www.androidpolice.com Five obscure beginnings to some of our favorite smartphone features

www.androidpolice.com Five obscure beginnings to some of our favorite smartphone features

Many features we now consider standard equipment for our smartphones weren't so common a few years ago. Looking into the origins of some of them can be surprising for several reasons: sometimes they're older than expected, more recent than you remember, or originated in a device you've never heard of before.

Video calling

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Video calling started to gain traction in the mid-2010s. Its popularity has surged since 2020, with most businesses moving to online meetings and much of the world sheltering in place for an extended period. Video chats are a part of modern life now, and it's almost impossible to buy a modern smartphone without that capability.

It all started in 1999 when Kyocera released the Visual Phone VP-210. Although it was a crude first attempt, it included a selfie camera that allowed users to make video calls. The Visual Phone could only send two frames per second over its mobile network, which pales in comparison to the thirty or even sixty frames per second modern phones can capture.


The resolution wasn't anything to write home about either, thanks to a 110,000-pixel sensor. To put into perspective how low that number is by modern standards, the 40MP selfie shooter on my S21 Ultra has almost 364 times more pixels than the Visual Phone did. Still, this was groundbreaking for its time, and the Kyocera Visual Phone should be remembered as a revolutionary device.

NFC payments

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Google Wallet was introduced in 2011, and the Nexus S was the first Android phone to support NFC payments using the service. Before doing my research, I assumed this was the first instance of NFC payments in mobile, but to my surprise, it had already been around for much longer.

In 2004 Panasonic released the P506iC in Japan, supporting a mobile payment service called FeliCa. With a FeliCa account, you could add money and use the balance to make contactless payments with an NFC-enabled card, or, more impressively, a phone like the P506iC. Sony created FeliCa, and it's still alive and well today. Apple even added compatibility to iPhone 7s in Japan, and Google followed by adding it to the Pixel 3s sold in the country.

The rest of the world had to wait until 2006 when Nokia released its first phone with NFC: the 6131. A year later, Mastercard trialed its new contactless service known as PayPass on the 6131 in New York. It took a long time for contactless payments to become as ubiquitous as they are today, and it all started with a largely forgotten Panasonic device.

www.androidpolice.com Five obscure beginnings to some of our favorite smartphone features

Always On Display

In 2009 Nokia unveiled the N86, building on the legacy of the N85 with one of the earliest OLED (organic LED) smartphones. The N86 was the first phone with an always-on display, allowing users to see information like the time, notifications, and even what music is playing — all without touching the phone.

OLED was the driving force in making this possible. Unlike other display technologies, OLED doesn't need a backlight, as each pixel can illuminate itself. Have you noticed how inky the blacks are on OLED screens? That's because pixels switch themselves off entirely when showing the color black. As good as that is for display quality, it's even better for power efficiency. When those black pixels are off, they don't use any power. So while an LCD panel must illuminate the entire screen just to show you the time, an OLED only needs to power the pixels displaying the text and other information, saving on battery life as a result.

Although Nokia got there first, it wasn't until the early 2010s that Android manufacturers started popularizing the feature. Fast forward to today: unless you're getting an iPhone or a budget device with an LCD screen, it's almost impossible to buy a new phone without AOD, and that's a good thing. The ability to glance at my phone as it sits on my desk and see the time, along with who's messaging me, is something I'd miss.

Qi wireless charging

Nokia gets another mention here with 2012's Lumia 920, best remembered as the first phone to have optical image stabilization on its camera. What you might not remember is that it was also the first phone with built-in wireless charging. While Samsung technically added Qi compatibility to the Galaxy S3 earlier the same year, you had to buy a replacement back cover for the phone after you got it. Nokia offered its charging features built-in from the jump.

The industry adopted Qi charging faster than the previous entries on this list. Google released the Nexus 4 only a few months later, and Samsung started to build it into its phones in 2014 with the Galaxy S5. Since then, it's become standard equipment for most flagship and upper mid-range phones, with a plethora of wireless chargers to choose from.

Ultra-wide camera

It was a sad day when LG announced it would be leaving the mobile space. I know it hadn't been on top form for many years, but the company pioneered so many of the features we take for granted and, most importantly, was ready to take a risk when others were not.

One of those risks was the LG G5, a phone released in 2016 that could interact with swappable modules called "Friends." This poorly executed idea is what most people remember about the G5, but in the shadow of that misstep was an important first for a smartphone — an ultra-wide rear camera.

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A comparison of the main lens and ultra-wide lens on the Pixel 6 Pro

LG would continue to put ultra-wide cameras in its phone from then on, and eventually, other companies caught on to the idea. Six years later, the ultra-wide is a staple of mobile photography and one of my favorite cameras to play with. We owe it all to LG.

Looking back at the origins of features we now take for granted has highlighted how quickly industry giants that once seemed unstoppable — like Nokia and LG — can quickly lose ground and fade from the public consciousness. It also made me realize that I should pay more attention to the "gimmicks" that new phones come with today. They may be unfinished or come across as silly, but some of them could one day become as widespread as the innovations on this list.

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Read NextShareTweetEmailRelated TopicsAbout The AuthorZachary Kew-Denniss(248 Articles Published)

UK-based Android aficionado specializing in everything Samsung and Android. There's a 90% chance my articles will contain Spongebob or Transformers references.Current devices:Galaxy S21 UltraGalaxy Watch4Galaxy Buds/Buds+/Buds ProPixelbookiPad Pro 2020

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