Top 10 Ways Handheld Consoles Led to Smartphones

In the past few years, much has been made of the growing influence of smartphone gaming on the gaming industry. Some prognosticators suggest that smartphones pose a real threat not only to handheld gaming, but to the gaming industry as a whole. Others dismiss this idea, pointing to the significant gap in quality seen between a mobile market dominated by free-to-play microtransaction-baiting minigames like Angry Birds, Farmville, or Candy Crush Saga and bigger-budget, fuller-featured, well-received handheld releases like The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, Persona 4 Golden, and Bravely Default. Regardless of the point of view, however, the overall terms of the discussion tend to be the same: handheld gaming existed successfully for twenty years, but now smartphone gaming has entered into the battle and poses a major threat. The implication tends to be that handheld gaming and smartphones developed on parallel tracks, and that now smartphones are attempting to crossover and make headway on handheld gaming’s turf.

But is that really a fair way to describe it? Did handheld gaming and smartphones really develop independently until smartphones decided they wanted to be game consoles, too? As it turns out, no, that’s not the right approach at all. In fact, handheld gaming has been laying the groundwork for smartphone gaming for decades. Many of the innovations and fundamental elements in smartphones were seen long ago in handheld consoles. In some cases, those features even debuted for the first time ever on handhelds. Nintendo, Sega, and lesser-known companies like Game Park, Tiger Electronics, and Tapwave have spent years developing the technologies that now form the foundation of the entire smartphone industry.

These aren’t gaming-specific technologies at all; without exception, these all mark times when handheld consoles tried to break out of gaming and into a broader set of use cases and feature specifications. With the number of advances made by handheld consoles over the years, the question is not whether or smartphone gaming can overwhelm handheld gaming. Instead, the question is: how did handheld game manufacturers fail to corner the smartphone market in the first place? They had the technology, the experience, and the market positioning; why are Apple, Google, and Samsung the biggest names in smartphones instead of Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft?

For the purposes of this list, these innovations are listed roughly chronologically; it’s difficult to rank these items based on any other metric. The chronology won’t be strict and binding, however, given that in many cases, the same innovation was present on multiple handhelds before appearing on smartphones; I make no promises to give an exhaustive list of handhelds that featured each innovation, either. I’ll also be skipping images for this list given that half the consoles we’ll be discussing don’t even have pictures in the GameFAQs database.

#10: Video (TurboExpress, Game Gear, Game Boy Advance, PSP)

It’s lunch time, I’m sitting at Tin Drum across the street from my office, and I’m waiting on my food. What do I do? I pull out my smartphone, a Galaxy Note 3 if you’re curious, flip open the cover to make a little stand, and turn on the latest episode of Conan. Video-playing capabilities have become one of the major selling points of modern smartphones, from streaming video from the internet to playing downloaded movies and TV episodes. Some analysts suggest that this capability is playing a major role in the drop in cable TV subscribership: not only can we get our video from the internet, but it can give it to us on more portable, convenient devices than traditional cable boxes.

Handheld gaming has known that for years, however. The pursuit of video-playing on handheld consoles can be traced all the way back to the NEC TurboExpress in 1990, a radio-looking device with a button layout reminiscent of the original Game Boy. The TurboVision adapter would turn it into a TV tuner for over-the-air broadcasts. Sega’s first portable console, the Game Gear, similarly had an available TV tuner adapter. For on-demand viewing, however, we can jump forward to the Game Boy Advance. Game Boy Advance Video provided videos of TV shows like Kim Possible or movies like Shrek 2. Video offerings on handheld devices hit a crescendo with the PSP, however, as its unique UMD discs and their 1.8GB capacity were designed to deliver feature-length movies with excellent video quality. Unfortunately, UMD never caught on as a video format and failed to become a major selling point for the PSP. Apps for the PSP and DSi for streaming Netflix, YouTube, and other services arrived around the same time as the smartphone revolution.

#9: Touchscreen & PDA Functionality (game.com, Nintendo DS)

It’s amazing to think of how many things my smartphone has replaced. I no longer need a watch (although I wear one anyway). I used to carry either a voice recorder or a notepad everywhere for easy note-taking when ideas hit me. It maintains my calendar and alerts me to every appointment. It’s become my alarm clock, and a better one than any other I’ve ever had. It stores all my contacts, provides an easily-accessible flashlight, and gives me the world’s best calculator to rub in the face of every math teacher that insisted we wouldn’t always have calculators on us. Most of these features are only plausible because the device has a touchscreen. If the interaction still had to take place with arrow-buttons and a limited number of predefined keys, none of these interactions would be nearly as intuitive.

Given all that, smartphones should send a basket of muffins or something to handheld consoles for helping pioneer these technologies in the first place. Back in 1997, we saw the first handheld console to feature both a touchscreen and PDA-like functions. Named the game.com (a poor title, in retrospect, given the confusion it spawned with domain names as well as its stated intent to appeal to an older audience), this device from Tiger Electronics featured a stylus-driven touchscreen and productivity apps like an address book. It also was the earliest handheld console to feature internet access, making it extraordinarily ahead of its time, but that access was limited to email and the raw text of the internet. A more familiar and successful handheld console, the Nintendo DS, revived these features several years later, with the eponymous second screen working as a touchscreen. The DS also provided a limited number of PDA functions, like a clock and calendar.

#8: Text Messaging (Cybiko, Gizmondo)

Text messaging goes way back before the advent of smartphones; it was, to the best of my knowledge, one of the first features built into cell phones after the obligatory ability to place phone calls. The SMS standard actually dates to the mid-1990s, but it did not take off until the end of that decade. Text messaging exploded in the early 2000s, and as smartphones arrived, the interface became more and more user-friendly. Today, text messaging is the most common use of data for network carriers, and most smartphones have updated themselves to portray texts as a chat-style dialog rather than isolated email-style messages. The popularity of text messaging has led to a surge of other services that take advantage of the same system, such as apps to allow texting from tablet computers, web sites to facilitate texting from PCs, and services to merge text messages in with emails or messages from other services.

It was around the time when text messaging was first taking off that we saw the first attempt by a video game console to get in on the action. Although it did not use the same SMS standard that cell phones used, the Cybiko, a handheld computer developed by Russian software company ABBYY, featured a text messaging system similar to a two-way radio. That system, one of the foundational portions of the device, led to the inclusion of a full QWERTY keyboard and stylus, ultimately leading it to look and feel more like an adolescent-targeted PDA than a game console. In practice, however, the game-playing function was the major selling point aside from the text messaging service. It was several years before another handheld console attempted to leverage text messaging, with the failed Gizmondo providing both SMS and MMS access.

#7: Open-Source Development (GP32, Cybiko)

In terms of time spent on my phone, playing games probably trails only reddit, and I would venture to guess I spend as much time playing games on my phone as I do on my home consoles. Lately, I’ve mostly been playing simple puzzle games from small developers like Nebula Bytes and Noodlecake Studios. These companies are likely much smaller than the smallest companies producing games for the 3DS and Vita, much less the major home consoles. Yet it’s the very fact that games can be produced cheaply and easily that allows my phone to be such a viable gaming platform; it doesn’t have to worry about competing with the specs of the dedicated consoles because it can leverage a massive community of developers to produce cheap or ad-supported games. They, in turn, benefit from the massive audience they receive by developing for a device whose audience isn’t limited to gamers.

The first time game development was open to the masses, it nearly destroyed the industry, as the Atari years saw a flood of awful games because of the lack of quality control. This latest trend puts smartphones in the same place, but the availability of information allows users to find quality games without the quality gatekeepers that rescued the industry in the 1980s. However, handheld gaming did revisit this open-source approach before smartphones came along in the form of the GP32. Developed by Game Park and released only in Korea, the GP32 was an open-source portable gaming device that used SD cards for cartridges. Although the approach never carried the GP32 to widespread international success, the paradigm it represented is crucial to the surge of smartphone gaming. The widespread availability of cheap, easily developed games allows smartphones to enter the industry without competing head-to-head against the 3DS and Vita.

#6: Music (GP32, Tapwave Zodiac, PSP)

I’m ashamed to admit it, but I never had an iPod; I had a Zune. Fortunately, my embarrassment was short-lived as one of the earliest foundational features of smartphones was the ability to play music. I used to keep a dozen albums on my original smartphone, even though I hardly ever actually listed to them. Nowadays, however, my smartphone and Spotify have combined to give me the best car radio I could ever ask for. $5 per month and an auxiliary cable from the headphone jack into my sound system and any song I could ever want is just a couple taps away. My smartphone has replaced the iPod I never had and all the Walkmen, portable tape players, and SD cards I ever had. It seems so simple: you have a device with internal or interchangeable storage, speakers, and a headphone jack. Why not use it to play music?

The handheld gaming industry thought it was just as obvious, apparently. The aforementioned GP32 had only three main functions, and one of them was to play MP3s, long before the birth of smartphones and around the time traditional cell phones began exploring the idea as well. A couple years later, the Tapwave Zodiac came along, a game console baring remarkable superficial similarity to the PSP Go, and it too built an MP3 player in as one of its central features. It wasn’t long before playing music became almost an assumed feature in handheld consoles very much the same way it has been a part of smartphones since the original iPhone; from failed systems like the N-Gage and the Gizmondo to successes like the PSP and, eventually, the DSi, it is difficult to find any portable device nowadays that doesn’t support music playback natively.

#5: Phone Calls (N-Gage)

Ultimately, though, a smartphone is just that: a smartphone, right? Today, I would argue no. The phone feature of smartphones has become nothing but another app in a sea of them, provided the one special privilege of interrupting anything else the user is doing on the phone to deliver its alert. The phone number system it leverages is obsolete and survives today merely on inertia from its past significance. It won’t be long until Google IDs, Skype usernames, or Facebook accounts replace the need for phone numbers altogether. Still, however, the phone feature of smartphones has an incredibly important function: it creates the need to have such a device in the first place. You can live without every other feature of a smartphone, but you have to have a phone in today’s world. That means that the phone is the non-negotiable device; game consoles remain optional.

But what if game consoles could piggyback on the ubiquity of phones? That’d be brilliant; a game console that could serve as a cell phone, allowing the user to pay half as much for all the same functionality while naturally bringing their gaming with them on the go. That was the logic behind the N-Gage, the first true handheld console/cell phone hybrid. The N-Gage had all the necessary features of a cell phone, but also accepted its own proprietary type of game cartridges as well. It seemed to be perfect for bridging the gap between cell phones and handheld consoles, so what went wrong? The thing sucked, plain and simple. The buttons and the screen were awful for gaming while the shape of the device made it a clumsy phone as well. It flopped so badly that no other company attempted a true smartphone/handheld hybrid until Sony’s Xperia Play eight years later.

#4: Internet Access (Tapwave Zodiac, game.com, DS, PSP)

What ultimately makes my Note 3 so useful, underlying nearly every other feature of it, is its access to the Internet. The Internet has changed our lives in more ways than anyone under the age of 30 can appreciate, and smartphones have found a way to take that influence off the anchored PC or clunky laptop and literally put it in your pocket, available all the time, everywhere. The ability to access the Internet underlies nearly every element of smartphones’ success and took the already-ubiquitous cell phone to the level of being near-essential. Today, over half of all Americans own a smartphone, and twice as many people own smartphones as traditional cell phones. A huge amount of this surge is due to the Internet access that smartphones provide. For me, I access Facebook and Reddit far more often on my phone than even on my computer, even though I work on a computer professionally.

It would seem that the best chance for handheld consoles to have put a stake in the ground would have been to offer mobile Internet access before smartphones did so; and in fact, they did. The game.com supplied some form of Internet access before the term ‘smartphone’ had even been coined. The Tapwave Zodiac was the first device to do so in earnest; the device was the only product of start-up Tapwave and released in 2003, alongside several features not seen again until smartphones hit the market. But the Tapwave was sunk by its lack of developers, developers, developers, as Steve Ballmer would say, and it was not long afterward that Nintendo and Sony equipped their new handhelds with native Internet access as well. Unfortunately for them, it was not until the iPhone that anyone managed to make mobile Internet access usable as well.

#3: GPS (Gizmondo)

I actually was relatively late to the smartphone market; I didn’t pick up my first smartphone until a month after my wedding in November 2012. I anticipated a lot of the ways I would use it, but what I did not anticipate is that it would revolutionize the way I got around in my car. Google Maps had already completely reinvented navigation, but I was still used to having to print out maps or directions to new locations. With my new phone, even that was unnecessary; its on-board GPS functions, alongside the Google Maps app, made the entire world accessible. It even gave me traffic updates, changing my commute for me based on day-to-day fluctuations in Atlanta’s entirely unpredictable traffic scene.

While many of these features have seemed like somewhat natural extensions for handheld consoles, GPS is one I can’t imagine ever truly expecting handheld gaming to embrace. Short of geocaching-style video games that require the user to go to specific locations (which, while interesting, are never likely to catch on due to the inherent pragmatic constraints), GPS just does not seem to intersect with gaming. That didn’t change the industry from trying, however, as the Gizmondo from Swedish manufacturer Tiger Telematics (no relation Tiger Electronics, developers of the game.com) gave it a go. The device, however, was ultimately a colossal failure, going down as the worst-selling console of all time. The GPS functionality was present, but no navigation software ever arrived for the device, rendering it effectively useless. The Gizmondo was such a colossal failure that it forced its company into bankruptcy, although widespread allegations of mafia connections on the part of the developer may have had something to do with that as well.

#2: Camera (Gizmondo, DSi)

I very fondly remember going to the T-Mobile store in the mid-2000s to pick up a new phone. At the time, I used my phone for texting and approximately one phone call a week, so I really only needed the cheapest device available. I told the clerk, “I don’t need anything advanced, no camera or anything, just a basic phone.” He replied, “Oh… well, actually, we don’t have any phones without camera.” Somehow, cameras have become as foundational a feature of cell phones smartphones as the ‘phone’ part itself. The term ‘cameraphone’ isn’t even used anymore because the camera is simply an inferred part of the cell phone design. That change has accompanied a broader cultural change; everyone has a phone in their pocket that can connect to the Internet and immediately upload any pictures of videos it takes. All of life seems recorded now thanks to the ubiquity and connectivity of cameraphones.

Handheld gaming has famously incorporated cameras as well, with the DSi’s camera features making major waves upon their announcement and the subsequent 3DS’s stereoscopic pictures remaining an interesting feature. Both those followed after the iPhone and its 2.0 megapixel camera, but the handheld industry beat smartphones to this punch as well, again with the Gizmondo. In addition to its GPS features, music player, text messaging, and Bluetooth connectivity, the Gizmondo was also the first handheld console to sport a camera (ignoring prior add-ons such as the Game Boy Camera). The camera was surprisingly nice as well; even in 2005, it sported 1.3 megapixels, meaning it could take pictures at 17x higher resolution than its own screen was capable of displaying. The device was also doomed by the downright awful decision to announce a new model prior to the release of the original, driving even more potential buyers away.

#1: Downloadable Games (PSP, DSi)

The final piece of the puzzle is the one entry on this list where handheld consoles and smartphones achieved an innovation side-by-side; the earliest example of a downloadable game for a handheld console that I can find is a trio of 2007 releases for the PSP. Handheld consoles may not have pioneered the idea of downloadable games, but downloadable games are certainly the final piece of the puzzle. As the industry developed and online content became a greater emphasis, cartridges became a significant limiting factor. The need to go out and buy a cartridge or disc to play a game hampered how immediately content could be delivered to players, and the physical need for a cartridge slot continued to influence both device design and popular opinion. So long as a device had a physical slot specifically for games, like the N-Gage, it would likely be regarded as a game console first.

While handheld consoles did not beat smartphones to the punch on downloadables, the idea still can be traced to the games industry more broadly. In fact, the first instance of downloadable games can be traced all the way back to 1981’s remarkably ahead-of-its-time Intellivision, whose PlayCable service allowed downloadable games to be sent over cable wires, making the Intellivision not only a predecessor to downloadable games but also to cable internet more generally. Since then, several other consoles have featured downloadable games in some capacity, from Atari’s GameLine in the early 1980s to the advent of modern services like Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network. Analogues to downloadable games can also be seen in services like the Nintendo DS’s Single Card Download Play. So, although handheld consoles themselves did not beat smartphones to the downloadable punch, their own console cousins paved the way for them both.

Conclusion

So what happened? Why are Apple, Google, and Samsung the biggest names in smartphones instead of Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft? As any good businessperson will tell you, opportunity is only a small fraction of the battle. While prior developers of handheld consoles had the inside track toward success as smartphone manufacturers, that opportunity still had to be seized and successfully exploited. Some companies simply did not seize the opportunity; others tried to, but failed.

First, we have Nintendo. I start with Nintendo because I would consider their failure to capture the opportunity before them the most excusable of the companies we’ve discussed. More than most any other company (excepting some of the smaller ones), a jump to smartphone gaming would have marked a significant change in industries. While technologically, modern handheld consoles are not far-separated from smartphones, public opinion sees otherwise. A Nintendo phone would likely be regarded as a video game manufacturer competing out of its element, regardless of how untrue that assertion would be. While excusable, however, that does not change the fact that Nintendo likely could have become an enormous player in the smartphone industry had it moved to do so. The Nintendo DS was released in 2004, three years before the iPhone; the DS Lite followed in 2006, and itself was not far-removed from the technology seen in the iPhone a year later. The DS itself also possessed many of the PDA-inspired features seen in smartphones, and the few that were missing, such as an online “app” store and camera functionality, followed in 2008’s DSi. For Nintendo, the only thing separating it from smartphone success was reluctance.

Second, we have Microsoft. Microsoft, arguably, had the greatest opportunity of anyone; not only were they a successful console manufacturer, they already had a foothold in the smartphone industry. Unlike Nintendo and Sony, though, Microsoft never developed a portable console of their own. Still, Microsoft had the financial resources and market position to make a major move. Where Nintendo was doomed by its reluctance, however, Microsoft was instead doomed simply by its hesitation. Microsoft first moved in the smartphone industry in 2000, making it one of its earliest entrants, but after the initial release of Windows Mobile, the company focused on iterative, evolutionary improvements even when revolutionary ones became possible. When the iPhone came along in 2007, it blew Windows Mobile out of the water with interface changes that rivalled the change from Windows 3.1 to Windows 95. This was not the first time Apple beat Microsoft to a major usability upgrade, but in this instance, it took Microsoft three full years to finally retool Windows Mobile into something that could compete with the iOS. By then, Google’s Android had taken Microsoft’s place as the open alternative to Apple’s closed business model. Microsoft’s hesitation to engage in a full-scale reboot of its Windows Mobile platform is responsible for it today maintaining a mere 3% of the global smartphone market, compared to 81% for Android and 16% for iOS.

Last, we have Sony. While you can make the argument that Microsoft was best-positioned for smartphone success because of its general wealth, brand recognition, and foothold with Windows Mobile, I personally think that Sony represents the biggest wasted opportunity. Why is that? First, Sony was the only one of these three companies that actually made phones. Microsoft made a phone operating system, but they didn’t make phones. Sony made phones under its Sony Ericsson label starting in 2000. Second, Sony released the PSP in 2004, three years before the release of the iPhone. The original PSP was not three years behind the iPhone technologically, however; add in a touchscreen and an antenna and you would have a viable competitor. The Nintendo DS, released that same year, showed that adequate touchscreen technology was available, and the antennas were already being produced for Sony Ericsson’s cell phone line. A cellular-equipped version of the PSP could have been the iPhone, the device that revolutionized the entire smartphone industry and set its maker up for a decade of success. We’ve said the same about Nintendo and Microsoft, but what’s most egregious about Sony is just how short a path existed from their current products to the potential device. They already made cell phones. They made a handheld console with incredible specifications whose main drawback was its high price, a drawback that easily could have been thrown out if purchasing the device would remove the need for a separate cell phone. Unlike Nintendo, they would not be perceived as a video game company entering a new and foreign market, but rather a long-time player making a major move within it and consolidating two industries they themselves already dominated. The opportunity lay plainly in front of them. Instead, Sony maintains a mere 5% of the smartphone market, and has to depend on the Android operating system to do it.

Sure, there were other companies that had opportunities over the years; Nokia’s N-Gage or Palm’s Treo, for example, might have been revolutionary with better design teams. However, no company had more of an opportunity to become a major player in the industry than Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo. Much is made of the threat that smartphones pose for handheld gaming, but what is often forgotten is that handheld consoles paved the way for those smartphones in the first place. As such, the console manufacturers arguably had the first claim to the smartphone industry but passed that claim to Google and Apple via reluctance, hesitation, or incompetence. With a few different market decisions, it’s entirely feasible that today, we all could be walking around with PSPhones, Nintablets, and Microsoft Surfaces while Google persists as a mere search engine and Apple joins Microsoft in clinging to the wreckage of the flailing PC industry.

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