Smartphones – A Personal History – Part 1 2

PCWorld’s “Talk Nerdy to me” email hit my inbox and caught my eye with the title “A Brief History of Smartphones”.

Cool, I’ve been using these since just about the beginning. Let’s take a trip down memory lane. I clicked through and found this:  I was frustrated that it contained no mention of either Windows Mobile or Symbian mobile operating systems, both of which ( IMHO ) were important early mobile operating systems. I’ve never really been a Symbian user, but they still own 44% of the smartphone market – more than Blackberry, iPhone and Android combined.

Instead, the article spent 3 of 9 panels with Android phones, which have only been around for two years.  I felt I could do better just talking about the smartphones and devices that I’ve owned. So here goes:

Personal Digital Assistants

Everex A-15 Manager

I started with a PDA in 1998. My first was an Everex A-15 Manager, one of the first Windows CE devices to use the now-familiar portrait orientation that Palm made popular.  Here’s a contemporary review.

The display was tough to read and battery life, while good by today’s smartphone standards, wasn’t as promised. Everex ( and Microsoft ) referred to these as “Palm Size PC” and their big selling point was the ability to multitask, while Palm’s Pilot could only run one application at a time.  As it turned out, a 66Mhz processor and 8MB of RAM isn’t enough to do it well. I spent as much time killing applications to free up memory as I did using them and Microsoft didn’t see fit to include an easy way to do that. Fortunately there were a lot of third-party applications out there a ( decade ahead of the iPhone ) and plenty of developers made task managers.  Microsoft would fail to learn important memory management lessons from Windows CE 2 and every subsequent Windows Mobile device I would use in the following decade would suffer from similar performance issues.

Everex exited the PDA market in 1999.

Handspring Visor Platinum

My fustrations with the Windows CE operating system pushed me toward the Palm OS, if not their hardware. Handspring made PDA’s with Palm’s OS and their own devices. Palm OS was not capable of multitasking, but “paused” applications and switched them fast enough that it wasn’t really a big deal, particularly if you had lived with the problems that real multitasking gave Windows CE.

While the hardware inside the Visor was not as fast as the Everex, the resulting user experience was far superior. Searching for a contact would take a fraction of a second, rather than the 20-30 seconds it could take with Windows CE. Battery life was better, but the display was not really much of an improvement. Still, I loved my Handspring.


Somewhere around this time I started using a Motorola StarTac “wearable” cell phone, the first really small cell phone.

I was still carrying my Handspring for all my contacts.

Putting the Two Together

What set Handspring’s devices apart from Palm’s own line of PDA’s was their Springboard Expansion slot in the top/back. Springboard modules were available to fit into the PDA to add software or hardware capabilities. Games, reference material, GPS, WI-FI, even a phone module called the Visorphone.

I was tempted by the prospect of having my contacts integrated into the phone and carrying one less device. Mobile email and limited web surfing were attractive as well. However, I got a Geodiscovery Geode GPS springboard module for my Handspring and found that the PDA portion was very dependent on the third party software to make it work well. The Geode hardware was good, the software turned out to be garbage.

The Visorphone used a different cell carrier than I was using and I didn’t want to incur the rather major charges to switch. In the end I never used my Handspring as a Phone, but it introduced me to the concept. Within a year, Handspring had introduced their first integrated smartphone ( Treo ) and by 2003 were purchased by Palm.

Next time: I get an actual smartphone.

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