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Although the term Smartphone would not enter general usage for another few years, the first device that can be rightly defined as a smartphone was originally developed in 1992. Known as the “Angler” in its prototypical stages, the Simon Personal Communicator by IBM eventually became available to consumers in 1994, with a price tag comparable to that of a high-end smartphone on the market today. Richard Harris at Okappy takes up the story. 

 

Equipped with a stylus pen, the IBM Simon boasted a 4.5-by-1.4-inch touchscreen, required for the interfacing and accomplishing of its various functions. For the first time in history, consumers had not only a phone that could make and receive calls remotely, but also a Personal Digital Assistant (PDA), all encased in a singular handheld device.

Among other functions, the IBM Simon could be used to take notes, record addresses and schedule appointments in its calendar, with the ability to install a limited number of additional applications onto its onboard memory or to an external memory card upon upgrade. It could also be used to send or receive emails, faxes and pager messages. Following the success of the IBM Simon, competing models by the likes of Nokia and Ericsson came shortly afterwards.

The concept of the smartphone would evolve gradually throughout the nineties and into the mid-two thousands, improving hardware systems and adding key features such as light web browsing. Monochrome turned to colour, physical QWERTY keyboards came and went, and battery life was significantly extended.

It was not until 2008, however, with the launch of both the App Store and Google Play (then known as the “Android Market”) by Apple and Android respectively, that smartphones really became smart.

The arrival of these two major marketplaces for mobile applications marks a pivotal point in the history of smartphone development, as iPhone and Android users could now easily access and download any number of third-party applications. With apps that had been designed by third-party developers yet still published through Apple or Google, the marketplaces ushered in a new era of freedom in the development, distribution and downloading of apps, whether free or paid for, avocational or professional, independent or affiliated.

By the end of 2008, out of the many thousands of apps already to have been released on both Apple and Google’s marketplaces, the most downloaded third-party apps were typically mobile games or apps serving some other purpose of entertainment. According to TechCrunch, the most downloaded paid for app on Apple’s App Store by the end of 2008 was Koi Pond—a live wallpaper that displayed moving fish. This would not be the case by the end of the following year.

In early 2009, Apple first revealed its now unforgettable slogan, “There’s an app for that”, calling for a revaluation of the App Store’s full potential. Apple’s aim was to emphasise and further encourage the development of apps providing practical solutions to the everyday problems encountered by customers, filling in market gaps so brazenly left open beforehand.

It was not long until enterprise applications used to connect workers remotely became a major output on both Apple’s App Store and Android’s equivalent.

Up until the launch of the two major marketplaces, smartphones had done little more for their business-orientated users over the years than finetune the record-keeping and communications tools that had existed ever since the days of the IBM Simon. A handful of smartphone developers such as BlackBerry profited greatly in this period of stagnation, popularising in-house apps unique to their own systems such as BlackBerry’s BlackBerry Messenger (BBM).

With the release of WhatsApp in early 2009, however, business-orientated as well as social smartphone users had a means of communication superior to existing internet-messaging services such as BBM, which had restricted communications between smartphones from the same developer. (In fact, the eventual descent of the Blackberry from business necessity to that of old spare phone in a shoebox somewhere can be largely attributed to BlackBerry’s own failure in anticipating the App Store revolution.)

In the same year as WhatsApp’s release, Skype would also become available on iPhone and Android systems, enabling voice and video calling from remote locations. The following years would see the release of communication apps with a more explicit work focus, such as Slack—an app for organising team conversations into easily searchable logs. Apps fulfilling other work purposes would also soon hit the stores, such as Wunderlist, used for creating intelligent and shareable to-do lists, and Expensify, for tracking business expenses.

By now, as cloud technologies have matured and become more reliable, cloud storage applications such as Dropbox and Google Drive have become staple components to the operation of many businesses. Accessible by smartphone and computer alike, online platforms using cloud storage systems have transformed and continue to transform traditional industries, allowing workers in different locations to not just communicate in real time with one another but also to collaborate on the same projects too.

Perhaps the biggest development in cloud-based work applications to grace the stores of Apple and Android in recent times is the emergence of market networks. Merging the mechanics of social networks such as Facebook with an online electronic marketplace, market networks enable businesses to stay connected with their workers wherever they be, but also their subcontractors and customers too.

Market networks are usually developed with a specific industry in mind. The market network Eventerprise, for example, is used for event planning, whereas the market network Okappy caters for workers in the trade industries.

By accessing a market network through a smartphone, business leaders and engineers can use market networks to easily accept or update jobs while on the go. A plumber using the market network Okappy, for instance, can fill in any job details while still on the site of a job, and instantly upload pictures of any work completed onto the system for their colleagues and customers to see. This is just one out of many features provided by market networks that can be used to improve existing job management systems, saving businesses time and money.

It can be overwhelming sometimes to think of all the things that you can fit in your pocket these days with a smartphone, yet the opportunities created are just too good to pass up. From the humble beginnings of the IBM Simon, to the launch of the two major app marketplaces, and now the latest development of market networks, smartphones and the apps they contain are the building blocks of many businesses in the modern world.

What will you build?