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The outrageous way many Americans rewrite mobile phone history

Published Apr 4th, 2013 10:40AM EDT
American Mobile Phone

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The first mobile phone call was placed 40 years ago. So on Wednesday, we were treated to several “History of the Mobile Phone” articles by American journalists, most of them orgies of chauvinism and astonishing nationalistic bias. One pure product of this navel-gazing genre is the Wired magazine piece called “The 12 Cellphones That Changed Our World Forever.” In the revisionist history of the mobile phone, the actual nature of the device is obscured completely.

The mobile phone happens to be the only consumer electronics product of the past 20 years that actually had a huge impact in everyday lives of consumers in emerging markets from Brazil to Nigeria to Malaysia. Yet from the perspective of many American tech writers, the history of the cellphone runs from Motorola to Sidekick to Treo to BlackBerry (BBRY) to Apple (AAPL). Only the North American market exists. This is like a Korean car industry observer rewriting the history of the automobile by erasing the roles of Ford and General Motors.

Unlike with the personal computer or the video game console, you simply cannot review the history of the mobile phone without a global perspective. There are 6 billion mobile subscribers in the world. In The Telegraph list of top-selling mobile phones of all time, the top 5 models are the Nokia (NOK) 1100, Nokia 3210, Nokia 1200,  Nokia 5230 and Nokia 3310. In the Wired piece of most influential mobile phones of history, only one of these models is mentioned: the 3210. Yet the list includes no fewer than four (4) Motorola models, including the obscure Motorola ROKR and the Motorola RAZR, which happened to be an evolutionary dead end from the industry point of view. According to Wired, the Sidekick and Treo are each as influential as Nokia in the mobile phone history, since each are given one slot out of 12.

To pick just one example of a truly revolutionary model that reshaped the industry, let’s look at the Nokia 1100. This phone debuted in 2003 and went on to sell more than 200 million units. It was a landmark model because it packed a remarkable combination of functionality into a 93-gram phone that cost around $80. The 1100 featured 400 hours of standby time despite its tiny size, a hugely important factor for households with spotty access to electricity. It offered  advanced messaging features, ringtone composing and games. This was a device that helped turn the mobile phone into the most important consumer electronics product in the world by making it affordable, extremely durable and useful beyond voice calls.

And this best-selling, arguably the most important phone in the industry history does not even make the top 12 list of Wired? It is deemed less important than the Sidekick? What is this “Our World” that the article title refers to? Does it only extend from Beverly Hills to Upper West Side? Ignoring the most pivotal, world-changing models of Nokia isn’t insulting only to Nokia and Finns. It is insulting to 80% of the world that experienced the mobile phone revolution in 1990-2010.

The history of the mobile phone is not the history of Sidekick, Treo and BlackBerry. It is the history of the devices that actually pulled South America, Africa and Asia into the mobile revolution. That is “Our World.” And most of these break-through models were created by Nokia, the company that popularized the internal antenna, modern SMS features, extended battery life, mobile games and other key technologies. This is more than a footnote: It is the core narrative.

After launching mobile game company SpringToys tragically early in 2000, Tero Kuittinen spent eight years doing equity research at firms including Alliance Capital and Opstock. He is currently an analyst and VP of North American sales at mobile diagnostics and expense management Alekstra, and has contributed to, Forbes and Business 2.0 Magazine in addition to BGR.