The world of tech is fast-paced and cutthroat. Smartphones, in particular, have evolved at lightning pace. Clever innovations are quickly assimilated by competing manufacturers and built upon. But the right idea at the wrong time spells disappointment. Sometimes a phone will bring something fresh and compelling to the table, but it won’t capture the public imagination until a competitor does the same thing a few months, or even years, later.
Some people mocked the original iPhone when it launched, and the Samsung Galaxy Note provoked much mirth for being too big, but both defied their critics with strong sales and spawned sequels that are still going strong. The phones we’re looking at here had a different fate. They may have pointed the way for the future of smartphones, but they failed to capitalize on it.
When Palm launched the Pre in the summer of 2009, it introduced an all-new platform to the mobile landscape in the shape of webOS. What was supposed to be a brave new beginning for Palm turned out to be the beginning of the end, as the company was acquired by Hewlett-Packard just a year later.
The Pre bridged the gap between old and new. It was a slider phone with a physical keyboard, but it also had a multi-touch screen. It wasn’t really the hardware that was ahead of its time, so much as the operating system. The thoughtfully developed webOS included a well-integrated system for messaging, which pulled in the likes of Gmail, Facebook, and LinkedIn. There was also a neat notification system and proper multitasking — all innovations that would soon be adopted by its rivals. Read our full review.
HTC HD2 and HTC Evo 4G
Arriving in late 2009, the HTC HD2 has long been a cult classic in the development community. It had an impressive 4.3-inch touchscreen, and it was only the second phone to sport a Qualcomm Snapdragon CPU. It also had HTC’s Sense UI, but unfortunately, it was running on top of the doomed Windows Mobile 6.5. The HTC HD2 has had unofficial ports of Windows Phone, Firefox, MeeGo, and even Android 6.0 Marshmallow, not to mention many other platforms.
Released in 2010, the Evo 4G was close to being an Android version of the same phone. It was the first 4G-enabled phone in the United States, one with the ability to connect up to eight devices via a hot-spot feature and support for video chat. The 8-megapixel camera with support for HD recording was popular, and there was even room for an HDMI port. The Evo 4G showed HTC’s willingness to engage in an arms race when it came to specifications.
The fact that the HTC HD2 and the HTC Evo 4G sold out quite quickly may have given the false impression that they were big successes, but WinMo was on its way out and 4G wouldn’t really take off for another couple of years. Read our full HTC HD2 review and our HTC Evo 4G review.
The original Samsung Galaxy Note was still over a year away when Dell launched the Streak 5 in 2010. There had been other large form factor phones before — blurring the lines between tablet and smartphone — but the Dell Streak was the first Android phablet. It had a 5-inch, touchscreen display with 800 x 480-pixel resolution, decent battery life, and a 5-megapixel camera.
A lot of the initial reviews were actually pretty positive, with many reviewers seeing the attraction of a bigger screen on a phone, but the Streak suffered from some serious performance issues. It ran Android 1.6 Donut, later upgraded to 2.2 Froyo. The immature version of Android was less than ideal for a screen this size, and Dell’s failure to build good software customizations on top essentially killed its chances of taking off.
Starting 2011 in determined fashion, Motorola was churning out innovative new Android smartphones like no other manufacturer on the market. However, looking at the lineup — which also saw the Xoom, Droid Bionic, and Cliq 2 released alongside the Atrix 4G — you get the impression it was throwing everything at the wall and hoping something would stick.
The Motorola Atrix 4G had an attractive design with a 4-inch, 960 x 540-pixel display. It also had plenty of raw power under the hood, but it was the fingerprint sensor and the innovative WebTop platform that really stood out. There were four different dock accessories, allowing you to convert the Atrix into the brains of a laptop, hook it up via HDMI with an IR remote control, or use it to navigate in a vehicle.
With the high price of docks and less than perfect performance, the Atrix never hit the big time, but it was certainly influential. Fingerprint sensors are now ubiquitous and Microsoft is still trying to nail the PC/phone crossover with Continuum. Read our full review.
Nokia Lumia 1020
The Symbian-based Nokia 808 PureView was unveiled at MWC in February 2012. With a 41-megapixel camera, it took mobile photography to previously unscaled heights. It was also the first smartphone to feature Nokia’s pixel oversampling technique for better image quality, improved low-light performance, and lossless zoom. It also benefited from Nokia’s long-term partnership with Carl Zeiss optics.
Sadly, this amazing camera disappeared quite quickly because it was tied to the sinking Symbian platform. Nokia tried again with its successor in 2013, the Lumia 1020, but Windows Phone turned out to be sinking as well. Despite many plaudits, the 41-megapixel shooter proved to be a leap too far and today’s smartphones still haven’t caught up. Read our Lumia 1020 review.
It’s too early to call, but if we had to pick the next phone that may be ahead of its time, we’d probably opt for the LG G5. The modular design seems set to take off at some point, but we’re not sure it will be 2016.