This is not a story that charts the exact history of mobile computing nor is it a trivial account of the process we have gone through to get to the iPhone and other smartphones that make up our mobile computing lives today. It is built from my personal experience of using mobile computers, in all their variants, over the past two decades. It looks back at the trials and difficulties these products have brought with them and the place we find ourselves today. I am British and so this book has a UK bias, but I guess there is little I can do to change that. This means that the first section, focussed on Psion, may seem alien to you, but the rest should not. In comparison to what has been, today is a mobile utopia that we should all be grateful for and I hope to explain why without delving into too many specifics or too much geeky detail.
Potter’s Scientific Instruments
In 1991 very few of us were aware of the digital age that was about to change so much in our lives. The personal computer, as we know it today, was not a product that every home put a roof over. People used Atari’s, Commodore 64’s and Amstrads with some IBM clones found in a few large businesses and in the bedrooms of the serious computer geeks. Windows 3.0 was a year old and most computers that could run it were way out of reach, in financial terms, of the average person. And even if they were a quarter of the price, most would not understand why they needed one. Life worked as it was- we contacted each other using landlines or post and the thought that everything took time to complete never entered our minds as a problem. It was normal and it was, looking back now, serene. Then again, everything looks easier when you think back and I am sure that many people were just as stressed as the 14 hours a day business people of today.
And so it was that Psion launched the Psion Series 3 personal digital assistant onto an unsuspecting world. This tiny device included an agenda which could display your activities in a variety of different views, a spreadsheet, word processor, programming language and much more. It sounds brilliant in a time when personal computers were things other people used (those with beards and ill-fitting trousers), but Psion’s main problem was that nobody needed a PDA. OK, some did, those who were obsessed with their Filofaxes, but the vast majority of people wandered through life without the need to plan their calendar, spreadsheets were way beyond the chequebook stubs that formed all of their financial planning, and writing a letter with something called a pen felt more personal than typing it on a tiny keyboard.
My life did not need a Psion, but I bought one because I had previously bought a Casio Organiser that could do sod all. The Psion was a revelation to me and became my gateway drug into a world of mobile computing that still survives within me to this day. One single aspect of the Psion charmed me above all else and that was the ability to do so much in such a small space. It’s almost impossible to describe the sensation, but when you hold an object that can do more than you thought possible and which is able to hold more information than you have readily available in your head at any time, something clicks and the feeling stays with you. And this was at a time when the internet was unheard of and so all of the information I needed was held on shelves in my local library. Of course it doesn’t seem small now, but at the time I had never used a normal PC and the Atari STE was my only other experience of a modern computer. The fact that the Psion was so easy to use helped a lot and in comparison to any other electronic devices at the time, video recorders included, it engrossed me immediately and I was completely overwhelmed by the power that I could now carry with me. It is hard to remember back so far and to quantify the exact feelings I experienced at the time, but I now realise that Psion managed to create the first ‘computer’ that could be picked up and understood in minutes. No code to learn, no booting up, no installation discs and no incomprehensible instruction manual. You had to insert 2 AA batteries and turn it on- the rest could be learnt in an hour and away you would go. I loved those first few hours; adding contacts and appointments that I didn’t need to remember, checking world times for countries I would never visit and so on. It was completely unnecessary, but quickly became a part of my life anyway.
As time passed, so the Psion range of PDAs became more powerful. The Psion Series 3a was the perfect follow-up to the 3 and offered more screen, more power and more everything else. The Series 5 machines, especially the 5MX, redefined what a portable computer should be and to this day they still have a loyal following. The keyboard was a master stroke and we have not seen such a competent data entry solution that was so elegantly made since. It had the feel of a full-sized keyboard yet it sat in such a small space and I remember well taking copious minutes in meetings and writing long articles with my loyal Psion 5. The Revo was designed to appeal to those who wanted a smaller device and the Psion 7 is to this day a usable replacement for a laptop for many tasks. The keyboard and screen, and especially the stunning battery life, are ideal for anyone who wants to write or create anything else with words. The internet and many other tasks are a push of course, but for writing the Psion 7 is still up there with the very best.
Psion absolutely nailed portable computing in a time when people were not interested and it is saddening, and maddening, that they peaked too early. They made the error of not marketing their products in much larger markets such as the US and ultimately their time in the mobile consumer market ended with barely a whimper. I look back at the Psion years and realise that in some areas they have still not been beaten. 30 days of battery life and data entry that cannot be touched by screens you touch today with your chubby little fingers. The way the apps worked together was remarkably efficient and stable; sketches could be added to calendar entries and almost every other standard Psion app was compatible with all of the others. It is a feature that no other PDA or smartphone manufacturer has been able to master apart from maybe Sony with their Clie TH55 PDA. Even that solution was not without a heavy amount of clunkiness and so I leave it to Psion to have been the only mobile company to make the core apps work seamlessly together, almost 20 years ago. Psion killed the PDA model (in a good way) and the public’s understandable lack of interest killed Psion in this market, and so we had to reluctantly move on. It took a lot of time for me to let go of the simplicity, grace and sheer efficiency of Psion, but eventually I managed to move to Palm OS. There were, however, other players in the mobile computing market during the Psion years.
Apples don’t fall far from the tree
Many people, particularly in the US, believe that Apple invented the PDA when the Newton was launched. This is of course incorrect because Psion were there some time previously with the Psion Organiser (1984) and Psion 3 (1991). The first Newton was debuted in 1993 and was called the MessagePad 100. A cursory glance at the Newton and its features highlight many of the traits we know well from Apple today; an emphasis on the aesthetic, features that had not been seen before and ambition running though the entire idea and ultimately the product itself. However, this type of device was a non-starter here in the UK. We were not prepared to carry around such a large device at the time and to this day remain cautious of new technology. I know people who are still embarrassed to use their mobile phones in public, lots of people in the UK took time to be able to use a tablet in public and the typical British reserve will always get new and different devices off to a slow start.
In the case of the Newton, it surely deserved to fail. It was big, heavy, the original handwriting recognition was dreadful and, like the Psions, was way ahead of its time. We can look back at the Newton now and see the genius within it. The design still looks acceptable today and the software onboard is impressive to say the least. In some ways Apple beat Psion at the ‘making a PDA look like a diary’ game in terms of software, but the device itself was always an oddity that didn’t feel right for the time, or any time for that matter. Just like Apple computers of that period, it was expensive and not accessible by the majority. The Newton OS actually found its way to devices built by other companies such as Sharp and Motorola, but it was a case of everyone trying something new and seeing what would stick. Nothing did and Steve Jobs killed it when he returned to Apple at the tail end of 1996.
I actually owned a Newton many years later following a hasty purchase on eBay. Despite some initial enjoyment trying to navigate the lovely interface, I put it up for sell the next day and never did get to know a device that some still love to this day. Despite my personal dislike for the product, or rather my lack of understanding, I have nothing but admiration for the effort and desire to make something different in a time when there was nothing else like it on the market. The Newton holds a lesser place in mobile computing history purely because Apple has created huge successes ever since and so this particular product will forever remain a memory that most Apple people would rather forget.
Endless piles of crap
In early 1997 I bought a pile of crap and it was called the Hewlett Packard 300LX. Microsoft had decided that it wanted a piece of the mobile computing pie and built Windows CE to power handheld PDAs. I saw it on the shelf in my local electronics dealer and had to have it. I was perfectly happy with my Psion, but this was new and offered something completely different and I could even place the icons on the screen anywhere I wanted. Wow! It had a Start button and felt like a Windows computer. By that I mean that it was slow, crashed a lot and was difficult to use.
The keyboard was awful and so was the screen, and the weight and size made it less than practical. In fact, it had no redeeming features at all and I will never understand why I felt the need to invest a lot of money into it. Besides the complete lack of choice in the PDA market at the time, I have no excuse for buying one. Or for then trying to rectify the problem by buying countless other Windows powered PDAs. You see, they starting to launch in all sorts of shapes and sizes and I could buy one that was the size of a small laptop, the size of a large Palm PDA or a hinged model with a screen. So much choice and so many ways of working, but the same old ‘crap’ software running each of them. There is no excuse for continually peddling rubbish to the public and no excuse for buying these things, but I did.
It was a complete regression from the simplicity and elegance of the Psion PDAs and the only thing going for it was the tweakability factor that had the real geeks drooling over each successive model. It carried on like this until ‘Pocket PC’ was coined, an admittedly brilliant name, and the world started to take notice. I remember showing a friend of mine how my HP Jornada Pocket PC worked and he was amazed. In fact, he was so amazed he bought one the same day. At no point over the preceding 7 years had anyone been amazed by any of my Psions, but they had liked the way the keyboards slid in and out of the devices when I opened and closed them.
A few weeks later my friend and I met up for a drink again and we both had one word to describe our Jornadas. ‘Crap’.
Over the next couple of years I bought various Windows powered PDAs and none of them lasted more than a couple of months before they found their way to eBay. Some offered fancy new features like voice recognition and others lots of memory and smarter screens, but still the undeniable truth remained. They were clunky, slow and unreliable.
The first beautiful mobile computer
I found myself moving over to Palm OS in desperation, as seemingly did millions of other people who liked the simplicity and speed that the efficient software offered. The software didn’t feel too technical and it was exceptionally easy to understand. This was still a time when many people did not use the internet or home computers every day and so Palm, or rather Jeff Hawkins, did well to create a solution that fitted the time perfectly. It all came together with the launch of the Palm V in 1999, the very first mobile computer / PDA to offer styling as well as function. From a style perspective it was a much bigger leap than the original iPhone was. Think about it- look at the PDAs available in 1999 and then look at the Palm V. It is years ahead in aesthetic beauty and to this day still retains a sense of consistency over every part of the design. The aluminium finish, the buttons at the base and the simplicity of the operating system blended perfectly and the experience was as good as it got at the turn of the century. It dispensed with sheer power and replaced it with usability. This is a trend that comes back time and time again in the mobile industry when we talk about success. People don’t want to use computers, they have to use them and so it makes sense to make your solution feel as little like a computer as you possibly can.
Palm took its time to develop the system and the hardware that came with it, a strategy that works today, and so the incremental updates brought us the m500 series. Colour screens, expansion slots and an even smarter design had millions of hardened Palm users wetting themselves over the minimal changes and it all felt good. Subtle and slow improvements with familiarity running alongside every step of the way. However, 2001 is not 2012 and back then the majority of PDA users were more on the geeky side than smartphone users are today. They were used to fiddling with their devices, hacking them and manually installing apps etc. It was how things were done and the cry for more features and better screens got ever louder. The majority were still happy with simplicity of course, but the limitations were obvious and mobile computing was on the cusp of reaching out and offering an advanced experience as opposed to the limited features of PDAs at the time.
From nowhere, Sony popped up with something called a Clie. The first models were not noticeably better than the official Palm PDAs, but they included a Jog Wheel and small changes that some preferred. And then they dropped the N series upon us, a PDA with a 320×320 pixel screen! Yes, oh yes! It sounds pitiful now, but if you used a Palm PDA back then, the high resolution screen on the catchily named Sony CLIÉ PEG-N760C and other devices was a huge leap forward. 16bit colour, a 33 MHz Dragonball processor, an MP3 player and Memory Stick support were leaps that put Palm OS on a par with Pocket PC in terms of specs while retaining the simplicity of the easier to use operating system. It created a confused market- Pocket PC 2002 PDAs were shipping with 240×320 pixel screens and there were even some Pocket PC powered smartphones (trust me, you don’t want to know about them), Palm OS was shipping in traditional mode by Palm Inc. and Sony were selling the more advanced Clie.
Sony continued to build Clie devices and released a total of 32 different models. The hardware began to vary wildly from devices with digital cameras built in alongside screens that could be spun around and snapped shut. Hardware keyboards in landscape on the UX models and portrait on the NX series. Super slim PDAs, super thick PDAs and everything in between. Sony went big into PDAs and produced a model for everyone, but one stands out as a missed opportunity- the Sony CLIÉ PEG-TH55.
The TH55 was special. Not only did it have a 320×480 pixel screen, but you could actually use it in bright sunlight with no problems at all. This was the first colour device I remember that could do that. The software was tweaked to allow a calendar that could accept drawings, images and all sorts of data from other apps- very much like the Psion implementation, but not quite as stable. The battery would last for days on one charge, the design was stunning (apart from the dinky buttons at the bottom) and everything about it screamed practicality and ‘I am way ahead of my time’. It truly was and if only Sony had bothered to put a mobile antenna on it, I could have been writing about a completely different smartphone history.
Alas, Sony decided to terminate the Clie range of PDAs in 2005 and their brief, but spectacular entry into the world of mobile computing was over. It represented one of many mis-steps the company has made over the past decade; jumping out of a market just before it explodes and jumping into markets as they are imploding. The once great Sony has continued to decline, despite still being a huge company, and we can trace the problems back to October 23rd, 2001.
On that date Steve Jobs announced the iPod. “1,000 songs in your pocket” was the main tag line used to sell it and boy did that work. It arrived at a time when MP3 players were simply dreadful- they had limited capacity, they sounded awful and the process for moving songs from a PC to the player was akin to programming a video recorder, but even more difficult. The market for digital music was still in its infancy and it was with surprise that Apple launched it onto the world. A company that had only recently come out of the doldrums and was starting to show promise all of a sudden shocked everyone with a product that was way ahead of any other device on the market. I mean, way way way ahead.
We can look back at that moment and consider it the very start of the next decade of mobile evolution and one that marked a shift away from working on your device to enjoying it. Nine months before the iPad came the birth of iTunes and, perhaps more importantly, the recognition from publishers that digital music was the way forward. To this day, the industry is still fraught with suspicion, arguments and piracy, but it is here to stay for multiple formats aside from and including music. The iPod showed people what was possible and everything from the design of the product, the wonderfully intuitive click-wheel, the simplistic software, the sound quality and sheer speed made it a wonderful product that was priced very attractively for what it was.
Strangely, as the years passed the iPod remained a standalone music product that grew to become compatible with a small number of games and to play videos on some models. Music remained at its heart, however, and to this day, the iPod Classic and Nano still sell in surprisingly big numbers. The PDA, and growing smartphone, market continued apace alongside, but separate from, the iPod and so this is how Apple continued until a dramatic change 6 years later. Despite efforts by PDA makers such as Sony to add MP3 capability to their mobile products, none of them really cracked it and no PDA in history touched the iPod for mobile music playback. Heck, Sony couldn’t even make a standalone MP3 player that would sell after the iPod, even if some of its models offered better sound quality. It was VHS vs. Betamax all over again except that arguably the best product won this time around.
Nokia: too big to fail?
While all of this was happening, Nokia was dominating the rapidly expanding mobile phone market. If you wanted a mobile phone with decent battery life, exceptional build quality and of course snap-on covers, you would buy a Nokia. In 2003 the Nokia 110 was launched and 100’s of millions of units later the company was laughing all the way to the bank. Further successes followed and some of the early GSM phones from Nokia were exceptionally good at doing a couple of things; texting and talking.
During the boom years, Nokia also tried to bring ‘smart’ to the mobile phone with a series of Communicator devices and other phones built upon the Symbian operating system. This itself was a descendant of EPOC which came from Psion. Yes, back to Psion again, but for people like me the chance to use a Psion-type device again was exciting. Unfortunately, to this day I have never used a Symbian phone that offered the grace and ease of use Psions did.
There were some great devices along the way that offered excellent text entry, superb battery performance and of course above average voice calling, but for me there has always been the sense that other platforms are more flexible and more suited to the needs of the majority. Throughout the early years of PDAs and smartphones, Nokia never managed to gain enough developer interest to create a wide choice of great quality apps that could compete with Windows Mobile / Pocket PC and Palm OS. It was always seen as the lesser option for those who wanted to try new apps and extend the capabilities of their mobile device. The operating system was partly to blame, but the general opinion was that the vast majority of Nokia users would never install apps or even be aware of their existence. This is of course just a perception, but the fact remains that even the smartest of Nokia phones were not well supported by apps.
All of the above is said in the context that Nokia held by far and away the largest market share for mobile phones for many years. The problem for Nokia was that it tied itself to Symbian long after it was obvious that the operating system was not competitive. As you will read further on, this is not an uncommon mistake and Nokia is far from alone in doing this.
Palm continued to plug away at creating PDAs that were bigger, thinner and more powerful, but little changed from the m500 series PDAs all the way through to the large and extremely unreliable (in my experience) Tungsten T5. The T3 was brilliant and I knew lots of people who owned them, but it was still a PDA and times were changing. Palm did, however, release a PDA called the LifeDrive in 2005 which included 4GB of storage, a large 3.9″ high resolution screen and many of the design cues we love today. It was ahead of its time, but alas too far ahead and a few niggles consigned it to the ‘close, but no cigar’ box of mobile computers.
Two years prior to the LifeDrive something strange happened. The Treo 600 was launched in November 2003 and sported a low resolution 160×160 pixel screen, a big body and a huge antenna at the top with a thumb keyboard below the screen. It didn’t blow people away at all and was a bit of a pain to use if I am honest. I remember well wondering how I could ever leave a PDA and use a phone / PDA if they were all like this and looking back, I think the low resolution screen was a big factor because I had been used to 3 times more pixels on other Palm OS PDAs.
Now the strange part follows with the Treo 650. It was effectively the same phone, but with a 320×320 pixel display and better specs all round. On the outside little had changed, but this phone quickly became the very first mass market smartphone and still holds legendary status among people like me who get excited about this sort of thing.
I remember taking my son to Disneyland in 2006 and seeing American after American carrying a Treo on their belt. It was the phone of choice for those who wanted something more sophisticated which goes against the whole idea of carrying a phone on your belt, but cultural differences are what they are and won’t be changing any time soon. It seemed as though everyone had a Treo and when I look back and think hard, it truly was the smartphone that worked.
The Treo was the first smartphone to offer PDA and phone capability and 1) make them work together and 2) not make either feel like an afterthought and this is why it became so popular. There were problems with the amount of dynamic memory on board which caused it to crash quite often, but for app availability, battery performance and almost everything else it shone. Sadly, it was the last great device from Palm because time caught up with the company and the operating system was not capable of running on 3G phones. It had also reached the point where little else could be done to improve it and so the continual selling of variations of the Treo was doomed to failure. Palm needed something new and these years of relative stagnation were instrumental in killing off one of the biggest and brightest players in the middling era of mobile computing. The fact that Palm sold Windows Mobile smartphones also highlighted problems on the hardware side, namely an inability to create new hardware every year. Palm just didn’t have the resources to do so at this time, no one did.
Windows goes mobile
During the Treo era, Windows Mobile had proved itself to be a decent mobile operating system and was now considered to be the best and the one with the brightest future by most smart mobile users. In terms of sales it was doing particularly well and you can look back now and call it the Android of its day. Multiple handset styles, multiple manufacturers and complete flexibility in what you wanted to do with a phone- yes, Android.
HTC grew quickly during this time and so did Fujitsu, but Samsung and most of the other big names today were bit-part players in an industry that didn’t seem to quite know where it was heading. Some wonderful phones were created, such as the TyTn II, and the choice available was varied if you were happy to put up with lacklustre voice performance, an irritating feature of almost every Windows Mobile phone I used.
Unlike Palm, Microsoft had an operating system that could be developed and keep up with the modern era of telecommunications, but just like Palm, the company had no idea what was just around the corner.
I should take a moment to mention RIM and its BlackBerry platform. Time was when almost every business person who was issued with a phone by their employer was given a BlackBerry. The security built in to the platform was integral to the needs of the organisations buying the phones. The ease of use and stability was required for continued work and the users quickly became addicted to having emails and communication with them 24 hours a day.
It could not have gone any better for RIM and until relatively recently the company was boasting huge sales, huge profits and a reputation to be envied. I will come back to RIM later because the next segment is important in determining the way things turned out.
January 9th, 2007
Rumours had circulated that Apple was making a phone the hype was beginning to grow. This happened despite the quite dreadful Motorola Rokr that had been released in 2005 and which was designed to work with iTunes. The Rokr highlighted everything that was wrong with mobile phones at the time and for it to have come from a partnership between Motorola and Apple still shocks people to this day. Not the Motorola part of course.
On January 8th, 2007 no one gave a hoot about smartphones. They were for people like me who didn’t really need one and who just had one because I was a nerd. On January 10th, 2007 at work, so many people I knew were talking about the iPhone and how ‘amazing’ it looked.
This did not happen by chance simply because it was a nice looking phone. It included features and subtle navigation tricks that were quite simply remarkable at the time. ‘Slide to unlock’ is such an invisible thing in 2012, but I was blown away by the movement in 2007. Pinching to zoom photos, visual voicemail, scrolling through lists and the little bump when the software reached the end. It was completely different to the stylus driven phones and PDAs that people had used until that time and it was a huge leap forward in human / machine interaction, and it was magical. It truly was.
The original iPhone couldn’t run third party apps, it did not support 3G and it was basic at best when taken as a whole, but it sold by the bucketload to millions of people who still used normal phones and who wanted some of the magic. Quite rightly, many criticised the original iPhone for being somewhat dumb in comparison to Windows Mobile, BlackBerry, Symbian and even Palm OS. It surely was and the words coming from the main players in the market agreed; it’s very expensive, it doesn’t do anything, it doesn’t have a proper keyboard. It sold 700,000 units in the first weekend in America.
Despite the public words, it has been documented since that there was panic behind the scenes at RIM and elsewhere the day after the iPhone was announced. Understandable of course, but still the words downplaying the iPhone were spoken and little changed on mobile platforms that were not made by Apple. The fact of the matter is that no one else could make a phone that was anything like the iPhone and they knew it.
I vividly remember attending the launch of the original HTC Touch in London on June 5th, 2007. It was radically different to previous Windows Mobile phones from HTC and Peter Chou explained that the company had been working on this handset for quite some time. The sense in the room as he said those words was silent scepticism, but how would I know how long it takes to build a completely new type of smartphone? Was it possible to build one in 147 days? It seemed possible at the time because the HTC Touch was not great and felt cheap in almost every area. It felt rushed and despite some nice software touches, it lacked the spark that made a smartphone feel as if it could enhance your life. It was a bit of a gimmick and one that should probably not have been released as early as it was. Those 147 days would be from January 9th to June 5th by the way.
The iPhone had caught the imagination of the world, but Apple had also managed to restrict the number of people who could buy it by offering it to select carriers only. AT&T in America, O2 in the UK and so on. Some were happy that Apple had wrestled some power away from the mobile operators, mostly those in America and for good reason, but others preferred the power to be in the hands of the operators. The entire mobile industry change forever after the iPhone. This was far from a good move in my eyes, but that is what happened and the iPhone phenomenon grew slowly enough that the rest of the industry carried on as normal for a while, completely oblivious to what was happening.
When I say normal, they still persevered with the operating systems they were making and continued to make enhanced versions of their previous phones, but the mad dash to make touch screen phones without keyboards was all too obvious for everyone to see. No matter what your opinion of the iPhone’s impact is, when you look at smartphones before and after the iPhone the difference is stark. Not all phones, granted, but the majority of devices that manufacturers put real money behind became touch screened over night. That is not a coincidence. No single device completely changed the mobile industry as much as the iPhone, not the Treo or any other product.
The new Palm
Palm, as I noted earlier, was struggling and needed to do something to compete in a market that was now immeasurably larger than any it had competed in previously. The lacklustre hardware releases and lack of updates from the company led many to believe that the end was nigh, but in January 2009 webOS was shown to the world.
I remember expecting little before the event and then watching the launch video and thinking ‘Wow, they have actually done it.’ I was genuinely impressed by what was shown and felt that the operating system offered a completely new experience that could rival iOS for ease of use. Indeed, it looked better and more sophisticated in many areas than iOS and so we waited for the first webOS smartphones to become available.
And what a let down they were. Palm managed to take a brilliant mobile operating system and stick it into sub-standard hardware that had many obvious flaws. Battery life was questionable, the phones felt very small and I have to say that they were quite feminine in appearance. I’m no sexist, but I still believe this to be one of the big problems with the Palm Pre, and the device size and relatively cheap feel led far too many to think it was quite nice, but not good enough to pay money for.
HP bought Palm in April 2010 and managed to mess things up even further with vaguely improved smartphone hardware that never shipped and the HP TouchPad which made the BlackBerry PlayBook look good. webOS is now open-source and who knows where it will go in the future? There is still a small possibility that one of the smartphone manufacturers who is struggling with other platforms will use it, but it would be more realistic to presume that Palm OS and everything that followed it will remain a nice memory and little more.
Four years previous to the iPhone, Android, Inc was founded and in 2005, Google bought the company. Very little was known about the products the company was working on or what they could become, but in October 2008 the T-Mobile G-1 was launched in America and we all got a glimpse of a different way of using our smartphones. Truth be told, the Android system at the time was not much to speak of and looked like a modernised version of Windows Mobile. The phone itself didn’t help the perception either because it was an odd shape, the battery life was appalling and it all felt a little outdated.
However, Google and Android appeared at exactly the right time because Windows Mobile was dying quickly and Symbian was being used by fewer manufacturers and remained very much a Nokia product. BlackBerry was on its own under the stewardship of RIM and so the likes of HTC, Samsung, LG and the rest needed something new to play with. There was no way that Apple would ever license iOS and so Android (which was free to license by the way) suddenly found various partners only too happy to give it a home.
To call it a success would be an understatement because in just 26 months following the launch of the G1 it became the most popular mobile operating system of all. Where Android has a big advantage is that it is open and so the manufacturers, users and app developers have more choice and more control over how they want things to work. It is completely opposite to Apple’s approach which is designed purely to offer a smooth experience which is shaped by the wishes of the company. Apple believes it knows best and so certain tasks are off limits to iPhone users. The Google approach with Android has some drawbacks, however, and these have been well publicised.
The first problem has been rogue apps (malware) that have taken people’s information or much worse. Google does not check all apps available for Android and, to a point, it is an open playing field for good developers and those with seedier intentions. Piracy is not talked about so much, but for app developers it is a problem that could stop them developing for the platform, no matter how popular it is. It’s a double-edged sword because with the openness comes freedom, but with Apple’s closed system comes reassurance. Potentially this is one of the major differences that people think about when choosing Android or iOS, but of course there is so much more that needs to be considered as well. Actually, I take that back, most smartphone buyers don’t know the real differences between iOS and Android.
The second problem is fragmentation which has been over-highlighted in my view by those with a bias towards Apple. As each version of Android has been released, often at a frighteningly quick rate, so devices have been left behind because they are unable to cope with the new features and the resources needed to power the operating system. This has been exacerbated by network providers failing to make updates as well and so we have had situations where some users of phone A can user version C of Android, but other users of the same phone cannot. It sounds like a huge problem, but if we look at Android as a whole and the fact that 1.3 million Android devices (at the time of writing) are being activated per day, how many of those users do you think will even care what version of the system they are running?
Ever since the early days of mobile computing, the vast majority of users have been ‘normal’ people who bought their product out of curiosity or a specific need. They do not get excited by it and have no intention of messing about with it too much and seeing what happens below the screen. Just like washing machines and other household appliances, most people see phones and PDAs the same way; a tool that does something and nothing more.
In light of this, fragmentation is not a problem at all for 99.99999% of Android users (I made that statistic up by the way) and so Android will continue to work just like it always has for those who are happy with the experience. The ‘fragmentation is a MASSIVE problem’ headlines come from those who love the wonderfully smooth and somewhat restrictive experience that the iPhone, and consequently iOS, offers. I don’t deny that while I have no problem with fragmentation, the completely open Google system scares me a tiny bit now that I am entranced in the smooth iPhone, iPad and Mac experience. But like everyone else, you make your choice and adapt accordingly. Ultimately, Android can be anything you want it to be and this is why so many people who would have used the Windows mobile systems of the past have flocked to it in big numbers.
One thing Android offers that no other mobile platform does is change at a pace that will always keep the interest levels high among the press, marketeers, network providers and millions of customers. In the space of just over 3 years, we have seen 8 versions of Android released and the latest, Jelly Bean, has shown what can happen with continued development. It is as smooth as any competitor, it includes many usability features that are genuinely useful, and unique, to the average user and is impressive in so many ways. The fact that it is currently running on a very small percentage of Android devices is unfortunate, but I hope that the time will come when every Android phone is running a version of the operating system that is as competent as Jelly Bean.
The future for Android is unclear. By that I don’t mean that it won’t succeed because it surely will become even stronger. Google, Samsung, Sony, LG, HTC etc. etc. That is some serious firepower involved in Android and it will only grow over the next couple of years with one caveat. Out of these companies, it is arguable that only Samsung is making big bucks from Android. We are not sure how much profit Google derives because Android falls within its core business of advertising and user numbers, and to even guess would be pointless. HTC, Sony and LG are struggling against the might of Samsung and potentially we may see a time where the number of Android manufacturers selling huge numbers of devices shrinks greatly. The main problem for HTC and the rest is the same as they faced when Windows Mobile started to die after the iPhone was launched- where do they go next?
Windows never goes away
Post-iPhone, Nokia had been struggling to sell Symbian phones and Microsoft could not license Windows Mobile as successfully as it had before, and so things had to change for both. This brought about a coming together of the two companies to build Windows Phone phones (yes, that name is troublesome on occasion), but not before others dabbled with the platform. Windows Phone was launched in February 2010 and it was a surprise to many. Microsoft had managed to create a mobile operating system as smooth as iOS and as original as webOS, a system that seemed to be perfect for the millions of people who were considering their first smartphone. The Android crowd of manufacturers jumped on board and HTC, Samsung, LG and others built smartphones that ran Windows Phone, but the restrictions placed on the way these phones could be built meant that the first Windows Phones all looked and felt similar. There was little to distinguish between the devices from each manufacturer and this must have killed the enthusiasm for all of them because they had no opportunities to shine above their competitors. I remember looking at the original Windows Phones and asking myself which I would buy- I decided that they were all the same and it didn’t matter which one I picked. Despite some credible hardware and an excellent operating system, they just didn’t sell.
Almost one year to the day after the original launch, Microsoft and Nokia announced their partnership to build Windows Phones. It made sense on many levels, but had an air of being a corporate decision rather than two companies wanting to change the world. It didn’t help that Stephen Elop (Nokia CEO) had worked for Microsoft until September 2010 before moving to Nokia, and so the conspiracy theories picked up. There was still the sense that the companies could do great things and when the first Lumia was released, that sense became reality. The design was wonderfully natural and very unique, but it still managed to feel like a phone. The software was smoother than ever with a few downsides that included poor multi-tasking and some restrictions in crucial areas, but overall the Lumia was a huge success.
When I say ‘huge success’ I am not talking about how many it sold. Most observers could see the Lumia for what it was, a beautiful piece of hardware with many positive points that brought something new to the smartphone world. Strangely, however, the general public did not seem to agree. To date, Windows Phone is trundling along with a single digit market share and the situation is not improving much at all. Despite a huge marketing effort by Microsoft and Nokia, it has remained a niche smartphone platform that cannot seem to crack the impenetrable wall that Android and iOS have built around them.
In the past, good platforms and hardware have always done well in the mobile market and a dominant market share by one or two platforms has not completely stopped a third player succeeding. It may have slowed down growth, but not to the levels we are seeing with Windows Phone currently. It appears that Android and iOS have become so commonplace that people are simply unwilling to move because of the investment they have made in the system they already use.
When I talk about investment in systems, I don’t mean the hardware. For many, the hardware and operating system become so familiar that it is difficult to change, but this has always been the case. We now have apps and these bits of software are playing a more important role in smartphone sales than ever before. We have in fact always had apps and their history is brighter and longer than you may think.
In the early Psion days we had apps although an easy method to get them onto the devices was not in place. You could buy a card with apps and games preloaded on it or you could, believe it or not, send your Psion card to someone called Steve Litchfield and have him load the apps on a card for you. Simply choose them from a list and make your order- it sounds crazy and horribly convoluted, but at the time it worked and it opened my eyes to what was possible.
Over time the processes changed and the internet enabled us to add apps to our PDAs quite easily. To be fair, this easier process still involved attaching your device by a wire to your PC and then running software which would let you find the app you had downloaded and then manually installing it over to the PDA before you finally got to use it. At this point, if it was a paid app you would then need to enter your registration code which was either given to you at the time of purchase or sent via email. You would have to remember to note down the registration code just in case your PDA crashed and you often paid upwards of £10 for the good apps. See, how easy is that?
It sounds ridiculous now, but at the time it wasn’t too difficult in comparison to everything else we had to do with our PCs and anything else that could be classed as digital. Stores popped up like PalmGear and Handango and developers made a healthy living our of what was still a niche market.
When Apple launched the iPhone, it could not run third party apps. This changed in June 2007 when Apple announced support for web applications and then in October of the same year an iPhone SDK was announced to allow developers to create native apps for the iPhone. Up until this time apps had been called programs or applications and the ‘apps’ word was not even part of our consciousness. It is amazing to think that in just 4 years, the word ‘app’ is commonplace around the world and everyone knows what it means.
It wasn’t just the word that Apple made easier, it was the entire process of purchasing and installing apps on phones that changed for the better. Apple used the popularity of iTunes and cleverly integrated apps into the eco-system which gave anyone with a half-decent computer and an iPhone the ability to install apps. They could be installed over the air and the process was the perfect example of how instant gratification should work properly. Initially, the app prices were quite high and the system looked just like the previous efforts apart from the ease of installation, and the time it took new apps to come to the iPhone was quite slow. The fact that Apple wanted to authorise each app added to this problem, but as I mentioned earlier there are benefits to this in terms of safety for the user.
As time passed and the apps that came forth proved to be much better than anything we had seen before on mobile devices, the popularity and recognition grew which led to stories of some developers making ‘lots’ of money from their app exploits. This had the effect of not only tempting more developers to the platform, but also creating more of a buzz around apps and what they could do. It grew and grew and the race to the bottom started. This would normally be a bad thing, but developers found that they could still make an income by selling apps for ridiculously low prices. $0.99 / £0.69 is the price that many new games and apps sell for with more complex titles being slightly more expensive, but it is true that only a few titles break the $5 barrier. You can buy a game that will keep you entertained for hours for a quarter of the price of a cup of coffee or an app that will work with you every single day and make life a little easier for under $2. It is crazy value provided you make the right choices and even for those users who regularly buy apps just to see what they are like and never use the majority again, they are still spending less than a smartphone user would have half a decade ago.
The explosion in app popularity caused, once again, the competition to sit up and reconsider how they sold their phones. Google realised this early and the Android Market, now Google Play, was launched in October 2008. It is home to 100,000’s of apps and the main difference to Apple is the lack of direct checking of each app which had led to concerns over malware etc. RIM tried to complete with BlackBerry App World which I will talk about later and Microsoft launched the Windows Phone Store in October 2010. This particular store is particularly well presented and easy to navigate, but suffers from a lack of apps in comparison to the Apple and Google offerings. With only 100,000 apps by June 2012 it looked like a baron landscape. Only? Only 100,000 apps? Yes, how many apps could one person possibly need? Well, it seems like lots because the number of apps in a store has become a big talking point and potentially key to bringing new users in, no matter how unrealistic the number.
App stores are here to stay and a poor one will do much damage to a mobile platform for a number of reasons. BlackBerry App World is the perfect example of that.
RIM tried to complete with their new app store which was launched in April 2009 and now houses more than 100,000 apps. This is a respectable number, but it is the quality of the apps that is the main problem. The current BlackBerry platform does not lend itself to gaming or high quality complex apps and the developers have to work hard to build apps that even come close to what is available on Android and iOS. Add to this the make up of the BlackBerry user population and things look even worse.
Historically, BlackBerry user numbers have been dominated by business users who use them for work. This has changed slightly over the past few years with teenagers wanting them for the BlackBerry Messaging service and because the cheaper devices are within reach of parents who want to know their children are safe. The business user category is extremely difficult for third party developers because many of these devices were locked down and not even able to install extra apps. The fact that BlackBerry OS is so secure was a huge advantage for years, but it became a major hurdle as soon as people wanted to add their own apps- they were simply not allowed to. Teenagers are more likely to want to install apps and so are adults who like the BlackBerry experience, but when they took the plunge and made a few purchases, they soon realised that the general quality was not even close to what what available on other platforms. To this day, BlackBerry App World houses a lot of poor quality apps, a large number of acceptable titles and a few gems that show what is possible if the developers have lots of imagination and some serious skill. To be fair, that description would be accurate for the iTunes App Store and Google Play as well, but the number of really good quality apps is much higher and the very best are on another level compared to anything available for the BlackBerry platform.
Even worse for RIM was the general realisation among smartphone buyers that a phone designed to help you work was not necessarily a good thing. For many, work had become much more stressful thanks to the inability to hide themselves away from the myriad of ways people could contact them. Email, mobile calls, BlackBerry Messenger etc. etc. The torrent of communication for some people was not only impossible to manage, but ironically addictive as well and so the BlackBerry was never turned off.
This was great for a while and led to the illusion that more work was being done, but the realisation that email after email is nothing more than distracting noise dawned on many. Being able to focus on a task at hand is important and if, for example, you could complete 3 tasks in a day to a high standard, or even 1, that is more useful to the organisation you work for than constantly responding to emails from people who are just trying to pass problems along.
Here is a quick example that happened to me-
I turned my work issued BlackBerry on in the morning one day at 7:30am and a selection of new messages popped up that had been sent the previous evening. At the top of the list were two that stood out.
2:00am- How did the meeting go yesterday? I need a report on the outcome by 8am.
2:45am- See previous email. No response yet.
Yes indeed, those two emails were sent early in the morning and the second email showed that the sender could not understand why I hadn’t responded yet. As it happens, this particular individual used to do this all of the time, but it wasn’t uncommon for me to receive 20-30 emails a day after 6pm running up to midnight. My record for emails received during a day was 316 (yes, I counted them) and as you can imagine it all got a bit too much. My response to the above messages was measured, reasonable and well thought out-
8:30am- Get a life.
The problem was me. After a while I would keep the BlackBerry turned on until late in the evening and turn it on as soon as I woke up. Not wanting to ‘miss out’ on what had been sent became a state of mind that stayed with me a long time, but after a couple of years I saw the light and handed my BlackBerry back and refused to use one again.
This soured my opinion of BlackBerry phones, but I can still recognise their wonderful simplicity and efficiency, the quality of voice and speed of communication and the value for money they offered. Sadly, they didn’t offer enough for the majority and the inability to entertain has caused market share to drop like a stone, and we are currently waiting for the next BlackBerry operating system to drop in 2013.
It is likely, although far from certain, that RIM will struggle with its new system and that the company will either be bought up by a larger competitor or disappear completely. The whole situation highlights just how quickly a platform can go from hero to zero in this market and the mistake has been replicated many times. Microsoft failed to move quickly enough when Windows Mobile started to die and Windows Phone has struggled to gain back any of the lost ground. Palm failed to move quickly enough and really did die. RIM has failed to move quickly enough and is probably dying.
It highlights that the iPhone is most likely ‘the’ phone to copy in this industry. That is of course far from a popular opinion, but the recent battles between Samsung and Apple prove that there really is only one player that has been directing the market, and consequently moving its competition forward alongside it.
Samsung has been accused of copying everything Apple does. From the design of the Galaxy smartphones to the icons used for apps to retail stores, the constant accusation that Samsung copies Apple will not go away. If we completely ignore the court cases and the judgements, we can look at the bigger picture to understand what has happened in the mobile computing industry and where it is going.
I remember being sent the original Samsung Galaxy for review and was immediately struck by the similarities to the iPhone. I mean that this phone was ‘extremely’ similar in overall design, the icons used in the Android overlay and so many other areas. It would be disingenuous to say that the original Galaxy was not similar to the iPhone of the time and although I cannot speak for Samsung’s motives, I am convinced of their likeness and will leave it at that.
However, over time the phones from Samsung have changed a lot. The Galaxy S II did not look like any iPhone and neither does the Galaxy S III. TouchWiz, Samsung’s overlay on top of Android, is moving away from iOS in a big way and I can safely say that Samsung in at last innovating with some excellent features that are truly beneficial to their customers.
The US patent system is causing all sorts of controversy at the moment and the smartphone manufacturers have been quick to jump into the biggest loophole in the technology world, and are now suing each other over everything. Sorry my analysis of legal matters is no deeper than that, but it really does not warrant any more discussion. Apple has patented every little feature it can and so have the others and this has led many to despise what is happening, and particularly to despise Apple for what they see as ‘stifling the competition’ and not competing through innovation.
I can understand the view that Apple’s aggressiveness is not good for the company image and that it appears, on the face of it, to be attacking the competition, but there is a bigger picture to be considered. I do not believe that Apple should morally be taking a legal stance in some areas, but I also believe that the iPhone changed everything in this industry and that the others followed the general premise of the iPhone.
As I said earlier, if you look at smartphones prior to and after the iPhone, the difference is stark. For one thing, very few smartphones were touch screen only and now very few smartphones include hardware keyboards or even hardware buttons below the screen. Almost every successful smartphone is a touch screen with the mechanics behind it. Actually it isn’t almost all, it is all smartphones that sell more than the rest. Almost every feature that was made popular by the iPhone has made its way to the other mobile platforms; app stores, pinch to zoom, sliding things to unlock, voice recognition, accelerometers, compasses etc. etc. It is time to admit that the smartphone industry of today is made up of the iPhone and other platforms that have followed it every step of the way.
That is a statement that many of you will disagree with and I understand that, but how is it logical to look at the industry as a whole any other way? It leads many to believe that the iPhone is the original and that the others are mere alternatives for those on a budget or for people who will never buy an Apple product just because. That isn’t completely true and there are many, many reasons to buy an Android smartphone or a Windows Phone instead of an iPhone, but to deny that the iPhone inspired the majority of what we see in smartphones today would be to do so without reality being part of your argument.
Looking at how things stand today, it is pleasing to see genuine competition coming into the market. Windows Phone is arguably even easier to use than an iPhone and the live tiles add some interactivity and immediate information gathering that iOS can only dream of. Android, and in particular the Galaxy S III, include numerous features that make iOS look positively dated in some areas; NFC, proper notifications, installation of apps from a desktop web browser etc. etc. The iPhone is not the best smartphone on the market anymore in terms of specifications, maybe it never was, but the most important advance for the competition has been usability over the past year. Android Jelly Bean now offers the same ultra-smooth interface as iOS and the Galaxy S III has an elegance to it that previous Android handsets, and many current ones, struggle to attain. The Lumia phones are stunning in their hardware design and the software and despite low sales, they are still successes from a technical and design point of view.
The theory that everyone copies the iPhone has been true for some time, but that time is coming to an end. Apple has quite rightly improved the parts of the iPhone that won’t garner exciting headlines to add even more practicality and this is ideal for many users who have become incredibly familiar with the phone and the software running on it. It has, however, also given Samsung and the rest an opportunity to exploit and some are starting to do that well. RIM and Microsoft still seem to be mis-stepping all over themselves and HTC hasn’t cottoned on either, but Samsung has managed to break free from its obvious awe of the iPhone and is starting to compete on level terms in terms of pure innovation.
We are now at a point where there is a sensible level of competition, but the danger is that Android and iOS will remain the only two dominant players in the market and snuff out the rest, and then try to snuff out each other by any means possible. Only time will tell what happens next, but make no mistake, the smartphone market is by far the most important computing market of all for the foreseeable feature.
The ‘Post PC’ phrase has been used more commonly over the past 2 years as tablets, and particularly the iPad, have proved to be extremely popular with a large portion of the population. The initial rush for the iPad could be attributed to the usual craziness that comes with any completely new product from Apple, but over time many people have realised that a tablet can replace many of the tasks they previously used their home PCs for. If you want to quickly check a website or your emails, just pick up a tablet and away you go. The same applies to watching movies, reading books and almost any other task you can think of. Take it with you on holiday and you have your own choice of in-flight entertainment, as many books as you want to read on the beach and so on. You get the picture and this is why it’s very easy for a tablet to become a device that receives much more attention from the user than a static PC.
The realisation that everyday tasks do not require huge amounts of computing power and that a well thought out screen and software solution can help people achieve almost everything they want hit home for millions of people and this is why some consider that the days of the PC are over. I can understand this point of view when it is aimed at laptops, but not so much for desktop PCs and the need for a more advanced solution. Maybe this will change in the future, but for now I think we are some distance away from a Post PC world.
A post laptop world could happen quicker where rather than tablets replacing desktop PCs, smartphones start to replace laptops. If I take a train journey, I can check my emails, surf the web and do almost anything else I like on a smartphone and slip it into my pocket when I reach my destination. Heck, I can even make a presentation from it if compatible equipment is available at the other end.
The sheer convenience and power is so obviously beneficial in a practical sense that carrying a laptop everywhere, unless for specific tasks, seems ridiculous to many people. As smartphones get more powerful and we become more attuned to data input on the tiniest of screens, and as the software becomes even more imaginative that it is now, the smartphone has the potential to be ‘the’ computer everyone views as their most important single device. The fact that it is just as ‘Cloud’ capable, and often more so, as a laptop or desktop PC highlights just how much power and accessible information you can carry in your pocket all of the time.
It took 21 years to get back to where I started
“It took a lot of time for me to let go of the simplicity, grace and sheer efficiency of Psion…”
Those words from the first section are completely true and I admit that I never did get over the simplicity and grace of the Psion PDAs. My time with Palm, Windows Mobile, BlackBerry, Android and everything else before, after and in-between has never given me that sense of control that the Psions offered. However, over the past 18 months all of those feelings have come back thanks to the iPhone, and the iPhone 5 especially.
You see, after more than 20 years fighting technology, I finally feel as though I can just use it for what I want and not have to deal with settings, tweaks and all sorts of other silly things that should not be part of my day. The iPhone is not perfect by any means, but it is a device that I can use every day for a wide range of tasks and not have to think about if I don’t want to. It can wake me up, play some podcasts, alert me to new emails and appointments, navigate me, avoid traffic and then send me to sleep with a movie or a book. At no point do I consider the battery or anything else- I just use it throughout the day, every day. I don’t see the computer anymore and do not know if it has a megaflop processor or a camera lens that is made of alien skin. I don’t care either because it isn’t a computer to me.
I am no evangelist for Apple and have no bias towards any company or mobile platform, a state of mind that so many unfortunately are not able to attain. I just wanted to write about my history with mobile technology and the sense of relief I feel today. I have finally been pulled away from my obsession by a device that doesn’t feel like technology at all. It’s just a shame it took 21 years for it to happen.