated miniature computers.
Millennial phones offered texting and rudimentary gaming, but little else beyond a numeric dial pad and a monochrome screen.
The Ericsson R380 was marketed in 2000 as a smartphone, yet its flimsy fold-out number pad and WAP web browsing looks comically old-fashioned with hindsight.
By the end of the Noughties, smartphone evolution had moved on apace.
The iPhone introduced downloadable content, BlackBerries gave us push email notifications, and Motorola’s Razr became a phone that owners wanted to show off, rather than hide away.
In many respects, today’s phones are broadly similar to the flagship devices of ten years ago.
So did smartphone evolution stall in 2010? Or has the world really moved on from the HTC Droid and the BlackBerry Bold?
One small step for mobiles
Throughout this decade, smartphone evolution has heralded steady and organic improvements, rather than the ground-breaking advances seen in the Noughties.
Dual cameras first appeared in 2011, before triple lenses emerged a couple of years ago to provide unprecedented low-light and long-distance photography.
In 2013, fingerprint scanners introduced biometric security, hinting at a future where devices would be secured with retinal scans and fingerprints instead of PINs and passwords.
Screens have expanded from compact squares to 18.5:9 widescreen displays, with 4K definition and outstanding colour reproduction.
The plastic bezels wrapping around these screens are thinner than ever before, while back panels are increasingly manufactured from glass or metal instead of plastic.
Phones are now waterproof, dustproof and shockproof in ways that would have astonished consumers a decade ago, courtesy of Gorilla glass and IP68 resistance testing.
One giant leap in smartphone evolution
Unquestionably, the biggest evolution in smartphones concerns mobile data.
Despite its pioneering app-based content, the original iPhone relied on sluggish 3G cellular connectivity.
By contrast, the rollout of 4G in October 2012 gave smartphones the connectivity they needed to become cloud-powered entertainment and multimedia devices.
Because of 4G’s popularity, networks began to buckle under the sheer volume of data transfers – hence 5G’s accelerated rollout earlier this year.
Comparing a 5G phone to a 3G device would be like comparing full fibre broadband and dial-up internet. The outcome is broadly similar, but the process is thousands of times faster.
Winning the space race
If the phones of late 2019 share so many similarities with those of early 2010, can we expect dramatic transformations or modest improvements throughout the 2020s?
While futurology is an art rather than a science, several factors point towards evolution rather than revolution.
Firstly, phones have to be a few inches in size to combine a well-positioned earpiece with a microphone capable of distinguishing our voices from surrounding ambient noise.
Secondly, screens more than five inches in size are unwieldy to use one-handed, yet four-inch touchscreens are tricky to use unless you have a concert pianist’s dainty fingers.
The 5G network should be sufficient for future streaming, gaming and communication needs, which means 6G is unlikely to be needed.
The biggest changes are likely to involve security, from anonymity-focused browsers to biometric unlocking of handsets (and apps) instead of passwords and two-factor authentication.
Expect more use of recycled materials, while replaceable modular parts could extend a handset’s lifespan to keep it out of landfill for longer.
And although folding handsets may yet come good after an underwhelming debut earlier this year, don’t expect smartphones of 2030 to look radically different to today’s crop of devices.