Psion's story makes a great Opera

Psion and Opera's very different fortunes show two sides of the same truth in IT

Let's pretend you're a computer company. No, no, come back: you're a good computer company -- they do exist. One that people respect and admire, and one that's had a measure of success. Furthermore, let's pretend that you've made your mark in a difficult field, creating software that directly competes with the big M and wins. You're at the heart of mobile devices from lots of different manufacturers, the critics love what you do and you're seen as a serious competitor in an environment with lots of room for growth. Now: what do you do next?

If you're Psion, you sell out. If you're Opera, you float. Two companies, both with a track record of surviving the hard times and prospering during the good, both with a major stake in the mobile market -- but one is upping the ante and the other has thrown in its hand. Such dramatic divergence may seem paradoxical, but like all good paradoxes it has much to teach us. It highlights the dangers of simplistic thinking: both companies have really made the same decision.

Of the two companies, Psion is by far the more complex. Born as a software company at the same time as the home computer, it learned the hard way that relying on hardware over which you had no control was a way of making yourself a hostage to someone else's fortune: its 1983 Xchange software suite was the Microsoft Office of its day, but the Sinclair QL on which it ran was closer to David Brent's. However, the close relationship with Sir Clive had given the company a taste for innovative hardware, and chip technology was just at the stage where handheld computers could do useful things. After many experiments of varying success the company hit upon the Series 3, a clamshell personal organiser that was streets ahead of anything else in the world. Moreover, and this is no given in this game, it sold accordingly. Lesson one: do it yourself.

Then came mobile phones. It would take a real thicko not to notice that everyone who was carrying one of your organisers was also lugging around a mobile, often using them at the same time, and that they contained many of the same bits. Psion is no thicko, but it is also no giant: it had to continue to develop its organisers, on which its life depended, but at the same time start on the incredibly expensive and dangerous game of phone technology. That meant leaving lesson one behind and looking for partners. A string of failed marriages later -- hooking up with serially dysfunctional Motorola was typical -- and the company was left with two major assets: partial ownership of Symbian, the hybrid descendant of its organiser software and phone work, and Teklogix, the side of the family that put organiser hardware into industrial devices. Even surviving this far had meant ditching the retail organiser world.

Opera has had a very different history. Starting out in 1995 as an idea within the Norwegian state telco, it soon spun off as a Windows browser company -- those were the days of the browser wars, when writing Windows software was seen as bright an idea as making non-IBM hardware had been some ten years before. The key realisation, in place three years later, was that while Microsoft was going to win the Windows world, the beast from Redmond was constitutionally unable to address non-Windows platforms. By then -- aha! -- people like Psion had shown that there was a new world in people's pockets, and Opera had the code base to directly address that. Their lesson was that relying on hardware over which you had no control was just fine, provided only that you spread your bets over enough of it. One of their first non-Windows products was tied to Be, a platform doomed to a fate just as dreadful as the QL, but as the company then hopped on to Ericsson, Qualcomm, IBM and -- aha! -- Psion, it had other fish to fry.

Eight years later and the company has just the one significant asset, the Opera code base. It sells it retail to Windows, Mac and Linux users, it gives away versions, it has deals in place with phone, PDA, set-top box and embedded systems companies: in short, it has taken its one-trick pony and bred it into an entire herd. About the only place it doesn't live is on Windows CE and its mutant friends, a lack that reflects far worse on Microsoft -- which has nothing nearly as good -- than it does on Opera. It's shown that Psion's Lesson One was in fact a special case of a wider rule: keep control. By floating, it will acquire a bundle of cash to keep on growing in a field it's made its own.

And that's just what Psion's doing. By bailing out of the Symbian partnership, it's merely demonstrating that any partnership with an overwhelmingly strong partner is not one where control is evenly meted out. It's going back to Teklogix with a bundle of cash, to concentrate on a game where it can set the rules. For all of us who grew up with Psion and bought many of its products -- from the ZX81 Flight Simulator through to a Series 5 -- it's sad that so much potential has been burned off, but nostalgia shouldn't blind us to the lesson that these two very different companies working in the same market have both demonstrated.