Whatever happened to the flip phone?

Son #1 had a problem with his phone. Now for most teenagers that would mean that the battery life was rubbish, or the camera had failed, or it had lost all the music. Or maybe that it was last years’s model and didn’t have a large enough memory capacity, or the browser was substandard.  Not so. Son #1′s phone problem was that his phone kept turning itself on. Yes, turning itself on, not off.

Unlike many of his age, #1 takes the rule about no phones at school seriously. The school has one of those curious rules that says that students are not allowed to take phones to school, but that if they do take them the phones should be turned off.

It took us some time to convice him that it just might be useful to have a phone in his bag, turned off, in case he needed it in an emergency. As the antiquated school bus (ex-Hong Kong, replete with signs saying “no spitting” in Chinese) had a habit of breaking down, we anticipated such emergencies being common.

Samsung E2120 candy bar phone

So we bought him a cheap Samsung candy bar phone with a prepay SIM and all was well. The phone was suitably straightforward, the battery lasted ages, and even the camera was half decent.

But every now and again #1 asked me to unblock the SIM. Apparently the phone had got turned on whilst in his school bag, and with various random keypresses the wrong PIN had been entered three times, blocking the SIM.

The first few times I was mildly interested, then after a few more times it got a bit more tedious, and eventually I put the PUK code in my own phone so I didn’t have to look it up on the internet every time.

After many more such unblockings I thought it had become time to investigate more fully.
Candy bar phones are very convenient and robust. There’s no hinge to break, no slider to jam, just buttons. But in order to save buttons and cost, Samsung use the “end call” button for the power on/off function too. And of course that button is on the exposed face of the phone.  The exposed face of the phone gets subjected to all manner of pressure from being bounced around in the school bag, and hey presto, SIM block.

So, I thought, how about replacing the phone with one where there are no buttons exposed?  Then nothing could get pressed accidentally and we’d be free from the SIM block problem.  A flip phone (or folding phone as Nokia reluctantly had to call it to avoid patent infringement), that would do it.

Motorola Star-TAC

Motorola were the first to introduce the folding flip phone with the Star-TAC in 1989.  And truly revolutionary it was too.  Most hand portables (analogue, don’t forget) were still brick sized at that time, albeit getting smaller each year.  The Star-TAC, for its time, was very small.  Soon everyone (well, except for Nokia) were jumping on the bandwagon, and flip phones became a very popular form factor.  Meanwhile the candy bar format evolved with sliders and covers, and a healthy variety of shapes and sizes co-existed for many years.

With all that history behind then, surely getting a flip phone for son #1 would be straightforward?  Apparently not.  For some reason, be it style, manufacturing cost, reliability or whatever, flip phones have become the very poor cousin, and are nearly extinct.  We should despatch Nigel Marvin at once to rescue some of the last samples and keep them safe in captivity for future generations to enjoy.

Samsung E1150 flip phone - cheap but very basic

It turned out the only budget priced flip phone was so basic as to be a non-starter, even for #1.  No camera, no media player, it just about made calls and sent texts.  Sorry Samsung, cheap it may be but not worth the effort.  So in the end I had to hunt through my past cast-offs and find a Nokia N80 (slider phone), which very thoughtfully has a very difficult to press on/off button on the top.  Problem solved, but an interensting reminder of how fashions in phones change, and how something so revolutionary in 1989 has all but vanished.


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One Response to Whatever happened to the flip phone?

  1. LOL says:

    Nice article. I miss the flipphone too. I was actually hunting down stores a day ago looking for one since I wanted a second phone that I could use in school and during my OJT but I couldn’t find one, so magnificently, I had to settle on a Samsung candybar phone as well. It’s cheap and does what it does, but I still wish I had a clamshell phone again (back in the early days).

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