Do you know how scary the early smartphone era was?

Nokia N97

Rita El Khoury / Android Authority

In the long run, we’re really spoiled for choice with today’s Android phones. When you think about it, modern devices include a lot of cool features. Even affordable mid-range phones offer high-quality touch screens, fast charging speeds, big batteries, fast connectivity, and powerful processors that can handle just about anything you can throw at them.

It’s only when you look back at the smartphone era of the early to mid-2000s that you truly appreciate how great today’s smartphones are. As someone who has owned several feature phones and a few early Symbian smartphones, let me tell you about all the features that I missed and that many of us now take for granted.

Setting up your new phone is a chore

My troubles with early Java-based feature phones and Symbian smartphones began when I got the devices home and started setting them up.

First, these phones typically lack any kind of cloud storage service. This means there’s no way to sync photos and videos, contacts or text messages from the cloud. There are some solutions though, like plugging your phone into your computer and installing the manufacturer’s transfer tool, but good luck transferring between brands. You will also need to copy the contact information to or from the SIM card. Thankfully, some of these phones support memory cards, making photo/video transfers a breeze. But in general, device transfers are anything but seamless.

The easiest thing to do when setting up an early smartphone or feature phone was inserting a SIM card. How times have changed.

Do you need to charge your phone during setup? Then you get a charger in the box, but another annoyance is that these are usually OEM specific chargers. Nokia offers round-pin chargers, while companies like Sony Ericsson offer the odd two-prong charger. Well. These proprietary connections often double as data ports to the PC. So, if you lose the cable, you’re out of luck.

After transferring your favorite music tracks to your phone, you will encounter the next problem. Some early smartphones and feature phones also opted for proprietary headphone ports. There’s no doubt they can squeeze more money out of you with accessories.

custom made? You mean to buy ringtones?

Nokia E6

Rita El Khoury / Android Authority

We’re truly spoiled for choice with the personalization options available on modern phones. Users can adjust everything from wallpapers and ringtones to theme colors and animation effects.

My old feature phones and early Symbian smartphones offer limited tweaks in comparison. You can set a wallpaper on most of these devices and even change the cover. Some phones also offer built-in lights that can flash to ringtones or be used for other purposes – Nothing’s Glyphs aren’t entirely new.

But for these early phones, ringtone adjustments can cause trouble. In fact, this is an era of paid ringtones, and many people choose to buy 30-second MIDI ringtones of popular songs. This is a more accessible solution than screening suspicious websites. First, if you have mobile data. I’m just a little ashamed to admit that I bought some polyphonic ringtones at the time, like Avril Lavigne’s Sk8er Boi and 50 Cent’s 21 Questions.

Connectivity: When EDGE is King

Nokia N86 front

Rita El Khoury / Android Authority

Perhaps my biggest gripe with old feature phones and Symbian-era smartphones is horrible Web browsing experience. At that time, mobile phones could only access WAP websites, not the complete network. WAP websites are websites built specifically for the mobile Internet. Responsive websites that dynamically adapt to desktop or mobile devices didn’t really exist in the early to mid-2000s.

Back then, this browsing experience was exacerbated by sluggish mobile data speeds, as you were limited to 2G, EDGE, or basic 3G (if you were lucky). That’s where the Opera Mini browser comes to the rescue, dramatically speeding up page loading and saving mobile data in the process. Opera’s apps also do a great job of formatting desktop websites for mobile viewing.

If your early feature phone or smartphone had 3G capabilities, you were considered lucky. But actually browsing the web is a painful experience.

Oh yeah, in this day and age, Wi-Fi on feature phones and early smartphones isn’t guaranteed either. But even the handful of Wi-Fi-capable phones from the mid-2000s had limitations. For example, Nokia phones with Wi-Fi capabilities at the time forced you to manually switch between mobile and Wi-Fi connections. Do you think it’s annoying that your Pixel 6 takes a minute to switch from mobile to Wi-Fi?

Poor connectivity isn’t limited to cellular and Wi-Fi connections. Feature phones and smartphones of this era also have poor local connectivity options.

Today’s phones come with quick sharing, AirDrop, OEM-specific sharing solutions, email, instant messaging apps, cloud sharing, and more. But phones from the early to mid-2000s relied on Bluetooth at best. However, Bluetooth was not yet widespread at the time, so the next best option was infrared. Yes, just like your TV remote. I really hate that this is the only option on my Sony Ericsson K500i.

Infrared requires you to hold your phone next to another phone, with the two IR emitters directly facing each other, and the device remaining completely still. Ah, the memories of spending most of my time away from school waiting for file sharing.

When I was in high school I didn’t have a fixed internet connection at home, so I usually went to internet cafes. But I also bought an infrared adapter for my PC that allows me to connect my phone to the PC via infrared so I can browse the web at dial-up speeds (~56Kbps). I downloaded tons of Wikipedia pages and GameFAQ walkthroughs. Yes, it just makes financial sense to download these pages for offline viewing rather than waste my meager prepaid mobile data. Now you can download any Wikipedia page to your phone.

Communication: The era before WhatsApp

WhatsApp icon

Damian Wilde/Android Authority

We have an embarrassing wealth to communicate today. Want to make an audio or video call? Then there’s WhatsApp, Telegram, Zoom, Skype, Messenger, Google Meet and X. Oh, and yes, you can make traditional calls, too. Many of these platforms, as well as others, also support instant messaging.

In the early days of smartphones, callbacks worked just fine, although coverage issues and a lack of HD voice resulted in call quality being lackluster or dropping outright. Many of our phones back then didn’t even have Wi-Fi, let alone Wi-Fi calling, so if you didn’t have mobile coverage, you were out of luck.

Text messaging is one of the most popular methods of communication due to its low cost. That being said, there were some data-based messaging apps on feature phones and early smartphones.

Between 3G (if you were lucky), text messaging, and a limited number of IM applications, we didn’t have much in the way of communication at the time.

Millennials in South Africa flocked to the long-defunct Mxit app in the 2000s, which was available on Symbian phones, early BlackBerry phones and even basic Java phones. I’m no exception, and it’s hard to find a classmate who doesn’t have Mxit if their phone supports the app. For most people here, unlimited texting plans simply aren’t an option.

Mxit hasn’t made much headway elsewhere, though. Instead, IM applications such as Windows Live Messenger and IM Plus gained traction in other markets.

Even setting up email on your phone is often not an easy task. You often need to deal with iMAP or Pop3 configuration rather than just entering a username and password. Colleague Rita El-Khoury has fond memories of using the Gmail Java application on her phone.

This is also an era when carriers are pushing video calling heavily. It seems ridiculous now, but networks thought 3G was perfect for video calls in the early to mid-2000s. Mobile phone manufacturers are also catering to this feature with front-facing cameras. My 2007 Nokia N70 has a VGA quality camera. In fact, the front-facing camera was not primarily designed for selfies at the time.

What is an app store?

Apple App Store Stock Photos 3

Edgar Cervantes/Android Authority

Say what you want about the iPhone, but they popularized the idea of ​​a centralized and well-maintained app store. Before Android and iOS? Things were tough, to put it mildly.

Users of feature phones and early Symbian smartphones often had to use third-party app stores (kudos to Getjar), region-specific app stores (such as the Nokia Americas Software Market), or questionable websites to download apps. To make matters worse, these early versions of mobile platforms were a mess, which meant fragmentation and app incompatibility was a serious problem.

What do you think of early smartphones?

185 votes

The strange thing is that when the iPhone was still in Apple’s eyes, Nokia had the opportunity to build an App Store. The Finnish company launched Club Nokia as a customer service portal in the late 1990s, but it eventually evolved into offering wallpapers, ringtones and more. Nokia eventually scaled back its ambitions for the platform, saying it was due to pressure on cellular networks. After all, mobile content was big business for operators at the time.

With few exceptions, the early smartphone era was terrible

As bad as the formative years of smartphones were, there’s no denying that there were some positives to this era.

During this period, the industry has strongly embraced memory cards, and I really hope that more modern phone brands will make storage expansion a key principle in 2024. Manufacturers also don’t seem to be afraid of straying from the traditional candy bar design, as evidenced by phones like the Nokia 3650, Sony Ericsson P900, Nokia 7280, and a slew of slider and flip phones. In fact, you might say that foldable phones are the only source of true differentiated design today.

Still, it’s important to take off the rose-tinted hue when looking at early smartphones. Because anyone who tells you it was better back then needs to go back and use one of these phones for a day.

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