Memorable Mobile: Four Decades of Handheld Computers
In 1972, engineers at Hewlett-Packard rose to a challenge from founder William Hewlett to fit all the scientific functions of the company’s flagship desktop calculator into something he could slip into his shirt pocket. They came up with the HP-35, a scientific calculator no bigger than a box of Milk Duds — and arguably the world’s first handheld computer.
Join us for a tour of 10 of the most notable handheld computers from the past 40 years. Some were wildly successful, others infamous flops, but they were all commercially available products, not concepts or prototypes. And they could all be held in one hand and operated with the other — no laptops, netbooks or laptop/tablet hybrids allowed in our list.
By Matt Lake, Computerworld
1972: HP-35 handheld scientific calculator
In January 1972, engineers put down their slide rules, mesmerized by the glowing red LEDs of the world’s first pocket scientific calculator. Unlike the simple handheld calculators introduced the year before, the $395 HP-35 (so called for its 35 keys) could do trig and logs and cosines in the palm of your hand, like a true portable computer.
To spice things up, it used reverse Polish notation, which stacks math operators at the end of the equation: 6/3 was too obvious; 6 3 / was much more fun. And to yuck it up more, engineers dreamed up calculations that resulted in .07734 — which looked like hello. when you held your calculator upside down.
1979: Milton-Bradley Microvision game console
Ask most people to name the first cartridge-based handheld game machine, and you’ll likely get the wrong answer. It wasn’t 1989’s original Game Boy from Nintendo; it was Milton Bradley’s $50 Microvision, introduced for Christmas 1979. Advancing beyond single-game devices like Mattel’s 1977 Auto Race, Microvision had swappable cartridges, making it the first true handheld gaming system.
Thanks to a quirk of design, the cartridges contained the CPU as well as a game; the console housed the display, input buttons and 9-volt batteries. It took some imagination to see starships in the chunky 16 x 16 LCD pixels while playing Phaser Strike on the postage-stamp screen, but it worked for the Pong generation.
1984: Psion Organiser
Huge in the UK, the £99.95 Psion Organiser was marketed as “the world’s first practical pocket computer,” complete with a flat-file database and expandable EPROM Datapak storage — but no operating system. The keyboard on the 5.5-x-3-x-1-inch device was odd: a 6-by-6 matrix of letters in alphabetical order, plus a few control keys (you’d press Shift to access the number keys).
By the time the second-generation Organiser II (shown here) rolled out two years later, it was widely deployed in retail and warehousing. Government agencies liked it too. The Organiser line later evolved into flip-open netbook-like computers such as 1997’s acclaimed Series 5, which ran full software suites for up to 20 hours on two AA batteries.
1993: Apple Newton MessagePad
Looking like a Star Trek tricorder, the Newton MessagePad line exploded onto the market like a $700 supernova, and burned out almost as fast as the original Star Trek series. Sporting a pressure-sensitive 336-x-240-pixel display and trendily terse app names (Notes, Names and Dates), this one-pound, 7-x-4.5-in. computer introduced the term personal digital assistant (PDA) into the lexicon.
But the MessagePad was ahead of its time. Released with half-cooked handwriting recognition during Apple’s Jobs-free John Sculley era, Newton’s shortcomings were lampooned on The Simpsons and in Doonesbury cartoons. The project never gained the traction it needed, so Apple abandoned it after five years, allowing other companies to dominate the handheld market — for a while, at least.
1996: Palm Pilot
The Palm Pilot (later PalmPilot) was once among the hallowed ranks of Xerox, Kleenex and Google: a trademark used as a generic term to represent an entire industry. It started with three engineers who worked for U.S. Robotics subsidiary Palm Computing, developing a portable system for their handwriting recognition software, Graffiti.
The $300 Pilot 1000 PDA was the result, housing a 160-x-160-pixel monochrome display with a pen-operated input pad in a frame roughly two-thirds the size and one-third the weight of Apple’s Newton. The killer app: personal organization software that could sync smartly with PCs and Macs alike. The Palm OS provided an effective and affordable platform for PDAs and, later, smartphones, and ushered in the world of ubiquitous handheld computing.
1999: RIM BlackBerry
With its tiny monochrome display and QWERTY keyboard, Research in Motion’s BlackBerry looked and acted like a two-way pager (kids, that means texting machine). But it also packed PDA functions and one killer app — email forwarded direct to your hand. In 2003, the BlackBerry line evolved into a smartphone form, with a larger color screen and such features as quad-band cell communication, SMS texting and Web browsing.
From the outset, the BlackBerry rocketed into the collective consciousness, especially among corporate types. Nothing seemed more addictive than its combination of personal organization and communication: The worst punishment an executive could suffer in the early 2000s was to have his CrackBerry confiscated.
2004: OQO Model 01
PDAs weren’t powerful enough. Hybrid laptop/tablet PCs were too big. If only there were some middle ground.
Oh, there was: OQO’s $1,500 Model 01, a paperback book-sized tablet PC with a slide-out backlit keyboard. The svelte 5-x-3.5-x-1-incher packed Windows XP onto a 20GB disk, using Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, FireWire and USB to connect to the outside world. Later models ran Windows Vista.
The Model 01 made it into Guinness World Records as the smallest full-featured computer, and it defined a market (some say evolutionary dead-end) for “tweener” devices called mobile Internet devices (MIDs), Internet tablets or ultramobile PCs (UMPCs). The Samsung Q1, Nokia 770 and a flood of Archos products entered this market, but something else was soon to steal their thunder.
2007: Apple iPhone
Portable music players, camera phones, game machines, computers, GPS navigators, PDAs and even smartphones all existed before 2007, but you’d never have guessed it from the lines outside the Apple store when 4GB and 8GB iPhones first went on sale. Sure, people griped at the $600 price tag, and the cost of the monthly AT&T phone/data service. But you couldn’t hear them over the sound of iTunes playlists and streaming YouTube videos.
Instantly hailed as revolutionary, the iPhone’s gesture-sensitive touch interface and app store model set the standard for the wave of smartphones to come. Four and a half years and four models later, it’s still the phone to beat and accounts for more than half of Apple’s revenue.
2010: Apple iPad
Myopic? Got big fingers and poor screen aim? Just when you thought the handheld revolution would pass you by, Apple decided to feed steroids to its phoneless iPhone, the iPod Touch, and market it as a $500-plus handheld for people with really big hands.
Joking aside, the iPad brought tablet computing to the masses. Its 9.7-in. multi-touch display, along with Wi-Fi/3G connectivity and tens of thousands of apps available on the iOS market, made it a natural as a media player, e-reader, Web surfer and more.
Later-generation iPads added front and rear cameras, making it the perfect device to block the view of those behind you as you record live events. And you thought those birds from Finland were angry!
2010: Samsung Galaxy Tab
“Apple’s got a tablet?” said Google, “Well, let’s get Android on something smaller, lighter and less expensive! And to sweeten the deal, let’s name all our new Android versions after desserts!”
The first Android tablet of note was Samsung’s petite Galaxy Tab. For $400, the 7-in. tablet delivered a crisp 1024 x 600 display and some nice bonuses such as Flash support, panoramic photography and automatic photo geotagging.
Best, it opened a market for Motorola’s $500 Xoom and a flood of other Android tablets, which may soon dip below $200 for high-quality hardware. Looks like the next 40 years of handheld computing are shaping up to be pretty interesting too.
- 1984: Psion Organiser: Psion makes move into handheld device management
- 1996: Palm Pilot Pilot III puts power of enterprise in palm
- 1999: RIM BlackBerry First look at BlackBerry 10 alpha
- 2004: OQO Model 01 New mobile devices hold promise
- 2007: Apple iPhone Finally, an iPhone in our hands
- 2010: Apple iPad iPad surges into the market
- 2010: Samsung Galaxy Tab Samsung Galaxy Tab joins tablet race