One of the great channels on YouTube is the BBC Archive. And while it covers a wide range of topics, particularly retro tech, it also looks back at old news broadcasts. This one’s particularly relevant here, as it details the introduction of cameras into cell phones (or “mobile phones”, as we call them here ) to the UK back in 2001.
It’s an interesting look back at what people thought back then. Some labelled it as a “gimmick”. Others talked about the cost of sending images over that of sending a regular text message. Remember, phones weren’t really on the Internet back then, so images went over the regular phone network. The feature also had a high barrier to entry, with camera-capable phones costing significantly more than those without.
The first commercially available camera phone was the Kyocera Visual Phone VP0-210, released in May 1999. They called it a “mobile videophone” at the time, which had a 110,000-pixel front-facing camera and stored 20 jpgs which could be sent over email. The first true cell phone that contained a camera that could send images directly to another phone was the Samsung SCH-V200 in June 2000.
It was released in South Korea in November 2000 and later came to other parts of the world. It contained a much higher resolution 350,000-pixel resolution camera. .the first mass-market camera phone was the Sharp J-SH04, released in Japan in 2000 and introduced in the UK in 2001. For reference, it was only six years later, in 2007, when we’d see the first iPhone introduced with its 2-megapixel rear camera.
As well as the video above, the original article on the BBC News website from back then still exists. It’s a short, basic, factual piece, mostly talking about the specs and what you can do.
The article poses the question “what would you do with a gadget like this, particularly as it costs nearly US $500?” and the comments are well worth a read to compare what people expected to use it for 20 years ago vs what people use smartphones and their cameras for now in the Internet-connected world. $500 might not be a lot for a phone these days – it’s pretty much midrange now – but back then it was an absolutely ridiculous figure.
At the time, I had an Ericsson phone that cost me about £50 (around $70-75 with the exchange rate at the time), and spending $500 just seemed ridiculous. And that’s one of the points kind of raised in the video above. Even if you were willing to fork over the cash for one of these fancy new smartphones with a built-in camera, you relied on the people you knew to do the same thing. If they didn’t – because most people couldn’t justify that kind of expense – then they couldn’t receive your pictures and your expensive phone was really no better than any other phone, for the most part.
21 years ago doesn’t seem like that long ago, but it’s amazing how far mobile technology has come and what we do with our phones now. There are so many things we take for granted, like mobile banking, online shopping, ordering food to be delivered, online games you can play with people on the other side of the world in real-time, and whatever else you do with your phone that would’ve just seemed like science fiction nonsense back in 2001.
My, how times have changed! What do you use your phone for now that you could not have imagined 20 years ago?