The phones we use today nearly didn’t happen

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It was a bumpy and uncertain road to making the multipurpose phones we use today.


Angela Lang/CNET

This story is part of CNET at 25, celebrating a quarter century of industry tech and our role in telling you its story.

Every time you use a smartphone you’re enjoying something we thought might never exist: a device that does almost everything really well. But in the early years after CNET’s founding in 1995, there was a lot of debate about whether a single converged device was possible, or even needed. 

Even into the first decade of the 2000s, CNET talked to experts who doubted that convergence was possible, asked “do we really want our phones to do everything?” and flat out said “convergence devices scare me.” That may seem absurd today, but remember that not long ago a television only displayed television, a phone only made phone calls, cameras were just that and only GPS devices had GPS.

Then everything changed as PDAs, BlackBerrys and then smartphones suddenly clicked. 

“We were bringing something new into the world in an aura of failure,” recalled Donna Dubinsky, former CEO of Palm, co-founder of Handspring and now CEO of machine intelligence company Numenta. “The Apple Newton and Casio Zoomer had been a huge bust.”

PocketPC, Sony Magic Link, and the Apple Newton

PocketPC, Sony Magic Link and the Apple Newton were all early stops on the road to today’s elegantly converged phone. But not all them caught on.


Brian Cooley/CNET

Tech luminaries portrayed the groundwork for converged tech with Jetsonsesque visions of what was possible. Compaq CEO Eckhard Pfeifer predicted in 1997 that our homes would be wired and in 2004 Microsoft CEO Bill Gates forecast the smart home and services such as Netflix, two developments we now take for granted. At their time, those pronouncements generated eye rolls and debate as often as serious consideration.

But the home internet revolution happened. For those who thought a home computer was too scientific or nerdy, there were home internet terminals such as Compaq’s iPAQ Home Internet Appliance or WebTV and MSN Companion. From home computing and the internet came the understanding that connected services should be with us all the time.

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Web TV, which later became MSN TV was basically a product line of cheap computers with a monthly access fee through an Internet service provider.


KVH

The Big Bang: General Magic

General Magic was almost the Big Bang of tech convergence, developing what can still be easily recognized as the progenitor of the modern smartphone with several partners 20 years before the iPad. It was launched around the same time as the clumsy Apple Newton, which General Magic killed. Released in 1994, the Magic Cap platform sought to combine the existing PC and cell phone in a portable package, but didn’t do so literally (Microsoft would try that later, with poor results). Magic Cap devices from Sony and Motorola had a unique desktop interface, eschewing a T9 keyboard for a stylus-driven touch screen. They were designed to communicate with any other connected device, regardless of platform. The prescience of these features is remarkable today.  

Sony HIX-3000 and Magic Cap desktop

One of Sony’s devices based on General Magic’s platform, and the desktop interface it used. While slightly reminiscent of Microsoft Bob, it was a prescient step toward today’s phone. 


Josh Carter and Computer History Museum

But General Magic had a few big blind spots. It struggled with the emerging internet, shipping on time and budget, and bringing the market along with its vision.

“It’s not just the technology that wins, you have to create a very attractive product or service that people can understand,” said former General Magic engineer Tony Fadell. “And you need marketing expertise early on as you develop, not later when you go to market.” Fadell would go on to lead development for the iPod and much of the iPhone at Apple before founding Nest and then becoming a Principal at tech advisory lab Future Shape.

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The Palm Pilot wasn’t the first PDA, but it was the first to make it big.

Palm went so far as to recruit Donna Dubinsky’s mother, as well as those of Palm founder Jeff Hawkins and Marketing Vice President Ed Colligan to work the show floor at the major Agenda technology conference, where the Palm Pilot was launched, to underline their device’s approachability.

General Magic faded away in 2002 as Silicon Valley’s biggest underdeveloped promise. Still, as former employee Tom Hershenson says in a 2018 documentary about the company, “failure isn’t the end, it’s actually the beginning.” Palm, Handspring, BlackBerry and Apple were all about to prove that.

Convergence in our grasp

General Magic was floundering around the time CNET was started and our attention naturally fell toward new products, including 3Com’s Palm Pilot. I remember when it launched in 1996: One day we were carrying nothing more interesting than Motorola StarTACs, the next day we all had Palm Pilots.

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The Palm Pilot’s combination of contacts, notes, calendar and a to-do list wasn’t unique, but putting them in a small package with a purpose-built handwriting interface and syncing to your PC with the push of a button was transformative. It converged essential apps with a more human interface and synchronization with the then-dominant personal computer. “We had no idea how it would do,” recalled Dubinksy. “But after the first four or five months, the line just went straight up.” And the buzz came almost entirely on word of mouth from early adopters. 

In 2002 the Handspring Treo married the Palm Pilot with a cell phone, wireless internet data and a rudimentary apps universe. We had entered the era of persistent partial attention and become used to walking around looking down at our phones. But we also realized that a device could do more tomorrow than it does today, thanks to its convergence with the mobile web. 

The BlackBerry had the corporate market sewn up, but the Treo was what you wanted to carry: Pull it out at the dinner table with friends and you were cool. Do the same with your BlackBerry and you had to apologize for being a slave to the office.

Microsoft made a run at both with pocket versions of Windows that almost put a stink on the whole convergence concept. They evolved through an unloved and confusing array of versions like Windows Mobile, PocketPC and Windows CE that were all too much an exercise in ramming a PC into a small package.

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Five years before the iPhone, the Treo was the first to crack the code of converged personal devices.


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“One of the big breakthroughs in our thinking was the notion that these devices needed to be their own design center,” Dubinsky said. “They were not just smaller versions of bigger things. Shrinking a PC turned out to be a flawed design idea.”

Compaq developed the best of the flawed bunch with its once-hot iPAQ line and series of interesting hardware modules that could expand the device to be a barcode scanner or GPS device. The add-on modules were both the essence and antithesis of convergence: They made the phone something more, but in far fewer ways and with far greater friction than apps would soon do.

Just as General Magic was done in by its blind spots, their inability to see the power of a pure touchscreen device with a vast apps universe would mean the end end for Palm, BlackBerry and Microsoft’s mobile effort. And by 2008 when both the iPhone and Android had arrived with those attributes, 3G data, amazing cameras and cloud computing were powerful winds at their backs.

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Donna Dubinksy was co-founded Handspring and was CEO of Palm. She is currently CEO of Numenta.


Angela Lang / CNET

You know the rest of the story: The iPhone went on to create the most valuable company in the world and Android achieved 80% of a market that’s since grown to 3 billion users. So what’s next?

“The iPhone came from the iPod, it wasn’t from Windows Phone, Treo or Blackberry,” Fadell said. “Those were corporate, corporate, corporate. But the iPhone was born of a different set of software and hardware, versus everyone else who was trying to make a Windows machine smaller.”

AR and health need convergence breakthroughs

Compaq iPAQ with a BackPAQ

Not quite convergence: The Compaq iPAQ handheld had a BackPAQ add-on camera module.


HP Labs

The recipe for convergence success was well stated in a 2008 CNET column by tech industry exec and advisor Steve Tobak: Intellectual capital, content and great marketing. With slight tuning, those are still where you might look for the next big thing in tech convergence.

That recipe might be no better applied than to health and wellness convergence, raised in urgency by the COVID-19 pandemic. Technology that can measure our health is all around us, from biometric wearables to smart speakers that can detect nuances of our being, facial recognition cameras and even millimeter wave radar that can monitor us from afar. But they largely remain a balkanized mess, without a single platform or two that can create a cogent dashboard for us, our health care providers and payers. Our cars shouldn’t be a century ahead of ourselves in that respect.

“We’re seeing it in health care, things that Apple and Google are doing, but the issue that always comes up is privacy,” Fadell said. “It will be a step-by-step progression as you find the benefits while also plugging the holes that create downsides that might scare off people.”

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Tony Fadell led development of the iPod and much of the iPhone before founding Nest. Today he is Principal at Future Shape.


Stephen Shankland/CNET

Another strong candidate to write the next chapter of convergence might be augmented reality, which is still waiting for its formidable promise to line up with a use case we can grok en masse. When, and if, AR can break out of its current General Magic-esque era, it will tightly map our digital world to our real one in the most sophisticated form of convergence yet. Virtual reality takes the theme even deeper, but I think AR is likely to scale and will achieve its “iPhone moment” sooner. That step might even come from the iPhone maker itself.  

Convergence has matured from the engineering of mashups and miniaturization to the art of integration and human machine interface. Such integration leads us to more transparent and persistent tech, keeping convergence as important to debate as ever.

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