1999 was a huge year for cell phones. That’s the year that the first cell phone with a mobile web browser (WAP) came out. Samsung released a cell that doubled as a MP3 player. Benefon debuted a mobile phone with GPS. Motorola released the first cell phone that worked internationally, because it operated on three different radio frequencies used in Europe and the U.S. A Japanese company called Kyocera made a camera phone.
In 1999, the very first Blackberry device hit the market, too — but it was an email pager. The first Blackberry phone was released a couple of years later. 2001 saw the first Bluetooth-enabled phone hit the market, a model made by Ericsson. Meanwhile, Apple-lovers had to wait until 2007 to get their hands on the first iPhone.
What is striking about all this now, to me, is the variety, the sheer number of options. Back then, phones were made by a host of different companies. Besides the ones mentioned above, there were also models by T-Mobile, LG, Cingular, PalmOne (remember the Treo?), and HTC.
The phones all looked different, too. There were flip phones and “candybar” phones and later, sliding flip phones (like the Sidekick). The first phone with an internal (vs. external) antenna was produced by a Danish company called Hagenuk in 1994, but even after that, plenty of popular cells continued to use external antennas, which became style points on their own. Some were tiny nubs; others were retractable. There were QWERTY keyboard phones, and phones that came in all different colors, or even bedazzled; because most didn’t yet require cases, you could really show these features off.
Sometimes, fashion designers put out phones, like the LG Prada, one of the first phones with a touch screen, beating the inaugural iPhone by a month. Armani, Baby Phat, and Versace all released phones with various companies, too.
Thrillingly — devastatingly — not every wireless carrier was compatible with every new phone. You might be dying for an LG enV, but you’d have to settle for a RAZR because at the moment, enV only worked with Verizon and you were an AT&T family. (If only you’d known that the earliest iPhone would be AT&T-exclusive at first, it would have taken the sting out of that particular disappointment.)
Now, in the U.S. at least, it can feel as though there’s the iPhone, then a bunch of other phones that look a lot like it. Sure, Samsung, LG, and Motorola are still kicking, and they’re releasing some exciting phones, including flip phones, dual-screen phones, and reissued classics (the RAZR is back), as well as well-designed, highly functional smartphones that are actually affordable and accessible. And Google’s Pixel phone has its fans, too. Still, Apple iPhones account for about half of all smartphones in the U.S., and most non-Apple phones also tend to be long rectangles with big screens, making this type of phone really the only kind that matters anymore.
I’m not about to start romanticizing the good ol’ days of so-so technology. A modern-day smartphone is better than even the fanciest of old cell phones, which were often limited in capabilities, not to mention frustratingly glitchy and difficult to use. But, there was a tremendous amount of fun and excitement about cell phones in the late-’90s and early-’00s, too, which is almost entirely missing in the phone world today.
Modern cellular advancements are still impressive: In 2019, for instance, we were introduced to foldable screens and 5G technology. But 20 years ago, the new developments often felt more personally impactful. Once we made the jump from house phones (and the occasional car phone) to mobile phones, the way we communicated began changing so quickly. Most notably, we went from texting sparingly — in 2000, Americans sent about 35 texts a month, maybe in part because each text cost a handful of cents to send or receive, or in part because even with T9 predictive text, they were a pain to use — to texting almost exclusively. And just like the rise of instant messaging platforms, the availability of texting completely changed how we interacted with one another. And it changed what we wanted from a cell phone.
In 2001, the movie Zoolander included a sight gag about Zoolander’s stupidly tiny flip phone, which was a nod to the fact that at the time — not so long after the first, brick-like cell phones had hit the market — a smaller phone was seen as more high-tech, and was therefore generally trendier. But just a few years later, the rise of texting and the availability of rudimentary internet browsing on phones meant people wanted larger keypads and larger screens. Now, of course, larger phones and phablets are seen as the higher-tech models.
The late-90s and early-00s came with their fair share of angst over phones. There were people who felt that even the earliest iterations of cell phones made them too connected and infringed on their personal space, which seems almost laughable given today’s level of notification fatigue. Cell phones and cell phone plans could be prohibitively expensive as well, and in many ways widened the inequality gap between low- and middle-income people.
But even so, for many people, phones felt like freedom — and like the future. A friend showing off her phone’s new hardware innovation could be jealousy-inducing when you had a hand-me-down from your mom, but it also felt like they were Q and you were Bond, learning about the latest spy tech. While cell phone companies try their best to build excitement into their hardware and software updates, it’s hard to remember the last time the buzz around a certain feature lasted for longer than a week, even with the development of Face ID. Meanwhile, we gushed over classmates’ pink Motorola RAZRs — a phone that would be considered laughably rudimentary today — for months.
These days, cell phones can feel more like burdens than gadgets to get excited about. Many of us use our phones as much for work and errands as we do for socializing and pleasure. Even when we are using our cell phones to “relax,” simmering just below our consciousness is the knowledge that scrolling through social media is bad for us. When I pick up my phone and see new notifications, I’m most likely to react with apprehension, rather than excitement. That could be at least partially a function of age: If I’d had my first cell phone when I was in my late-20s instead of my mid-teens, maybe I would have associated it with work rather than with games and friends and crushes.
But additionally, we’ve simply become more accustomed to this kind of technology, so it takes more to surprise and intrigue us. We’ve also become more disillusioned with the buy-tire-dispose-buy consumer cycle, which is worthy of criticism; it’s always accelerating and can make people feel like their phones are out of date within months of buying them.
Even so, I felt acutely nostalgic for old cell phone culture when I first saw the Samsung Galaxy S20+ collaboration with K-pop superstars BTS. I experienced a shadow of that old, RAZR-era excitement: BTS found a way to make a McDonald’s 10-piece nugget meal feel like something new, and I hoped that their cell phone collab result in a device that felt as eye-catching and wow-worthy as, say, the old Juicy Couture Sidekick back in 2005.
The BTS Galaxy is beautiful, don’t get me wrong. It’s purple, and has a cute heart accent on the camera, you can even get matching purple earbuds too. But in my heart I know that after a week of use — and the necessary addition of a protective phone case — I’d probably stop noticing those design elements so much, and would be left with just the phone: a sleek, amazing supercomputer that fits into my pocket and has capabilities I couldn’t have possibly conceived of back when I got my first phone in the early-2000s. So, you know, nothing really to write home about.