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Google Inc (GOOG): The Day the Mobile Revolution Really Started

On this day in economic and business history…

First came the brick, then the flip — phone, that is. The world’s first “flip” phone, and thus the first truly modern mobile phone, the Motorola Solutions Inc (NYSE:MSI) MicroTAC, hit the market on April 25, 1989. It was a big step forward for an industry that was at the time still largely defined by phones like Motorola’s own DynaTAC, the first commercial mobile phone, which had been released six years earlier. The DynaTAC resembled nothing so much as a big plastic brick with an antenna and some buttons on one side and was sorely lacking in both style and portability.

Google Inc (NASDAQ:GOOG)

If the brick defined telecom tech cred in the ’80s, the flip phone became a symbol of the ’90s, showing up everywhere on television and film before the decade was out. The MicroTAC’s dramatic reduction in size over its predecessor also signaled an inflection point for wider mobile adoption, regardless of design. A contemporary Los Angeles Times review shows just how far Motorola Solutions Inc (NYSE:MSI) pushed the industry when it launched the MicroTAC:

The device, half the size of any other portable cellular model, is about as wide and long as a checkbook. It is about as thick as a fat wallet at the earpiece while tapering down to half the thickness of a deck of cards at the mouthpiece. …

The device, called the Micro Tac Personal Telephone, is expected to retail for $2,995 and be available six weeks after being ordered. Motorola Solutions Inc (NYSE:MSI) officials said they were taking orders immediately.

“This is a new category of cellular — the personal cellular,” said Jim Bernhart, vice president and director of distribution for Motorola’s cellular subscriber group. “We view it as the wave of the future.”

Officials of the … company would not reveal development costs for the new device, but said [it] had invested about $350 million in development of cellular telephones.

True to the Motorola exec’s expectations, the flip style became a huge success in the market, but its smaller form factor was ultimately more important to the push for widespread mobile adoption. There were roughly 2 million cellular subscribers in the U.S. at the time of the MicroTAC’s launch in 1989. A decade later, there were 86 million subscribers, representing a growth rate of 45% per year. Not all of these new subscribers used flip phones — the style eventually lost popularity due to its fragility — but device sizes continued to shrink throughout the decade and beyond, and virtually every cellphone on the market in 1999 was as small as or smaller than than the MicroTAC.

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