It’s always fun finding an electronic gadget of yesteryear stuffed in a kitchen junk drawer or buried in an office closet. Here’s a device you probably dropped hundreds of bucks on and spent hours trying to learn, and now it’s relegated to the same space as a broken hot glue gun and that handful of old batteries you never quite got around to testing. The experience often begs two questions: How the hell did I ever use this thing?
Every electronic piece in your Museum of Old Stuff has some sort of predecessor, just as the cutting-edge toys you own today will serve as a backbone for tomorrow’s tech slate. Here’s a look at some of the old-school electronics that didn’t quite make it into the future, but cleared the path for all the gadgets we know and love today.
We all know about the “oldest” precursors to smart devices—BlackBerry. The BlackBerry Curve 8300, for instance, still enjoyed some strong sales in the beginning of the smartphone boom. But those devices were themselves put into place by a series of other, more specialized gadgets, most of them used by (and designed for) those in need of near-constant access to email.
Take the BlackBerry 950. Though competitors had offerings on the market at the time of this device’s launch, the BlackBerry brought some big advantages to the table. It ran an insanely long time on a single AA alkaline (!!!), a feature that separates it from today’s slate of high-powered, battery-hogging devices. Although we’d all love a little more juice in our smartphones and tablets, a couple of distinguishing features we’re happy to do without are the monochrome screens and trackwheel navigation.
There’s also the issue of coverage. Carriers have been the de-facto providers of cellular data service for a long time now. Back in the day, that wasn’t the case. This delightfully old-school Gadgeteer review talks at pretty good length about the problem: It was generally up to the people providing the physical devices to give their users service, a system that usually resulted in urban customers getting the most attention. BlackBerry offered service in areas as un-urban as Columbus, IN by teaming up with various ISPs, giving smaller-town users a way to check their email on the go at prices ranging from $10 to $60 a month.
Despite all these differences, the biggest thing separating the BlackBerries of yesteryear from today’s high-powered smart devices comes down to the apps running on the platforms. The Gadgeteer review breaks down every application available on the device. Compared to today’s offerings, the consensus isn’t pretty. The apps displayed on the device’s monochrome screen were simplistic at best, with far less functionality than we’d expect from even the lowest-end smartphones today.
Despite those limitations, it’s hard to dog on the BlackBerry for what was a fairly revolutionary slate of features. In an age dominated by big, expensive PDA devices, this was a sleek, specialized machine designed for quick access to vital communications. Though BlackBerry struggles today, they’re still around thanks in large part to those early machines, and it’d be nice to see a resurgence—if just for the nostalgic value of seeing a BB product become relevant again.
The “high-powered” Palm devices carried by enterprise users and early adopters of the early 90s were amazing machines for their time, as another piece from The Gadgeteer shows. The reviewer is particularly impressed with the VII model’s wireless data capability—far from a standard feature those days—and the broad selection of what she calls “query apps” from a variety of providers like Yahoo! and Moviefone.
The Palm devices of the past, especially the well-loved Tungsten series, bore some striking resemblance to today’s tablets and smartphones—a funny thought considering Apple’s bitter 2009 legal battle with the same company over similarities between the OG iPhone and the Palm Pre.
From a physical-design standpoint, the gadget calls to mind smartphones from several of today’s manufacturers, with a large “main” button dominating the lower-middle of the device and a row of extra function keys on either side of it. The OS also shows some definite hints of what’s to come. A row of applications, each with its own cartoony icon, gives the user quick access to important software, with extra data like time and screen orientation placed in their own small sections.
Technological advancements obviously played a big role in bringing smart devices to the mass market, as did lower cost, full Web-browsing capabilities and most importantly, improved UI. If you pit oldschool mobile devices against today’s offerings, the first thing you’ll notice is the ease of navigation, a testament to the power of good UI design and the beauty of technological innovations.
Apple’s MessagePads, which ran on their Newton platform, directly and indirectly inspired a lot of Apple’s future products. One apple-history.com entry says that the unique-looking eMate 300, an early laptop “designed specifically for the education market,” inspired the first run of Apple’s popular iBook line.
Even more interesting is Apple’s reasoning behind giving the short-lived second leg the axe. While we may never get the whole story behind the Newton/MessagePad cancellation, a Pen Computing update on the product’s death makes perhaps the most sense. In short, the article says, the newly reappointed Steve Jobs likely didn’t want to “risk cannibalizing Apple sales” with the then-versatile platform, and instead “decided to raid Newton for any salvageable technologies [to use in future products].”
In the end, a business move behind the Newton platform may have had a bigger impact on today’s tech world than the PDA itself. A Cult of Mac interview with former Apple CEO John Sculley says that Apple invested a hefty sum into ARM, a move that allowed the company to create the low-power-yet-powerful processor needed to power the MessagePad line. Every processor in every iPhone and iPad can be traced back to the decision to put so much money in the innovative company to begin with.
These days, it’s even harder to track the future of mobile data than it was in the days of Blackberry 950s, Palms, and MessagePads. With exciting new technologies like wearables and even more intriguing concepts like virtual reality and personal projectors on the horizon, it’s still pretty much anyone’s guess as to what portable tech will look like in the next decade or three.
From capacitive touchscreens to vastly improved ideas on what makes a good software experience, things work and look better than they ever have before. For all their flaws, these early entries into the market cut a path that every device followed to some degree or another. However limited their capabilities might have been, let’s all be thankful for how far smart devices have evolved.
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