A look back at early smartphones and PDAs

For anyone born this century, it’s probably hard to imagine that there was life before the iPhone existed. Fifteen years after the first iPhone went on sale, we all got used to the ubiquitous device in our lives.

The iPhone was not the first smartphone, but it was the first smartphone that appealed to ordinary people. Of course I’m not regular people: I’m a geek who owned a whole bunch of digital devices that predated the iPhone…

Life before the iPhone: PDAs

Once upon a time, people carried their calendars, contacts, and other important information on paper — with Filofax the paper equivalent of the iPhone. This was a portable ring binder system where you buy dozens of different attachments, from different calendar layouts to expense reports.

My first move to a digital version came in 1984—the year the Macintosh was released—in the form of the Psion Organizer. Then in 1986 I upgraded to the much more useful Model II. This looked like a calculator with letters instead of numbers. It had a mono LCD with one line and a protective cover for the alphabetic keyboard. No communication capabilities unless you have purchased the optional RS-232 interface to connect it to a computer via cable.

I988 saw the launch of the much more pocketable Casio digital diary† This had the clunkiest user interface imaginable, including a pressure-sensitive keyboard (think bubble wrap), but the portability was truly incredible.


A PDA I did not buy was the Apple Newton! I’d never had the best handwriting in the world, and from the early 80’s I was already doing most things on computers, not paper, so a handwriting-based device didn’t interest me.

I think I’ve probably gone through a few generations of Digital Diaries or something like that, but the next device I can remember buying was the Psion 5mx in 1999. While PDAs were still standalone devices, this was the first device that provided Internet access via an infrared connection to a smartphone – in my case the beloved Nokia 8110, also known as the Bananaphone. The great thing about the 5mx was the fact that in terms of functionality it was pretty much a laptop in a form factor that could fit in a larger jacket pocket. It also had an absolutely incredible keyboard for such a small device.

Life Before iPhone: Early Smartphones

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

The keyboard was a big step back and I didn’t like the user interface that much, but it really was an incredible device for its time. It fits in a regular sports jacket pocket. On the outside it was a telephone. Inside it was a PDA. Six years before the iPhone, it was a phone, an Internet device, and a music—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 part in its development, leading consumer focus groups to get reactions to the concept. This was a super-pocket device with a stylus, but a flip-up flap revealed a keyboard. The keyboard wasn’t the best, but the business proved irresistible and after using a prototype for a while, he finally bought one when it launched in 2002.

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

Then came the iPhone

When the iPhone launched in 2007, Steve Jobs famously joked about the kind of devices I’d had before. No one wants to use a stylus, he explained, when you 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 form factor. But it was those early devices that paved the way and created the market that would rock Apple.

Those are my memories, and yours? If you’re old enough to have had portable digital devices before the iPhone, share your memories in the comments.

Main photo: snowman radioWikipedia

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