A look back at early smartphones and PDAs

For anyone born in this century, the idea that life even existed before the iPhone would probably be difficult to imagine. Fifteen years after the first iPhone went on sale, we’ve all become accustomed to having the ubiquitous device in our lives.

The iPhone wasn’t the first smartphone – but it was the first smartphone that appealed to the common man. Of course, I’m no ordinary person: I’m a geek who owned a whole bunch of digital devices that predated the iPhone…

Life before the iPhone: PDAs

People used to carry their diaries, contacts, and other important information on paper—using Filofax, the iPhone’s paper equivalent. This was a portable ring binder system that you buy dozens of different inserts for, from different calendar layouts to expense sheets.

My first move to a digital version was in 1984 – the year the Macintosh came out – in the form of the Psion Organizer. In 1986 I switched to the much more user-friendly Model II. This looked a lot like a calculator with letters instead of numbers. It had a one-line mono LCD display and a protective cover for the alphabetic keyboard. No communications capabilities unless you have purchased the optional RS-232 port to connect it to a computer via a cable.

In 1988, the considerably handier Casio Digital Diary was launched. This had the clunkiest user interface imaginable, including a pressure-sensitive keyboard (think bubble wrap), but the portability was truly incredible.

Life Before the iPhone: Early Smartphones

My first smartphone was the Nokia Communicator 9210 in 2001. It effectively combined the functionality of the Psion 5mx with a phone and was my first device with built-in internet access.

The keyboard was a big step backwards and I didn’t like the user interface that much, but it was a truly incredible device for its time. It fits in an ordinary sports jacket pocket. On the outside it was a phone. Inside it was a PDA. Six years before the iPhone, it was a phone, an internet device, and a music device—okay, it was a phone and an internet device.

A PDA called the Palm Pilot evolved into the Handspring Treo 180. I played a small role in development, leading consumer focus groups to get feedback on the concept. This was a super pocketable device with a stylus, but a flap that flipped up revealed a keyboard. The keyboard wasn’t the best, but the pocketability proved irresistible, and after using a prototype for a while I finally bought one when it launched in 2002.

By 2005 I was back to something closer to the Nokia Communicator form factor, with a slide-out keyboard instead of a fold-out one – but a lot of smaller. It was manufactured by HTC as the HTC Apache and sold under different names by different companies and carriers. I think my first one was called Windows Pocket PC.

Then came the iPhone

At the iPhone launch in 2007, Steve Jobs famously poked fun at the kind of devices I had previously owned. No one wants to use a stylus, he explained, when they could use your finger instead. And he laughed at the idea of ​​a hardware keyboard as a waste of space.

He was right, of course, and it didn’t take long for the rest of the smartphone industry to emulate the iPhone’s form factor. But it was those early devices that paved the way and created the market that Apple would turn on its head.

These are my memories – how about yours? If you’re old enough to have owned portable digital devices before the iPhone, share your memories in the comments.

Main photo: Schneemannradio/Wikipedia.

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