Six Clicks: Gadgets of yesteryear that defined mobile

Six Clicks: Gadgets of yesteryear that defined mobile

Summary: Given how far it's come, mobile technology is not very old. In the early days, some outstanding gadgets set the stage for the mobile tech of today. These are six of them that had a big impact.


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  • Palm Pilot 1000

    The original Palm Pilot revolutionized the mobile space. The handheld personal digital assistant (PDA) kept track of the owner's contacts, to-dos, and calendar.

    Owners had to learn a special text input method known as Graffiti to get proficient, but millions took the time to learn it.

    The Palm Pilot kept the owner's information synced with desktop computers via HotSync, a technology that made it all work well. The handheld was connected to a desktop computer via a cable, which kept all information up-to-date on both sides.

    The biggest impact on mobile by the Palm Pilot was the introduction of apps, although they weren't called that back then. These little programs opened up the Palm Pilot to a lot of applications, and specialized apps appeared for most industries.

    Both the company and the handheld are gone, but the impact on the mobile space is clear.

  • OmniSky Minstrel V

    In the early days of mobile tech there were no data networks to keep devices connected. The most prevalent way to get a gadget connected was the cellular networks, slow as that was.

    The Palm Pilot xv was a popular handheld, so a company built the OmniSky Minstrel V that snapped on the back of the Pilot. The Minstrel was a cellular data modem that got the Pilot xv online on demand.

    The OmniSky had a rechargeable battery like the Palm Pilot. Its ability to connect via cellular networks turned the Pilot xv into a mobile email system. The speed was terrible and connections were expensive, but it brought mobile connectivity to the masses far ahead of other methods.

Topics: Mobility, Hewlett-Packard, Laptops, Tablets

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  • Compact Suitcase

    I had one of those Compacts. The list price was $7000 and I bargained it down to $5000. Wish I had that $5000 today.
    • I still have mine

      with the memory expansion card (to 640kB) and modem. I also upgraded the CPU to a NEC V20 chip. It still runs too. What a tank that thing is but very durable.
  • Pocket PCs

    Started with WinCE which took the Palm concept and added the idea of mobile applications - the true forerunner of smartphones (had the smart, but not the phone).

    Back on CE 1 in '97 we were hooking them up to mobiles and using WAP to remote control servers using PCAnywhere on a PDA over a mobile network...

    And they formed the basis of the PocketPCs, WinMo and now WinPh (which finally ditched the CE kernel and move to the Win8 kernel of course).

    WinCE also led to Windows Embedded which is in lots of stuff these days...

    So it played a big part in the evolution from standalone PDA to smartphone/tablet.
    • give me a break.

      Win Ce was so clunky it was barely adopted by anyone. The whole premise was that folks would want to use it because it looked just like their desktop - in the standard compile. Turns out folks didn't want their desktop and PDA (tablet) looking the same.

      With Windows 8 Microsoft make the same mistake in reverse. People don't want their desktops to look like a tiles tablet toy.

      (Typed on my Android phone)
      • I should also mention

        From a developer point of view MS claimed companies would get great synergy because developers coding for windows would already know how to encode for the embedded device. Of course the two problems were - one it doesn't help if no one wants the product and two - embedded encoding is different and is much more concerned about memory use - a skill the win programmers had little knowledge of. So the devices would crash a lot.

        The one time I used WinCE for Automotive (scary isn't it - they thought you should run your car with it) it was a clunky mess and the memory holes prove almost impossible to manage.
  • Blackberry/RIM

    It wasn't "simply RIM". RIM was the acronym for "Research in Motion".
  • The flatscreen laptop

    The plain old flat screen laptop was the real revolution. I remember the first one I got was a passive matrix greyscale LCD. What a horrible display that was but it kept the price under $2000.
    Buster Friendly
  • Thanks

    James - this is when you are really in your element - the guardian of mobile computing history. Having owned each of these (except for the Compaq) it brought back a flood of memories of how tortured, and sublime, this trip has been.

    Special thanks need to be given to Radio Shack for the Model 100 - truly the first "portable" computer, and Jeff Hawkins for the Palm Pilot, without which we would NOT have the modern smartphone.
  • Hybrids are not gaining in popularity today

    they are just as niche today as they were then.
  • Very Nice Presentation

    I just wish this had included a timeline. I remember most of these, just not the when.
  • How could you not mention The Psion 3a?

    I miss my little old 3a. It was surprisingly powerful, had two expansion slots, a terrific LCD display, the best keyboard I've used for thumb typing, had a plethora of second party apps in addition to a productivity suite built-in....
    Just an amazing little device.
    • PSION 3a - The greatest in its day!

      You are so right, the PSION 3a was brilliant. Light, two pen cell batteries. I could email, fax (and print via hotel fax) when travelling. Good mix of apps.
      The problem with these ZD reviews is that although targeted at a worldwide audience, they are very US centric in terms of coverage. I caught a very biased negative review of the Raspberry PI the other day, yet it spawned off a plethora of new competing devices. Just look at the fantastic US ADAFRUIT web site to see that it is popular in the US.
  • PC

    The Osborne 1, sure it was before the Compaq Portable. I remember work having one. May not have been IBM compatible.
  • I just remember another one

    I just remembered another one. My old Casio graphing calculator. While not general purpose, it was programmable and had an LCD bitmap screen. That was more useful than my first palm pilot which was mostly good for games.
    Buster Friendly
    • Not just for games

      As a single purpose calculator, the Casio was probably more capable but I remember running Easy Calc on my Palms and it provided all the calculator functions I needed including graphing.
      • Palm pilot was a horrible calculator

        The palm pilot made a horrible calculator. I tried to use it like that when If first got it but gave up pretty quick. You really need all those physical buttons to use it with any efficiency.
        Buster Friendly
  • One more click

    I'd add one of the earliest attempts at a wireless digital data service - Ricochet from Metricom. It offered about 56 kilobits per second versus the 9.6kbits/s that cellular modems like the Omnisky could manage. It was offered in a number of major metropolitan areas from the mid '90s until Metricom went bankrupt in 2001.
  • Palm Pilot with Foldable Keyboard

    When I found the foldable keyboard that was the about same size as the device itself, I was ecstatic! I used that keyboard for years as my go-to traveling companion until light laptops caught up and network security no longer allowed me to attach the palm to my desktop.
  • my first PC was a Compaq Deskpro

    which cost more than my first car. Times have definitely changed for the better.

    My first work PC was a Panasonic luggable with a built-in thermal printer and toilet paper roll-like printer paper roll. Oh, did I dislike that machine! The only thing it had going for it was 640KB RAM.