Throwback: 3 mobile phones from back in the day worth remembering

I don’t know for how long you have been using mobile phones but, as everyone knows, they’ve been around for so long now that there’s an entire generation that does not know of life without them.

However, as we’re often reminded, things have not always been this way. The seemingly limitless connectivity options we enjoy today started somewhere then got nurtured along the way and continue advancing today when the discussion has shifted from getting basics to being always connected, powered by superfast hardware coupled with equally great software.

Here are 3 smartphones that some Kenyans will relate with because of their importance at different times in the growth of the mobile space and their contribution in either furthering the consumption of content as we do today, smartphone penetration or, well, helping make 3G networks mainstream and setting a couple of records while at it while others will find useful for their mobile computing class reference – alongside Wikipedia.

Huawei U8150 IDEOS

Love it or hate it, the Huawei U8150 IDEOS, which we all loved to taunt as the idiot phone on Twitter, will always come up when you’re discussing smartphones in Kenya over the last decade. It’s a no-brainer when you even take the short route and zero-in specifically on Android smartphones.

The Huawei U8150 IDEOS not only introduced Android to many a Kenyan mobile phone user, a lot of our collective memory of the smartphone outside the rare cameos they made in movies and the occasional braggy BlackBerry user, is entirely centred on it.

Such was the good job and marketing that Google, Huawei and Safaricom managed to do that we often forget that there were other devices before it that broke all the “firsts” that go into history books. Well, minus the sales numbers, of course, since the IDEOS had all those.

Exclusive to Safaricom for under Kshs 10,000 and rocking the (then) all-new Android 2.2, Froyo, the U8150 was the gateway to a world we had only had passing glances at on our Nokia feature phones (well, unless one belonged to the 1% that had iPhones): apps. Of course, it’s hard to explain today how we all functioned without apps when there’s an app for just about everything. The Kshs 1,000 free Safaricom airtime and free data that came with the U8150 went a long way in getting one addicted to the Android Market (what we now call the Google Play Store).

Having been used to buying 10 megabytes of data daily for Kshs 8 (and barely finishing them, anyway), it came as a shock how I was able to burn through a gigabyte of data bundles in just a night – alternating between Twidroyd (remember it?), the old AOSP browser, Dolphin browser, YouTube (watching Barack Obama speeches) and Android Market.

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Intel Yolo

The Intel Yolo was one hell of a tiny phone, at least by today’s standards. Even then, we all wanted to lay our hands on one. The only problem? It was just too scarce. Turns out, we weren’t the only ones who fancied a device with a rather clean Android UI at a great price, every other Kenyan who knew of its existence and could afford it, was, too. And that explains the many trips I made to Safaricom shops as soon as I was able to raise the Kshs 11,000 that one needed to buy it (don’t get me started on the struggle a broke college-going lad has to go through to raise such cash).

You see, earlier on, before the launch of the Intel Yolo almost 6 years ago, Safaricom, then (and still is today) Kenya’s leading mobile network operator, had been in talks with Intel to bring to the Kenyan market a well-priced smartphone.

While the said device would further deepen the smartphone penetration in Kenya and expand access to Safaricom’s 3G network, it would also provide a good reference for Intel’s own efforts to get into a field it had failed to get into despite its undisputed hold of the computing industry as it had been known before the dawn of the smartphone age. As fate would have it, the device, which we later came to be known as the Intel Yolo, would launch in Nairobi as the first smartphone with the American company’s chip.

While, as we would later discover, the Intel Atom chipset in the Yolo (the Z2420) wasn’t going to be much of a bother to the low-end MediaTek processors based on ARM designs that dominated the market, it was a big deal. Here was a brand that understood the chipset market, at least in the desktop computing industry, plunging into mobile, the next frontier, and partnering with one of Africa’s most innovative telecommunications company, still enjoying the buzz generated by its mobile money service, M-Pesa. At the time, Safaricom enjoyed a respectable 65% market share in the country and given the success of previous partnerships with the likes of Huawei, Google and others, few dared to write off the effort.

While, unlike the IDEOS, we’ve never had an official account of the numbers that the Yolo managed to rack up (and it doesn’t have the best of reputations, anyway), its place in smartphone history, not just in Kenya but worldwide, will remain reserved.

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Did I mention that for many, given Android’s notorious fragmentation, the Yolo was their first encounter with the then 1-year-old Ice Cream Sandwich (Android 4.0)?

ZTE F912

The ZTE F912 may not easily come to the top of anyone’s mind when you start narrating the country’s mobile journey. That’s because it’s not supposed to. For all intent and purposes, it is supposed to be a very forgettable device. Why it’s on this list is to make sure that status changes.

This is because it provided a very important inward look at how we would be consuming content just under a decade down the line.

10 years ago, when the device started selling in Kenya through Safaricom, we didn’t prioritize YouTube, Netflix, Showmax and the other streaming video-on-demand services that we use and cherish today. Heck, the mobile data situation at the time did not allow such indulgence, anyway. So, what did people do?

Well, watch DSTV?

The whole reason why the ZTE F912 found itself in the Kenyan market a decade ago was solely because Safaricom had partnered with Multichoice to bring its digital satellite television service to mobile phones.

The whole idea of watching the English Premier League on the go, something that we probably take for granted today (just look at how easy it was to watch the World Cup on our phones), was out of this world back then. While the F912 wasn’t the first device to do so, or even the only one in Safaricom’s playbook (more on those soon), it was easily one of the most affordable and impressive as well.

Like the way today’s hybrid computing devices are marketed, the F912 had a swiveling screen to ensure you can always share with the next person what you’re watching on its tiny 2.2-inch display while still allowing room for dramatic call termination since it was also, still, a flip phone.

How anyone expected anyone to watch TV on the on a phone with no headphone jack (yes, that used to happen, it didn’t start 2 years ago) is still beyond me. We’ve come a long way.

What mobile phone from back in the day do you remember the most?

Have something that you believe I need to have a look at? Hit me up: echenze [at]