A look back at early smartphones and PDAs

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

The iPhone wasn’t the first smartphone – but it was the first smartphone to appeal to ordinary people. Of course, I’m not ordinary people: I’m a geek who owned a whole bunch of the digital devices which preceded the iPhone …

Life before the iPhone: PDAs

Once upon a time, people carried their diaries, contacts, and other key information in paper form – with Filofax the paper equivalent of the iPhone. This was a portable ring-binder system for which you buy scores of different inserts, from different diary layouts to expenses sheets.

My first move to a digital version came in 1984 – the year the Macintosh came out – in the form of the Psion Organiser. I then upgraded to the far more usable model II in 1986. This looked every bit like a calculator with letters instead of numbers. It had a single-line mono LCD display, and a protective cover for the alphabetic keyboard. No communication capabilities unless you bought the optional RS-232 interface to connect it to a computer via a cable.

I988 saw the launch of the much more pocketable Casio Digital Diary. This had the clunkiest user-interface you could possibly imagine, including a pressure-sensitive keyboard (think bubble-wrap), but the portability was truly incredible.


One PDA I did not buy was the Apple Newton! I’d never had the best handwriting in the world, and from the early 80s already did most things on computers, not paper, so a handwriting-based device had no interest for me.

I think I probably went through a few generations of Digital Diaries or similar, but the next device I can remember buying was the Psion 5mx in 1999. Although PDAs were still standalone devices, this was the first one to offer Internet access via an infrared connection to a smartphone – in my case, the much-loved Nokia 8110, aka the Bananaphone. The great thing about the 5mx was the fact that, feature-wise, it was pretty much a laptop in a form factor which fit into a larger coat 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. This effectively combined the functionality of the Psion 5mx with a phone, and was my first device with on-board Internet access.

The keyboard was a big step back, and I didn’t like the user-interface as much, but it was a truly incredible device for its time. It fit into an ordinary sports jacket pocket. On the outside, it was a phone. On the inside, it was a PDA. Six years before the iPhone, it was a phone, an internet device, and a music– Ok, 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 the development of this, running consumer focus groups to get reactions to the concept. This was a super-pocketable device with a stylus, but a lift-up flap revealed a keyboard. The keyboard wasn’t the best, but the pocketability proved irresistible, and after having the use of a prototype for a while, ended up buying 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 much smaller. Made by HTC as the HTC Apache, it was sold under a variety of names by different companies and carriers. I think my first one was called the Windows Pocket PC.

Then came the iPhone

At the iPhone launch in 2007, Steve Jobs famously made fun of the sorts of devices I’d owned beforehand. Nobody wants to use a stylus, he declared, when you could instead use your finger. And he laughed at the idea of ​​a hardware keyboard as a waste of space.

He was of course right, and it wasn’t long before the rest of the smartphone industry emulated the form factor of the iPhone. But it was those early devices which paved the way, and created the market which Apple would turn upside-down.

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

Main photo: Snowmanradio/Wikipedia.

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