The technology that goes into smartphones

Smart phone: 30 years in the making

Smart phones have become such ubiquitous tools for work and personal business that it’s easy to take them for granted, even only a few years after they first appeared. And they have revolutionized how public-sector agencies do business. But they didn’t just spring from Steve Jobs’ mind — the technology behind them can be traced back to GCN’s beginnings,  and further, into government research projects. Here’s a brief look at what’s behind a smart phone’s key components.

Camera: NASA developed the concept of a digital camera in the 1960s. Kodak has the first camera in 1975, but in the ‘90s NASA developed new ways of miniaturizing them with the CMOS active-pixel sensor.

GPS receiver: The Global Positioning System project was started in 1972, became fully operational in 1995. In 2000, its highest-grade signals were opened up for civil use.

Network: The first analog cellular system, now known as 1G, was introduced in 1978. Cell phone use took off in the 1990s with 2G networks. 3G (mobile broadband) appeared in 2001, and by 2011 was giving way to 4G (WiMax and lTE), which uses IP packet switching.

Touch screen: The first multitouch device was created at the University of Toronto in 1982. The HP 150, among the first touch-screen computers, appeared the next year. Improvements over the years came with the Apple Newton (1993), Sony’s SmartSkin (2002) and other technologies. Touch screens took a leap forward in 2007 with the first iPhone. For the surface, many phones use Gorilla Glass.

System-on-a-chip: Thanks to Moore’s Law (1965) holding true, advances in processor cores, GPUs, and other components means they can be squeezed into a small, handheld form.

DRAM: Once the province of PCs, workstations and supercomputers, dynamic random access memory has been showing up in larger doses as smart phones get more sophisticated. According to one study, in 2011, no phone had more than 800M of DRAM; today, 4G, 8G and even 16G are becoming common.

Battery: Research into lithium ion batteries dates to the 1970s, but the first prototype was built in 1985 and the first Li-ion battery hit the market in 1991. Its density has tripled since, but that trails far behind advances with other components. Today, most improvements in battery life are credited to more efficient, low-power systems.

Power amplifier/PMIC: Two things in the battery’s corner, the power amplifier can extend battery life and speed up data rates, the PMIC is an integrated circuit designed to manage power requirements.

Storage: Flash memory cards began appearing in the 1990s, and grew smaller, more capacious and cheaper over the past decade. Today, you can have a smart phone with up to 128G of storage.

Sensors: Most smart phones have gyroscopes and accelerometers, and some new models are adding barometers, thermometers and hygrometers (for humidity). NASA began working on miniaturizes microsensors for weather research in 1992.

Magic act: To get an idea of just how disruptive smart phones have been, here are a few things they are helping to make disappear: Music players, radios, cameras, video cameras, planners, music and image storage, boarding passes, phone books, rolodexes, instrument tuners, maps, pay phones, calculators, books and, for some users, PCs.

About the Author

Kevin McCaney is a former editor of Defense Systems and GCN.


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