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We’ve entered the time of year when the latest and greatest smartphones are revealed, just in time for the upcoming holiday season. And, as usual, we’re going to be seeing some pretty neat enhancements in power management, camera specs, and, of course, the use of artificial intelligence. This year, the big pitch is going to be devices with five – yes, five – camera lenses, allowing for a broad range of focal points from ultra-wide-angle to zoom. Smartphone cameras are getting closer and closer to DSLR quality.

But… we’ve all been saying that for years. Think back to the iconic Nokia 1020 that launched in 2013. It came with a 41 megapixel camera and a sensor worthy of a standalone camera. The pitch for the phone was all about the camera, and I do wonder if we’ve been stuck with the same pitch ever since; in other words, is this all there is to phone differentiation these days? 

The thought drove me to rummage around in my rather large box of old phones, reveling in the different shapes and sizes that phones used to come in. But it was my first phone that gave me pause for thought. This was from all the way back in 1993: the Motorola M301. The phone was sold by a mobile carrier called One-2-One in the UK. One-2-One was an early entrant into the digital GSM market that really kick-started the mobile revolution, taking the “cellular phone” (as we used to call them) from being a tool used by obnoxious business types to being the start of the mass-market consumer revolution. It was no longer just a cell phone service, but rather a Personal Communications Network. Fancy!

The service offered a digital signal, two-way text messaging, and free local off-peak calls. The catch - there was always a catch in those days - was that the coverage map was pretty limited, initially covering the Greater London area (essentially within the M25 loop), but all things considered, that was a pretty large population to start with. And the whole mobile service thing was a liberating experience. No more phone booths or waiting till you got home to check your answering machine.

As for the phone itself, it was a beast. The Motorola M301 had a battery that is larger than the average smartphone today and had a “talk time” (because that’s pretty much all you could use it for) of just 55 minutes. Heck, even the dormant, standby, time was just nine hours, meaning that the phone was hard-pressed to survive the day without the occasional juice up. Oh, and there was no way this phone could fit in your pocket, of course… like I said, it was a beast. 

And of course, it did not have a camera. It would take the industry another nine years to get to that point, and even longer before we all realized how important the selfie was to our social esteem. Back from the nostalgia trip to refocus on the latest and greatest: I truly doubt smartphone cameras will ever replace a decent “real” camera, and I’m ever hopeful that an OEM will find a unique marketing pitch to wow us all with. But, we’ve come a long way from my old M301, and I’ve been grateful for most of the innovations along the way… including the better camera.


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