Gizmos and Gadgets from Newton to iPhone – Charting the evolution of the PDA
Thinking back I guess my fascination with gadgets and gizmos started with my brother’s calculator. In May 1979, and at his request, he received for his birthday a Commodore PR100. I remember helping my parents with the gift-wrap. The one feature that got me really interested in it was the fact that it was a programmable calculator. One of the programs in the tutorial was to randomly display numbers from 1 < 6. I recall attempting to play a game of ‘Monopoly’, the calculator replacing the traditional rolling of the die. It soon broke into farce however since it wasn’t possible to easily pause the numbers when negotiating the purchase of the ‘Electric Company’, and ‘Monopoly’ as you soon discover, is a game best played with two dice. With my birthday due later in the year, I argued the case for a second ‘PR100’ birthday gift (to take the role of the second die). My parents stalwartly refused declaring that one was sufficient.
Several ‘Casio’ calculators and numerous electronic watches later and in 1996 my love of gadgets came to a peak as I bought an ‘Apple Newton Message Pad 120’ (complete with the optional external AC adaptor). One neat feature that proved to be pretty useful was the fact that the Newton could ‘audibly play’ the telephone/fax number you wanted to dial through an integral speaker. An interesting experiment at the time proved that by placing the Newton’s speaker near to the mouthpiece of an old analogue telephone had the effect of making your finger redundant when dialing the number. Later on I discovered by chance the same feature made it possible to connect to another number without having to pay (when using a public phone box connected to a non-digital telephone exchange). Perhaps if Apple had highlighted this feature in their marketing the Newton would have been more than just an executive toy.
I got my first mobile phone, a Nokia 6110 shortly after. In terms of it’s dimensions the phone itself seemed almost as long as the Newton but much fatter. (Sadly, I don’t have it anymore but then it proved so uncomfortable to carry around that pretty much everyone I knew, myself included, started to wear what we affectionately called ‘utility belts’ these were little pouches especially designed to accommodate bulky phones. If I’d tried to attach my Newton to my belt I’m sure my trousers’ would have fallen down. The physical size of the Newton was a real disadvantage and despite version 2.0 of the Newton’s OS allowing users to switch from portrait to landscape mode, which benefited the stylus user and facilitated the attempted spelling of three syllable words. It was time for a change.
By 1997 I’d saved up enough money to buy the smaller Psion Organizer (series 5) to replace the Newton. I’d tired quickly of the Newton’s ‘innovative stylus technology with hand writing recognition’ (read: gimmicky) to realize that actually a keyboard was best. The Newton wasn’t able to keep up with the speed of my typing. The Psion I remember really did have a great little Qwerty keyboard but then within a couple of months I was starting to regret the purchase – a colleague showed me his Palm Pilot that allowed him to access his email account. It was pretty cool on the connectivity front since it had network synchronization over TCP/IP. Connectivity was becoming more important and the Palm Pilot was really the leader since it also had an optional 14.4 modem. Palm at the time was a subsidiary of US Robotics; the future for Palm on the connectivity front looked promising. Then disaster; within a few months US Robotics were themselves acquired by 3Com.
Such was the pace of change and consolidation in the PDA market at this time that shortly after I’d saved enough to buy a Palm Pilot other friends had migrated to use Handspring Visors, another new PDA but this time one that had a USB port which meant that connectivity with a desktop computer was event better. Handspring was set up by the original developers of the PalmPilot who deserted after 3Com stepped in. The Handspring Visor used the same PalmOS but the actual units were still pretty large by comparison to mobile phone technology which was getting smaller and smaller.
Tired with the utility belt and the cost of replacing stylus after stylus I got myself a Samsung phone which was not only cheap but looking back also ridiculously small for normal sized fingers. That was a mistake as the functionality of the phone didn’t really live up to much. It was after all simply a phone but so small I kept dialing the wrong number. The next few years I switched, swapped, up-graded, side-graded in my searching for the elusive perfect ‘smart-phones’ I changed rapidly from Nokia, to Sony Ericsson, back to Nokia, to Motorola and then in 2004 back to Sony Ericsson with the introduction of the P910. In my quest for ‘smart-phone utopia’ I was happier with the P910 than I was with it’s successor, the P990i where connectivity was a bigger problem. Despite Sony Ericsson stating that the phone was going to ‘sync’ with MacOS I never managed to get it working and couldn’t even get the Bluetooth to connect to my existing Sony Ericsson hands-free headset. It then developed a loose battery connection so that every time it rang (when on vibrate) it would turn itself off. It came with a spare stylus but loosing two in one week I soon realised that I needed to change again. The other thing that annoyed me was that Sony Ericsson would change the AC power connector (seemingly with each new model) and so I ended up with 3 or 4 redundant phone chargers all with slightly different connections.
In 2007 I got my first BlackBerry, a Blackberry Pearl 8110. I could actually charge it with my old Motorola chargers since they both shared the same mini USB connecter. It is a great phone and a good smart device but not perfect. Whilst it physically connected to my Mac it still didn’t ‘Sync’ without the use of a 3rd-party bit of software called ‘The Missing Sync for BlackBerry’. Whilst it is a great bit of software I’ve often thought that really the manufacturer should be developing the connectivity software not a third party.
Last week my new iPhone 3G arrived. It connects to our VPN and our Exchange Server = Neat! It allows me to zoom into email attachments and read them; It shows me the contacts I add on my PC within seconds (without duplication). It’s early days but it looks promising, working well with fewer glitches than anything else I’ve tried… Hopefully I’ll not be able to loose the stylus (since it’s actually my finger) and best of all, I can now take pictures of my two children having fun whilst dancing to the sound of my MP3 collection.
Whilst there’s no handwriting recognition one other important bit of über coolness is that I can administrate the Universal Type Server running on my MacBook Pro just using my iPhone. The only things I think that are missing from the iPhone is Adobe Flash for Safari – when Flash eventually comes out for the iPhone I’ll be able to administrate the Universal Type Server User Management Application too!
Almost forgot, if someone reading this could develop an iPhone App that mimics the random throwing of dice I’d like to finish that game of Monopoly.