HTC glory days: Remembering the first phablet and Windows hybrid

The Mobile World Congress had a lot of shiny goodies, and they triggered a trip down memory lane. Most people don't remember that years ago HTC brought us the first large phone and the first Windows hybrid computer.
Written by James Kendrick, Contributor

HTC has been struggling of late, trying with one Android phone after another to recover its former top position in the smartphone space. It isn't working for the company so far, but looking back at past innovation from HTC, don't count them out yet.

Shift and Advantage
HTC Shift and HTC Advantage
Image: James Kendrick/ZDNet

What most folks don't realize is that HTC gave us not just the first phablet, it also commercially produced the first dual-booting Windows hybrid. Both the HTC Advantage and HTC Shift were released years ago, long before similar products started appearing on store shelves.

For the record, I dislike the term phablet but use it here to avoid confusion what the Advantage set in motion.

HTC Advantage - it's a phone, it's a PDA, it's a phablet

HTC Advantage
Image: HTC

The year was 2007 and the entire smartphone craze hadn't happened yet. It's the year the iPhone was first announced, and Apple engineers were no doubt scrambling to make the thing work as well as Steve Jobs promised it would.

Until that time, all phones were small things that were used primarily for making phone calls. There wasn't any talk of data nor apps, it was all about talking and texting.

Windows Mobile Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) had been around for a while, but they were not phones. They were small handheld devices with touch screens. The smartphone would eventually kill them off, but at that time Palm and Windows Mobile were selling quite a few of these PDAs.

HTC released the Advantage (known as the Athena in some parts of the world), and it created a lot of buzz. It established several firsts in the burgeoning mobile space, which shows just how innovative it was.

It was the first 5-inch PDA with full phone hardware inside. We all joked about how goofy it was to use a phone that large, as all phones to that point were 3 inches or smaller. It didn't have phone audio capability, so to use the phone you had to do so with a headset. That's exactly what some folks did, setting the Advantage on the table and making/receiving phone calls on a Bluetooth headset.

The HTC Advantage had true 3G, in the form of EVDO. This made it a real data machine before that was commonplace. The handheld could do just about anything that could be done on a computer at that time, as far as connectivity goes.

The integrated GPS in the Advantage turned this little device into an outstanding navigation system.

To make this 'huge' screen work to advantage, HTC sold it with a thin QWERTY keyboard that was truly innovative. The Advantage attached to the keyboard by a magnetic connection, forming a stable little laptop. The keyboard had no battery and was automativally activated when the magnetic connection was made with the Advantage. The thin keyboard acted as a cover for the screen for transport. It connected magnetically for this use, too.

Similar solutions weren't seen commercially for years until third-party keyboards started appearing for the iPad. HTC was way ahead of the curve at the time the Advantage was produced.

I used my HTC Advantage with its cool keyboard for a couple of years, and found it to be very advanced compared to competing products at that time. It was a fantastic Windows Mobile PDA that could be used in a pinch for phone calls, and while the keyboard was very small it was better than other solutions for mobile devices of that period. The persistent 3G connectivity turned the system into a mobile workhorse.

The HTC Advantage didn't gain much traction in the marketplace due to its high price and the fact most consumers weren't open to such a large handheld device. Enthusiasts were willing to put up the cash to buy one but not anyone else.

HTC Shift - it's a laptop, it's a tablet, it's a PDA

HTC Shift
HTC Shift
Image: HTC

Shortly after impressing pundits with the HTC Advantage, the company decided to pull out all the stops and totally break new ground. The HTC Shift rolled out and impressed nearly everyone who saw it, given all of its unique features.

At first blush, the Shift was a small (7-inch) laptop running Windows Vista. When fully opened, the little keyboard and screen worked together as a real laptop.

The HTC Shift was a slider, meaning the screen 'slid' over the keyboard to assume the laptop position, It could also slide the display to cover the keyboard, turning it into a tablet. This was years before other Windows sliders would appear, a first for HTC.

Windows Vista drove the laptop and tablet functions of the Shift, but it didn't handle touch very well. HTC chose to get around that by also putting Windows Mobile inside the Shift. That turned the device into a 7-inch PDA that had an advantage over Windows solutions.

Windows Mobile, a true mobile OS, was much gentler on the battery than Windows Vista. Battery life was not very good in those days, so having the ability to switch to Windows Mobile on the Shift made it possible to run for hours longer than other products. The Shift could be used for email and PIM functions in Windows Mobile, making the device handy for communications.

HTC also added a feature not seen before on a Windows laptop. The Shift could be set to have the Windows Mobile side periodically check for email while the device was in standby. This was a good use of the device battery and good for the professional user. Wake the device and have new email waiting. It's commonplace today but unheard of in the time period of the Shift. 

First phablet, first hybrid: When will HTC bounce back?

HTC has long been a leader when it comes to innovation in the mobile space. That's evident from its producing the first big phone, the first little tablet with persistent connectivity, and the first dual-booting Windows hybrid. While neither of the two devices shown here were commercial successes, it proves the company could think ahead. Now that hardware has evolved, both types of devices are now becoming commonplace.

The HTC Advantage was a capable handheld device. It yielded functionality not found in any gadget that preceded it. While tame compared to phones and tablets of today, there's no telling how it might have evolved if HTC had been able to continue the line.

When you think of the HTC Shift you must think of innovation, as it was as unique as any mobile device ever built. The ability to switch from laptop to tablet in a 7-inch form was a real feat at the time, and having two OSes was a sign of things to come.

What's most impressive about HTC's foresight with the Advantage and Shift is that both types of devices are common now. Large phones and small tablets are all the rage, and hybrid Windows laptops are coming on strong. HTC's first products in these areas predated others by years, a testament to the innovative design team at the company.

With such a track record for pushing the envelope, it's hopeful that HTC will do so again. Just producing more Android phones is not helping the company's financial situation. Maybe it will surprise us in the future as it has in the past, and show us something we don't expect. Something that breaks new ground as it's done in the past. A new gadget with that HTC flair. One can only hope.

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