The world’s first flip cellphone price $1,000. This is what that purchased you in 1996


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This special-edition Motorola StarTAC “Rainbow” model is about as classic as you will get.


Sarah Tew/CNET

This story is a part of CNET at 25, celebrating 1 / 4 century of trade tech and our function in telling you its story.

The folded-up flip cellphone sits in entrance of me like a toddler’s plastic plaything, a rainbow of terraced ridges that begins with a bump the colour of earwax earlier than cascading all the way down to blue, inexperienced, that camel yellow once more and eventually to brick purple on the again and sides. It has a SIM card the scale of your Visa, a pull-out antenna wobbling on a slender stalk and a hinge that allows you to fold it in half to slip the handset into your pocket. 

It is irresistible.

Palming it, I suppress a huff of affection for this lovely, ridiculous gadget. Unabashedly plastic, flaunting its roughly 1.75-inch display like some type of mobile royalty, simply as well-known in its heyday because the iPhone is now.

 Wanting again from 2020, it is laborious to imagine that it was.

Motorola StarTAC first flip phone

You needed to pull out the StarTAC’s antenna to make a name.


Sarah Tew/CNET

This StarTAC 70 “Rainbow” mannequin that I snagged on eBay is a comparatively uncommon variation of the Motorola StarTAC, an early “it” mobile phone, and the world’s first flip cellphone… ever. 

The Rainbow StarTAC model is from 1998, however Motorola — already legendary for putting the first-ever mobile phone name in 1973 — had utilized for the StarTAC trademark three years earlier than. In reality, that was 25 years in the past, in 1995. 1 / 4 of a century.

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The unique Motorola StarTAC was the modern, bleeding fringe of mobile phone communication when it debuted in 1996 for $1,000.


Motorola Archives

It wasn’t till Jan. 6, 1996 that the black plastic cellphone formally debuted, however when it did, the consequence was momentous.

The unique StarTAC was so small by the requirements of the day — most telephones had been 5 to 7 inches tall — that Motorola known as it a “wearable mobile phone.” Simply add a hip holster.

StarTAC virtually instantly achieved the head of movie star, pressed as much as the faces of film stars on the silver display earlier than snapping shut into an ultraportable gadget. It represented a cellular future now simply taken as a right. 

And it price a small fortune. $1,000 in 1996 {dollars}, the equal of $1,682 at the moment

That is at a time when your typical transportable handset from Nokia or AT&T price $100 or much less with a two-year contract.

Again then, few would have predicted that this toy of a mobile phone resting on my knee would virtually single-handedly change the world. 

However in 1996, the StarTAC was like nothing anybody had seen earlier than.

Cell telephones in 1995: From shoulder baggage to the ‘cusp of change’

Mobile units in 1995 had been principally symbols of the wealthy and highly effective, the movers and shakers. The US had 33.Eight million wi-fi subscribers by the top of 1995, about 12.4% of the inhabitants, based on the CTIA, the dominant US wi-fi commerce affiliation. 

That determine included cell telephones, and likewise pagers, a clip-on pocket gadget with mobile connectivity and a ticker-type display simply spacious sufficient for a string of numbers. Evaluate this determine to the wi-fi subscriber depend on the finish of 2019, the place 96% of American adults owned cell telephones and 81% used smartphones, based on the Pew Analysis Heart.

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Twenty-five years in the past, this “transportable cellphone” — sure it was a mobile phone — would have plugged into your automobile by means of the ability socket.


Courtesy AT&T Archives and Historical past Heart

“We had been on the cusp of change,” mentioned Sheldon Hochheiser, AT&T’s company historian, as his Jersey-inflected voice echoed faintly by means of my speakerphone. “In 1995, the predominant, most certainly method we’d have been having this dialog was over landline telephones.”

A 21-year veteran of AT&T, Hochheiser has a Ph.D. in Historical past of Science and Know-how from the College of Wisconsin-Madison. The 69-year-old is a wealth of data about wi-fi networks’ earliest days, hailing all the best way again to 1876, Alexander Graham Bell’s authentic patent on the phone.

at-t-3730-cell-phone-1994

Sure, this AT&T 3730 from 1994 was a mobile phone you may need owned earlier than the StarTAC grew to become extra reasonably priced.


Courtesy AT&T Archives and Historical past Heart

Three sorts of “true” cell telephones existed in 1995, Hochheiser remembers:

  • Transportable cellphone: Seemed like a brick and weighed not a lot lower than a pound. The Nokia 909 from Nov. 1995 is one instance of many.
  • Bag cellphone: Got here in a carrying case, like a shoulder bag, with a battery pack. Weighed about three kilos. , the type of factor you’d carry in your horse when you wanted a full-power, lengthy vary mobile phone in rural America (see photograph beneath).
  • Transportable cellphone: Quickly plugged into your automobile by means of the ability socket (like this, and likewise above). Utilized by touring salespeople who spent most of their time on the highway.

There was additionally the Zonephone, “a novel private communications system” for the UK, which was featured within the June 1996 subject of Widespread Communications. Working by means of an 800MHz native transceiver community as a less expensive different to mobile, the Zonephone had 40 hours of standby time and took 4 hours to recharge. It could possibly be remotely disabled if misplaced or stolen.

However change was within the air for cellphone designs, and as mobile telephones slimmed down, extra folks started to covet them. After the StarTAC’s debut, mobile phone use shot up. By the top of 1996, 44 million wi-fi US subscribers used telephones and pagers, equal to 16% of the full inhabitants.

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The “bag cellphone,” an earlier type of transportable mobile phone, got here in a zippered pouch for “straightforward” conveyance. This Mobile One buyer is utilizing his horseside in 1995.


Courtesy AT&T Archives and Historical past Heart

A $1,000 mobile phone in 1996 did not imply what you suppose it means

Have you ever ever thought of a flip cellphone to be a modern, wearable gadget? In 1996, Motorola did.


Brett Pearce/CNET

“The StarTAC cellphone creates for the primary time an thrilling new wearable class we imagine shoppers will embrace,” mentioned Robert N. Weisshappel, Motorola’s govt vice chairman and common supervisor of the Mobile Subscriber Group, in the 1996 StarTAC’s press launch (emphasis ours). “It may be worn fashionably as an adjunct,” the discharge went on to say. 

(Motorola supplied images and particulars for this story, however was unable to grant an interview.)

So what do you get in a $1,000 cellphone in 1995? In accordance with a glowing synopsis (PDF) within the June 1996 subject of Widespread Communications, a lot. 

The StarTAC was a “dangerous boy” that “gadget freaks” would love for its wearable holster, two detachable batteries, 4 hours of speak time, vibration mode to announce incoming calls and “an unimaginable 47 hours of standby service.” Its killer characteristic? A “sensible” button to assist use the cellphone one-handed.

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Early Motorola promoting for StarTAC’s “flappable” “wings.” For the world’s first flip cellphone, its advantages had been an open and closed case.


Motorola Archives

Its black-and-white display measured underneath 2 inches, and when closed the StarTAC stood about Four inches tall together with the retracted antenna, which then prolonged one other 3.Three inches out of the bottom once you wished to position or obtain a name. Weighing in at 3.1 ounces, this was the lightest and most compact cellphone the world had ever seen. (Full specs listed beneath.)

“What you bought was a tool you would use to make audio cellphone calls,” Hochheister mentioned. “It didn’t have any information capabilities. It couldn’t ship textual content messages. In case you wished to ship textual content messages, you owned… a pager.” 


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StarTAC, the daring flip cellphone impressed by Star Trek

Lore has it that the Star Trek TV present impressed the transportable mobile phone. After Motorola engineer Martin Cooper — the one who made that notorious first mobile phone name, watched an episode — he needed to make it occur. (The StarTrek TV rights are owned by CNET’s dad or mum firm, ViacomCBS.)

“He mentioned that watching Captain Kirk utilizing his communicator on the tv present Star Trek impressed him with a shocking concept — to develop a handheld cell phone,” wrote Paul Sloane about Cooper’s inspiration in Assume like an Innovator (2016).

The Tricorder communication gadget seen all through your entire Star Trek franchise most intently resembles a mobile phone plus PDA, or private digital assistant, a considerably cumbersome do-it-all gadget that mashed up a handheld pc with an always-on community — flip panel and all (at the very least on later variations).

And why not? The Star Trek collection has lengthy been heralded because the predictor of watershed applied sciences, together with common translation. Within the case of the fashionable flip cellphone, the story is fully doable. The Star Trek authentic collection debuted in 1966, 30 years earlier than the StarTAC.

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“When the Motorola StarTac is opened, it turns into a extremely nice trying communicator straight from the deck of the Starship Enterprise.” (Widespread Communications, June 1996)


Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Because the world’s first flip cellphone, the StarTAC impressed generations of telephones, together with at the moment’s Motorola Razr and Galaxy Z Flip foldables. It is Motorola we’ve to thank for the primary mobile phone, for the satisfying snap of flipping a clamshell cellphone closed, and for popularizing vibration mode. 

The StarTAC is undoubtedly a tool with an unforgettable legacy, but it surely would not have existed with out the telephones that got here earlier than — the Motorola MicroTAC and the legendary DynaTAC earlier than that, the prototype of which made the world’s first mobile phone name.

“I feel [that’s] when it penetrated folks’s minds,” Hochheister mentioned of mobile phone use catching on. 


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“Hey, it isn’t simply neat, but it surely’s helpful,” Hochheiser added. “My mom received one a number of years earlier than I did as a result of she thought, ‘Wow, if she ever breaks down someplace, this could possibly be a beautiful factor to make sure her security.'”

Star Trek inspiration or not, the $1,000 Motorola StarTAC that flipped its method into historical past boldly went the place no cellphone had gone earlier than. I’ll have been too younger in 1995 and 1996 to understand the sheer pressure of its innovation, however trying on the garish, er, classic Rainbow flip cellphone in entrance of me now, I can completely verify: it is daring.

Regardless of the place the concept got here from, one factor is for certain. The StarTAC’s transportable measurement, options and ease of use (snap!) sparked folks’s creativeness to the probabilities of what a mobile phone might do — not only for the wealthy and well-known, however for strange of us such as you and me.

Learn extra: “Motorola’s StarTac ST7867W is small, gentle, and loaded with options. Working this cellphone is sort of easy, even when you do not learn the handbook.”

A $1,000 cellphone in 1996 versus 2020

Motorola StarTAC (1996) iPhone 11 Professional (2019) Samsung Galaxy S20 (2020)
Show measurement, decision 1.75 inches 5.8-inch OLED Tremendous Retina XDR; 2,436×1,125 pixels 6.2-inch Dynamic AMOLED 2X; (3,200×1,440)
Coloration display No 458ppi Thousands and thousands of colours
Dimensions (inches) Closed: Roughly Four inches tall from base to antenna mount; 2.2 inches throughout the again, 0.7-inch vast at its thickest half. Open: Roughly 6.25 inches tall 5.67 x 2.81 x 0.32 in. 2.72 x 5.97 x 0.311 in.
Weight (Ounces, grams) 3.1 oz.; 88g 6.63 oz.; 188g 5.75 oz.; 163g
Cellular software program None iOS 13 Android 10
Digicam None 12-megapixel (vast), 12-megapixel (ultra-wide), 12-megapixel (telephoto) 12-megapixel (wide-angle), 64-megapixel (telephoto), 12-megapixel (ultra-wide)
Entrance-facing digicam None 12-megapixel with Face ID 10-megapixel
Video seize None 4K 8K
Processor N/A Apple A13 Bionic 64-bit octa-core processor (Max 2.7GHz + 2.5 GHz + 2.Zero GHz)
Storage 100 cellphone numbers 64GB, 256GB, 512GB 128GB
RAM N/A Not disclosed 12GB
Expandable storage None None As much as 1TB
Battery Two lithium-ion batteries Not disclosed, however Apple claims it would final Four hours longer than iPhone XS 4,000 mAh
Fingerprint sensor No None (Face ID) In-screen
Connector Motorola charger port Lightning USB-C
Headphone jack Sure No No
Particular options Flips closed, vibration alert for incoming calls, inexperienced gentle to point mobile connection Water-proof (IP68); dual-SIM capabilities (nano-SIM and e-SIM); wi-fi charging 5G enabled; 120Hz refresh charge; water-resistant (IP68)
Value $1,000 $999 (64GB) $999



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