Palmed Away

A tiny sector of the gadget market…

My real passion in those days was not for things Apple but for a small and for a long time unnoticed sector of the market – one that Apple did have an early brave stab at, as had many others with equally doomed results, but which was truly ruled for what seemed an age by Psion and then Palm and Nokia. I am talking about those little objects that started out as PDAs and morphed, almost without anyone noticing, into smartphones.

If you (are masochistic enough to) go back five years or so and consult the earlier tech blogs section of this site you can find examples of me banging on about my love of those early devices. The world has moved on hugely since then, but this week has laid a final wreath on the grave of a much loved (by me) innovator.

British to the core…

It is not meant as a patriotic boast, but it is certainly remarkable that the ARM processors behind almost all modern mobile phones, the Symbian OS that reigned supreme for so long, the design of iMacs, iPods, iBooks, iPhones and iPads and indeed the world wide web itself have all been largely the work of Britons. Of course, good science and technology depends upon shared resources and Berkeley’s RISC was the foundation of ARM; Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the father of WWW, always maintains that his work was part of an ongoing process, Jony Ive never fails to mention his fellow designers at Apple while Symbian … well, poor old Symbian is all but forgotten these days, indeed Nokia’s stubborn clinging to it is regarded as one reason for the Finnish giant’s less than impressive performance of late – despite the billions of Nokia badged phones that are still used around the world.

Symbian began life in Britain as EPOC, an operating system created for Psion handheld devices. The Psion Organiser 2 was the first really impressive, in my opinion, Personal Digital Assistant. I was a loyal user, indeed had the honour to help with the launch of the Revo in 1999. EPOC’s transformation into Symbian was taken up and run by Nokia, Ericsson and Motorola in an attempt to create some sort of standard Operating System for reasonably low-powered, ARM processor toting mobile phones. It was never entirely standard of course, nothing ever is, all kinds of flavours soon developed, UIQ, S60, Anna and the lord knows what else, but with the Nokia Communicator in 1996 Symbian really managed to strut its stuff as a proto-smartphone OS. You could send emails, browse the web, store contact numbers and calendar entries and even add what we would now call apps – all in monochrome with navigation and control achieved by cursor buttons rather than touchscreen, but for those of us lucky enough to own one it was about as exciting as could be. Val Kilmer used one as Simon Templar in The Saint, I recall, that’s how cool it was.

Shirt pockets…

Across the Atlantic things were moving in a different direction. I became fascinated by the US challenge to the Psion and Communicator, the Palm Pilot, a device which answered a peculiar American imperative in that in could fit into an office worker’s shirt pocket. Corporate Americans wear (usually white) shirts which always have a pocket round about where the left nipple might be on a human being and woe betide any hardware manufacturer who even thinks about producing an object that exceeds this unalterably insistent form factor. The size limitations required Palm to think hard and, like a poet forced into the sonnet form, they came up with marvellous solutions.

The Palm Pilot had a touch sensitive screen, not the capacitative type we now all know and love in the modern smartphone or pad, but the resistive kind which required the use of a stylus, or when lost (as it inevitably was) a finger nail, empty biro or the tip of the arm of a pair of spectacles. Handwriting of a kind could be achieved by forming characters from a cut down, shorthand version of the alphabet known as Graffiti (sideways on but a nostalgic reminder). Graffiti could very easily be mastered and allowed immensely speedy input. I adored it and used it when it reappeared for a while on the Newton, on Sony P900s and even, bless them, early WinMob devices where they called it “block” or something similar. Now it’s available (of course) as a retro app for Android and iOS.

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This blog was posted in Techblog

2 comments on “Palmed Away”

  1. mrgclark says:

    Enjoyed reading your list of phones. I recently bought my wife the HTC Sensation (she’s a fan of both Android and you). I only carry one, an ageing (some say ageLESS) HTC HD2 that now dual boots Windows Phone 7 and Android 2.3.5

    Sad nerds forever!

  2. El_Barto says:

    Hi Stephen

    Thoroughly enjoyed the show. Many memories of previous gadgets that I’d owned.



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