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Handset Firsts - Mobile milestones from brick phones to slick phones

January 15, 2010
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From bricks to minicomputers, mobile handsets have come a long way. The device first made its appearance in 1995 in Kolkata on Modi-Telstra's network, MobileNet. At the time, the handsets (called "bricks") were chunky, came with a few vanilla features and, above all, were expensive. The monochrome screen bricks had a price tag of Rs 40,000. Calls to mobile numbers were about Rs 16.40 per minute while calls to landline numbers cost Rs 32.80 per minute. Users had to pay for incoming calls as well. According to industry estimates, for the first few years after their introduction, monthly subscriber additions were a modest 0.05 to 0.1 million.

Today, with roughly one handset being sold every minute in the country and over 2 million Indians purchasing mobile phones every month, the mobile handset market is seeing unprecedented growth. This boom can be attributed to manufacturers like Nokia, Motorola, LG and Samsung. Having understood the requirements of a price-sensitive market like India, they have driven in a huge change by reducing prices, increasing functionality and converging different devices into the handset.

A wide range of handsets is available in all sizes, shapes and prices. In the GSM segment, handset prices range from Rs 1,249 to Rs 50,000 while price tags in the CDMA segment range from Rs 999 to Rs 30,990.

The handset has also evolved in terms of the applications offered. Simple inbuilt black-and-white picture messages have given way to general packet radio service (GPRS) and MMS. GPRS facility was introduced in 2001 by BPL Mobile. It offered always-on, high speed connectivity to the internet via the mobile handset. The GPRS applications offered by BPL Mobile were broadly categorised into mobile applications (MMS, mobile games, emails, movie trailers); internet on the move (users could explore the web by connecting the GPRS-enabled BPL handset to a PC or a laptop); office-on-the-move (gave users secured intranet access to corporate intranet for emails, database, etc.); and machine-to-machine (M2M) applications (where gaming kiosks and ATM machines could be connected over GPRS to the central location).

Competition intensified as new applications came in. When handsets were first introduced, the market was predominantly held by Nokia, Ericsson and Motorola. Today, there are a host of new vendors such as Micromax, Airfone and Acer in the handset space. According to data released by IDC India in October 2009, 27 new handset vendors have recently entered the market. In terms of market share, as of November 2009, Nokia holds 66.87 per cent, Sony Ericsson 14.48 per cent, Samsung 7.84 per cent and Motorola 1.47 per cent, according to industry estimates.

A by-product of this rush has been the emergence of India as a handset manufacturing hub. With demand for telecom services picking up, vendors have raced to set up manufacturing plants in the country. Nokia India's manufacturing facility, located in Sriperumbudur, Chennai, commenced handset production in January 2006. Motorola started production at its Chennai plant in 2008, offering GSM and CDMA mobile devices and networking equipment such as base stations and system controllers.

India today accounts for one in every 10 handsets manufactured worldwide. Vendors such as Nokia, Samsung, LG, Sony Ericsson and Motorola are shipping 60 million mobiles each year from the country to more than 60 countries, pr marily in Africa, Southeast Asia, the Middle East and South Asia. Going forward, there are plans to more than double production from 120 million devices in 2009 to 250 million units by 2012. Of this, 100 million will be exported.

tele.net takes a look at some handset "industry firsts" that took place during the past decade...

First handset with an Indian ringtone: Launched on August 15, 1998, the Nokia 5110 celebrated the 51st anniversary of India's independence with a patriotic ringtone. The phone was priced at Rs 7,800.

First handset with Indian language support: The Nokia 3210 was introduced in 2000. It offered users a Hindi menu, picture messaging, ringtone composer and three inbuilt games. The device was priced at Rs 5,000.

First mobile banking service: In 2000, HDFC Bank tied up with Bharti Airtel to provide mobile banking services to mobile users in Karnataka.

First camera phone: Nokia's 7650 was introduced in 2002. It came loaded with a VGA camera as well as e-mail and MMS, GPRS, Java, an inbuilt organiser, and other features. The handset was priced at Rs 27,000.

First 32k SIM card: Escotel introduced the first 32k SIM card in 2002 in Kerala. This enabled customers to access information services through SMS using the handset menu rather than typing the keywords. Users could also avail of a 250- entry capacity phonebook and store up to 30 SMSs.

Tapping handsets: In 2002, the government asked cellular service providers to install sophisticated bugs at mobile switching centres. Seven intelligence agencies, including the police, were authorised to tap cellphones.

First value-added service: In 2002, Escotel provided engineering entrance examination results on the mobile through SMS in Kerala. Subscribers were also able to check the status of their passport applications through SMS following a tie-up with regional passport offices in the state.

First mobile hacking case: In 2002, a Chandigarh-based electronic hobbyist cloned a mobile handset which made it possible for two handsets to have the same number and the cloned handset to work like a parallel phone.

First "made for India" handset: The Nokia 1100 entry-level handset was introduced in 2003. A no-frills phone, it provided text messaging facility, and came with an alarm clock, a dust-free keypad, an anti-slip grip and a built-in flashlight. It was priced at Rs 1,250.

First handset with Wi-Fi facility: The Nokia 9500 Communicator offered users Wi-Fi connectivity besides support for multimedia, an integrated camera and email facilities. Launched in 2004, the phone cost Rs 30,000.

First BlackBerry in India: Canadabased Research In Motion joined hands with Bharti Airtel to launch the BlackBerry 7730, the BlackBerry 7230 and the BlackBerry 6230 in India in 2004. The price of these devices ranged from Rs 18,990 to Rs 32,990.

First "slim" handheld: Motorola's ultra-slim 13.9 mm RAZR took Indian users by storm in 2005. It also offered video recording and playback facilities, Bluetooth connectivity and a digital camera. At the time of its launch, it was priced at about Rs 30,000.

First touch screen device: HTC India's HTC Touch was introduced in 2007. Priced at Rs 17,000, the device packed in a 200 MHz TI CPU, a 64 MB RAM with a 128 MB ROM, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth features.

First "made in India" handset: Motorola's C115, introduced in 2005, was designed in India and its software too was sourced from the country. The phone supported Hindi text messaging and was priced at Rs 1,700.

First dual-SIM handheld: Spice Mobiles' D90 dual-SIM handheld, launched in 2008, supported two GSM SIM cards and came with a 2 megapixel camera, Bluetooth connectivity, an MP3 player and a video player. It cost Rs 7,799.

Apple iPhone launch in India: The Apple iPhone was launched across India by Bharti Airtel and Vodafone Essar in 2008. The iPhone was priced at Rs 31,000 for 8 GB memory and Rs 36,100 for 16 GB.

First open market handset: Samsung joined hands with Qualcomm to introduce the Mpower 699 in August 2009. The handset supported Tata Indicom, Reliance Mobile, MTS and Virgin Mobile services on its OMH SIM card and was priced at Rs 7,000.

First operator-branded 3G handset: Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Limited (MTNL), in collaboration with Micromax, launched the country's first operatorbranded 3G handset in September 2009. The H 360 Micromax 3G handset was bundled with MTNL's 3G Jadoo service based on the chipset provided by USbased technology major Qualcomm. It was priced at Rs 5,500.

First 12 megapixel camera phone: Samsung launched the Pixon12 (M 8910) in the country in 2009. With full touchscreen functionality, the handset came loaded with a 12 megapixel camera, a 7.9 cm AMOLED screen and a one-touch dedicated camera power key. It was priced at Rs 29,990.

First outdoor handset: The Samsung Marine, launched in 2009 at a price of Rs 7,030, packed in features such as external speakers and noise cancellation which functions through a dedicated microphone. It also sported an LED flashlight, FM radio and camera with an LCD screen display.

First Android-based smartphone: HTC India joined hands with Bharti Airtel to introduce the Android-powered HTC Magic in India in 2009. It was priced at Rs 25,000.

According to research firm Gartner, revenues from mobile services will grow at an annual rate of around 18 per cent to $37 billion by 2012 and the country will have more than 737 million subscribers by 2012, growing at an annual rate of 21 per cent. In light of this, it is clear that the demand for handsets is far from abating in the near future.

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