The Motorola StarTAC was introduced in 1996. At
the time it was the smallest cellular phone in the world, so compact
that it was marketed as "wearable." It's easy now to
laugh at that claim, but back then a cell phone was not something
you could just slip in a pocket. The earlier Motorola MicroTAC
couldn't be crammed into anything short of a fanny pack. It should
come then as no surprise that the small, sleek, professional looking
StarTAC was soon found pressed to the ear of every person wanting
to flaunt their success. It was even offered as an option on the
class Mercedes and Jaguar XJ/XK!
Right from the start it was clear Motorola was on
to something great. The StarTACs revolutionary clamshell form
factor has become the norm for most phones built since. A phone
without a vibrate mode would seem ridiculous now, but before the
StarTAC it was unheard of. And though it was not the first phone
to use a li-ion battery, it no doubt had a hand in bringing them
into the mass market.
Rather than resting on past success, Motorola continued
to improve upon the StarTAC for many years. The LED screen found
on the first StarTACs was replaced by a black and white LCD. The
phone itself, having started out analog
only, was later released in TDMA/CDMA
and GSM versions.
It was enough to keep the StarTAC in vogue until the last models
came out in 2002.
Not everything Motorola tried with the StarTAC was
a success. A second battery could be clipped onto the back of
all but the last models. This unique add-on would extend standby
time to somewhere in the neighborhood of a week, but detracted
from the phones most endearing quality: its size. Even stranger
was a clip-on organizer based on the Franklin
REX 5000. It had most of the functions of the regular REX,
as well as the ability to dial numbers stored in its address book.
Like the second battery, it clipped onto the back of the StarTAC.
Like the second battery, it made the phone huge.
Several related phones were sold alongside the StarTAC.
A special "rainbow"
edition replaced the gray/black case with a mix of colours. Later
models were repackaged as Motorola Talkabouts and Timeports. The
final upgrade to the StarTAC line was a colour OLED
screen, but for some reason it was only released on the Timeport
model. Many parts can be swapped between these different phones,
as they're all based on the StarTAC.
Today the StarTAC is mostly gone. The young generation
is far more impressed by full colour screens, cameras and MP3
playback than solid construction and pedigree. Asking about a
StarTAC in a cell phone store will likely result in laughs and
statements like "My dad had one of those!"
There is also a technical side to the disappearance.
The analog network which the early StarTACs rely on has been abandoned
in the United States, along with many other places around the
world. Worse still, US cellular service providers refuse to activate
a non E911
equipped phone. This leaves only the ever shrinking handful of
existing digital StarTAC users to carry the torch in the US.
Thankfully Canadians have it a bit easier. It would be too impractical
to upgrade the analog network in remote locations, so it's being
left in place. And so far E911 support isn't required to activate
a new phone.