Everyone has an old mobile phone they once thought truly groundbreaking or exceptionally stylish, whether it’s an old Nokia, Sony Ericsson, BlackBerry or something altogether more brick-like.

This wave of nostalgia has led to a film about the birth of BlackBerry earlier this year, regular releases of phones harking back to a golden era of mobile phone design and the foundation of a museum largely celebrating the pre-slab phone era.  

Here, Mobile World Live caught-up with Ben Wood, CCS Insight chief analyst by day and founder of the Mobile Phone Museum (pictured), to get his insight into some of the landmark devices garnering the most interest from the public, the weirdest designs ever released and the most underrated handsets of all time.

“People seem to tend to gravitate towards the devices that they had,” Wood said. “So something like the Nokia 3310, which is the ultimate utilitarian mass market mobile, is one that gets a lot of traffic. But there’s also a lot of interest in the iconic devices like the Motorola DynaTAC 8000X, which is the brick phone and the centrepiece of our exhibition.”

Other handsets grabbing attention from the UK-based museum’s online and real visitors include the eye-catching Nokia Communicator and IBM Simon, which Wood describes as an “absolutely key product, because that was arguably the first smartphone”, although at the time the term had yet to be coined and it was sold as a PDA when released in the early 1990s.

Many of the more unusual designs on show come from a golden age of mobile phone innovation which Wood pins as “from its inception to when Steve Jobs walked onto the stage and pulled the iPhone out of his pocket”.

“Effectively this became the dominant design for the mobile phone. Now everything basically looks like a black, touchscreen rectangle”.

Palm reading
Wood noted Apple’s debut smartphone didn’t “knock everything else dead” straight away and his pick of the most “underrated” phone ever released comes from after the initial iPhone. “The Palm Pre was a really, really interesting product.”

“It was a device that was ahead of its time in terms of user interface and the design of it. It was something completely new, there were a lot of elements in that device that went on to be echoed in the iPhone way of doing things.”  

“It’s a left field device, but one that should have probably done better” he explained, citing barriers including “Palm imploding” and its “takeover by HP“.

“That was one of those devices that never really made it.” 

Another device he thinks deserved more attention at the time was the aforementioned Nokia Communicator: “it was so far ahead of its time people just couldn’t get their heads around the fact a phone could be a computer back in 1996, but it was really, really revolutionary as a product”.

Where there are underrated products there are of course those where the reality failed to deliver on the promise. 

Asked for his choice of an overrated device Wood went for design icon the Motorola Razr, with a special shout out to the pink version, which he said was arguably “one of the most beautiful devices ever designed…until you opened it up and started using it, because the software was just horrible”.

He also awarded the dubious accolade of the “most ill-conceived” mobile to Sierra Wireless for its Voq. Wood explained “it had an ordinary keyboard and then a qwerty but it was just awful. Not only was it ugly as hell, the software was awful because Microsoft OS wasn’t designed to have a qwerty and phone input, and it was horribly weighted so when you opened the gatefold and were trying to type on it, the top of the phone was so heavy it would fall out of your hand”.

From left: KDDI Infobar, Nokia 7280, Xelibri 8, Motorola Razr V3 Pink, Techophone-Excell PC105T (images not to scale and courtesy of the Mobile Phone Museum)

Lip-smackingly odd
While now device launches seem to be focused on what is inside the handsets and small upgrades to components like cameras, over the years a number of big brands have tried to stand-out with creativity in design. 

Here there have been some weird and wonderful models brought to market, some of which have made it into the museum’s ugliest devices section.  

Among the fashion-focused and downright weird efforts cited by the handset guru was Nokia’s lipstick phone, the 7280, from 2004.  

“That was a really interesting device, a fashion product but also an almost nonsensical device, a little stick of a phone which had a mirror on it and it opened and shut because it had a camera hidden in it”. 

Other creative efforts include the KDDI Infobar and the “crazy, crazy Xelibri devices, which were a series of products that were conceived by Siemens. The idea was they thought the mobile phone could become a fashion item that you wore, so they had all sorts of shapes and sizes for the products and they were sold in high-end fashion retailers”.

“It never took off but it was a really bold thing to do.”

Watershed moments
On the mobile phone’s journey from being an unwieldy piece of tech being dragged out of the back of a car to the slick smartphone, it has also made a lot of other consumer devices almost obsolete, with various landmark devices doing the damage. 

Those first introducing other technologies highlighted by Wood include the first so-called pocket-sized device of the Technophone; Sharp’s J-Phone J-SH04, the first camera phone; Samsung’s SPH M100, the first to also be an MP3 player; and the Virgin Lobster 700TV, which included the ability to watch television.

In terms of pushing mainstream mobile adoption, Wood declared the Nokia 3310 was “the one”, which probably explains why it is one of the biggest draws on the museum’s web page and with in-person visitors.   

The museum is available online but recently opened a physical exhibition called Going Mobile at PK Porthcurno Museum of Global Communications, Cornwall, UK, which will run until at least October 2024.