Resurrecting the Past

If you go through all of the devices and services listed above and have an idea about reincarnating one of them, ask yourself if faster processors, more memory, better screens, and broadband connectivity will make the next incarnation of the product or service successful.

The announcement of the iPad turned my thoughts toward the many product re-introductions I have witnessed over my years as an analyst, consultant, and publisher in the wireless industry. Most of the “new” products we are seeing today are reinventions of devices that had been in the marketplace at an earlier time. The list is impressive, and in some cases the failures were spectacular. Other products simply vanished, a few were marginally successful, and even fewer were huge successes.

The question I am pondering is whether the newest versions of these products will be successful even though their predecessors failed, and if future success can be attributed to the availability of broadband wireless services more than any other factor, or if these newer products will fail in the present marketplace in spite of wireless broadband.

The following is a fairly extensive narrative intended to shed light on the answer to this question. If you take the time to read through it, I think you will find it both interesting and informative. For those who have been in the industry a long time, it will evoke a wealth of memories. Those newer to wireless are likely to find some unexpected surprises.

I am not talking ancient history here, I am talking about the past 25 years or so. Personal Computers were introduced in the late 1970s, or at least PCs that could be operated by people without programming knowledge. The first real PCs were developed by Apple with the Apple II in June 1977, and by Radio Shack with its TRS-80 series, Commodore, Osborne, and a few others. The big jump in the early PC market was when IBM announced its PC in August 1981. During this era, we also saw the advent of transportable PCs, which were self-contained boxes that included small monitors and power supplies, including the Osborne I, the Kaypro, and then in January 1983, the first Compaq transportable.

The first notebook computers found their way onto the scene led by Grid and Data General in the summer and fall of 1984 with the first “clamshell” design notebooks. The DG/One personal system weighed in at 9 pounds with an 80C88 processor at 4 MHz, and it sported a 25 line by 80 column liquid crystal display. It had 128K of RAM, a single 3.5-inch disk drive, and not much else. This machine was a failure in the marketplace because it was designed primarily to entice existing Data General customers to buy it and use it to communicate with Data General proprietary applications. The Grid device was based on MS-DOS but was too expensive for the marketplace.

Then in the late 1980s and into the early 1990s, companies began work on handheld computers. The first of these was the Poqet PC, which was, by today’s standards, actually a sub-notebook or a netbook. It ran a full version of MS-DOS, was powered by AA batteries for hours, and ran many of the day’s business applications. The Poqet PC weighed in at only 1 pound, had 640 KB of RAM and two RAM/ROM drives, and sold for less than $2,000. This entry was quickly followed by the Atari Portfolio, Sharp Wizard, Casio Boss, Psion Executive, and finally the HP palmtop series of handhelds, the first partially successful handheld offering. It is estimated that HP sold about a million of these devices.

In 1987, Linus Technologies introduced the first tablet computer. It included handwriting recognition but no graphics, and it was the frontrunner of the tablet market. Pen and tablet computers then began appearing in the market in droves, first from Grid (the Grid Pad) and then several other companies, and some were supported by Microsoft’s pen-based extensions to Windows.  

Also in 1987, John Sculley, then CEO at Apple, stepped onto the stage and presented a view of a new device and series of technologies. The video clip of this presentation about the Knowledge Navigator can be found on YouTube. It is worth watching, if for no other reason than because it is a piece of history. The Knowledge Navigator was conjured up by smart Apple types and, according to Sculley, it could have been built in the 1990s.

During the early 1990s we also saw the birth of wireless email when RadioMail, funded by Motorola, entered the market in 1991 with its service. The hot mobile item of the day, it was made up of a small leather case that contained an HP 95LX handheld and a wireless modem (about the same size –the Viking Express) that was built for the RAM Mobile Data network by Ericsson. This was also a time when the paging companies, spurred by new advances in paging technology from Motorola, were rolling out text-based messaging devices and then two-way pager devices that could receive messages and then respond to them in near-real time. Later in the same decade, Research In Motion developed its own two-way pager and then took a major leap forward with the development of the BlackBerry and the first single-address wireless email system.

Taking a random walk through the 1990s, we find that in 1992, Xerox PARC, Xerox’s research group, announced a tablet computer. PaperWorks was truly a revolutionary product at the time but quickly failed due to the high cost and low demand. The idea behind PaperWorks was that it would be a handheld device for executives. The executive’s admin (secretary in those days) would copy faxes received on her PC into the tablet and as the executive traveled, he/she could read and mark up the faxes. Upon the executive’s return to the office, the admin would then copy the marked-up documents to her PC to prepare and send responses. The tablet was light and trim and easy to read, but it had no connectivity beyond a port to talk to a single PC.

In 1993, General Magic arrived on the scene with its own operating environment and the ability to use only a few bits of data to wirelessly control actions of another device. For example, you could send a few bits to a friend’s General Magic-based machine and have it depict a man walking across the screen carrying a birthday cake while the device played happy birthday on the speaker. This was a great way to limit the amount of data that needed to be sent over the air. We also had the birth of IntelliLink, the first true device-to-device synchronization application, Fujitsu’s entry into the handheld market with the PoqetPad (which they bought from what was left of Poqet PC), the launch of CDPD (cellular digital packet data services at 19.2 Kbps), and the first set of “netbooks”—the Windows CE-based Jupiter class of sub-notebooks, which were instant-on, under 3 pound, long battery life, sub-notebooks for executives that were designed to work over both wired and wireless communications systems.

August of 1993 brought the announcement of the first Apple Newton and as usual, Apple’s hype for the product was intense—the announcement for the event stated, “On August 2, we’ll unveil an invention as large as your whole world, but no bigger than what you can hold in your hands.” In the same month, Metricom announced the launch of its first Ricochet high-speed wireless data network using unlicensed spectrum. These networks failed three times, but were replaced by Muni-Wi-Fi, which had only failed twice at that point.

1994 started off with a bang. BellSouth announced a phone designed by IBM that qualifies as the first smartphone ever brought to market. The Simon, as it was known, had a touch screen that became a keypad, showed email, displayed calendar appointments, and more. It was also the year Motorola announced its Envoy, based on General Magic’s OS and designed to run on its ARDIS packet-data network. Apple introduced the next Newton, the MessagePad 110, which included an external wireless card. Sony entered the handheld business with the Magic Link, also based on the General Magic OS, Palm Introduced its Graffiti handwriting recognition software, and Seiko launched a paging service using FM broadcast subcarrier signals. The service was DOA and years later Microsoft launched its own version of the same service call SPOT that lived just a little longer and then died.

In the December 1994 issue of Andrew Seybold’s Outlook on Mobile Computing, I recapped the year by saying: “During the past few weeks, it seems as though the computer industry press and many industry analysts had decided that PDAs are no longer devices with a future. They have seen what is available today, heard about what will be available tomorrow, and have decided that while the concept of a PDA is good one, a PDA product is not practical.” I went on to list recent PDA happenings:

  1. Compaq delays development of its PDA devices
  2. Lotus decides not to pursue a wireless communications strategy
  3. Intel/VLSI cancel the handheld CPU chipset known as “polar” [Editor’s Note: Intel has since cancelled or sold off two more handheld processors]
  4. Newton, the Apple PDA, is not selling well
  5. Motorola has not yet shipped its Envoy product announced last spring, and finally,
  6. Microsoft announces it is delaying the release of its WinPad operating system until at least the beginning of 1996.

Moving into 1995, Motorola finally started shipping its Envoy wireless communicator based on the General Magic OS and also its Marco product, basically the same type of communications device designed for corporate America and making use of the Apple Newton operating system. These were both self-contained wireless messaging and communications devices using the ARDIS 19.2-Kbps network and neither of them ended up being a top seller (to be kind). February saw Sony introduce a handheld cellular phone with the ability to send and receive messages using the CDPD packet-data portion of the cellular network, Sharp released its Zaurus handheld with a wireless PCMCIA card, and the PCS spectrum auctions for 1900-MHz spectrum were winding down in March.

Panasonic announced its in-building, wide-area Business Link phone system to provide a single access number to business customers both while in their office and on the road, SkyTel rolled out two-way paging services using narrowband PCS spectrum, Apple launched revision 3 of its Newton, the Message Pad 120, using the Newton OS version 2.0, Megahertz offered a PCMCIA wireless card on the RAM network, and Lotus, which a few years earlier chose not to offer a wireless solution, entered the market with its “freedom pack,” a two-fer wireless modem kit for handheld computers to connect a desktop and a handheld device.

The following year, 1996, was a big year for wireless. We had several new wireless email providers including WyndMail, ZAP-it, and others, the Palm Pilot was released but with no wireless connectivity, and Nokia introduced its Nokia 9000 Communicator, a smartphone that opened up like a clamshell handheld to reveal a larger screen and keyboard. This was the first time the terms “smartphone” and “Internet appliances” were used to describe some of these devices. Voice over the Internet was gaining favor, the first WAP browser phone, the AT&T PocketNet, was introduced, Metricom’s Ricochet muni pre-Wi-Fi networks were being rolled out in many cities, Motorla’s PageWriter, a large, two-way Smart Pager was introduced, as was RIM’s Inter@ctive Pager, and the Apple MessagePad 2000 hit store shelves. And there was yet another start for Handheld PCs, this time employing Microsoft’s Window CE operating system, and pre-Wi-Fi 10BaseT wireless networks were being deployed.

AOL launched all-you-can-eat dial-up Internet access in the beginning of 1997, and the RAM Mobile Data network boasted 55,000 customers from 1,700 different companies. With demand for wireless email being the fastest growing market segment, wireless local loop or Bell Company bypass via wireless voice was a big deal, but AT&T buried its first attempt (pACT) and announced another that never saw the light of day. In-building voice and data convergence reared its head for a little while in 1997. The idea was to combine computer and voice over the same network, but this idea fizzled almost as quickly as it was introduced, as did the other trend, which was to provide a universal mailbox that would handle all of our email and voice mail, both personal and business-related. Also big in 1997 was the idea of developing secondary websites for thin wireless pipes. These sites would be available to wireless devices over slower-speed wireless data networks. Many companies came into existence to provide solutions that would make the Internet mobile and easy to use. Most of them simply faded away into the sunset within a year or so. Intel announced a Mobile Data Initiative, and while the GSM community indicated that Intel had chosen GSM wireless technology, Intel told us it was network agnostic and would work with all network providers regardless of the technology deployed. Ericsson was demonstrating WCDMA at incredible wireless speeds of 256 Kbps, we were in the midst of the GSM/TDMA/CDMA wars, there was a debate raging about messaging (SMS) versus email, Motorola was pushing voice paging with its InFLEXion technology, iPass was founded and began offering access to email on a worldwide basis with a slew of dial-in phone access numbers, and a number of companies were busy working on wireless data compression in order to bring the perceived speed of the networks to where they would be more usable. Palm (then owned by 3COM), Motorola, and PageMart teamed up to introduced the Palm Pilot pager.

Microsoft was big into handheld computers and wireless data services in 1998 and there were more handheld PCs being introduced into the market, many capable of having wireless added to them. At CTIA Wireless 1998, voice wireless companies were enamored with the idea of providing wireless data services as well, and the February issue of our newsletter predicted that wireless data for the mainstream was just around the corner. Home RF, a system for adding wireless voice and data services to the home, was introduced, sub-notebooks were going to be huge, processor speeds for mobile computers were going up, Bluetooth was introduced by Ericsson and Intel, and companies were developing a more wireless-friendly version of TCP/IP. The first discussion of software-defined radios indicted that the technology was coming of age and that customers would soon have a single world phone for both voice and data, neighborhood private networks were in vogue, RIM introduced its smallest two-way messaging device ever, the RIM 950 (the same form factor as the first BlackBerry), Microsoft held its first wireless developers conference, and the FCC mandated E911 for wireless requiring location to be part of the call. Companion PCs (Jupiter-class products)(netbooks) were introduced by many companies using Windows CE, along with Vadem’s Clio, HP Jornada, NEC’s Mobile Pro, and others. The CTIA held the first Wireless IT conference in Las Vegas, and Microsoft and Qualcomm announced WirelessKnowledge, a joint venture to stimulate corporate acceptance of wireless data services.  

The last year of the decade was, in many ways, the true start of the uptake for wireless data services. It began with RIM announcing the first BlackBerry email service running on the BellSouth (RAM) wireless data network and it changed the face of wireless email forever. From day one, RIM provided a secure, single-email-address solution designed as an end-to-end system, at a reasonable price. The folks at RIM got it right! Palm launched the Palm VII with built-in BellSouth Wireless Data connectivity but polling email access, Motorola changed the wireless voice market forever by introducing the StarTAC, the smallest and lightest mobile phone yet, IBM announced an end-to-end wireless data service called Mobile Connect for corporations, and wireless Internet providers struggled to find a way to make money using data that was being given away for free on the wired Internet.

“Information appliance” was a new buzzphrase in 1999, and it was used to define what we are now calling smartphones. Wireless access to the Internet was big. We had WAP browsers and WAP-enabled phones, e-commerce was being discussed, and we were publishing wireless roadmaps for all of the various wireless technologies. Universal Access was still hot, while SMS was huge in Europe and beginning to catch on in the United States. A solution-based wireless access company, OpenSky was born, wireless transactions were getting press as was the use of credit and debit cards over wireless, 3G wireless was on the horizon, and we were all wondering if the computer world as we knew it would collapse on December 31, 1999 (Y2K computer issues). CDMA network operators began rolling out 14.4 circuit-switched dial-up data access, and this entry appeared in our August 1999 Outlook:

“Wireless Internet Feeding Frenzy. The competition to offer content over the Internet has produced a feeding frenzy among those who believe that the Internet and wireless is the next big thing. The investment community is rushing headlong into this space, companies that were ahead of the trend are envisioning bright futures, and alliances and partnerships are being put together on a daily basis. Each of these entries faces the same obstacles, and until there are some sound economic models in place that are embraced by the consumer, this is still very much a crapshoot.” And it goes on to discuss “quick, concise access from anywhere, at any time, to specific data,” which has become one of my mantras.

In September 1999, Barney Dewey, a business partner at the Outlook on Mobile Computing, now Andrew Seybold, Inc., wrote a review of the Visor, a new handheld wireless computer from Handspring, the founders of Palm. In his introduction he stated, “Many great product ideas are obvious—once you see them. Such was our impression when we saw Handspring’s first product, the Visor handheld computer, that will be available in October of this year.” He goes on to say, “We contend that the best computing products are the ones that attract the best, most innovative developers. If this hypothesis is true, then Handspring should be the most successful mobile (wireless) computing product to date.” It was successful, and 3COM acquired Handspring and melded it back into Palm not long after this product hit the market.

The battle of wireless technologies was raging at full steam in 1999 when GSM, TDMA, and CDMA were all doing battle against each other, each claiming to be the best digital technology for the future. TDMA went the way of dinosaurs, and GSM/GPRS/EDGE versus CDMA became the next big battle—a battle that still rages to this day. Qualcomm pushed High Data Rate (HDR) technology for data, the precursor to EV-DO, up to 153 Kbps, moving packet data out of a shared environment with voice to its own spectrum. Microsoft and Ericsson announced a relationship that never went anywhere, just as Microsoft’s earlier relationship with Motorola fizzled, and 1999 drew to a close with few winners in wireless data but great foundations for several products and services that have become mainstream in today’s market.


If you have read the above and are still with me, I hope you have gained a sense of the many different devices and services that marked the first decade of wireless data services, at least in the United States. Most of those mentioned above failed, some have survived, and a few have thrived. I find it interesting that every time a new category of device or service is introduced I can look back and usually find at least one predecessor and, in most cases, the predecessor was a failure. I find myself wondering if these early products would have survived and changed the world of mobile computing and wireless as we know it if they had had today’s wireless broadband capabilities available to them.

For the RIM BlackBerry, the answer is no. The delivery of wireless email does not require a broadband connection. When I carried my first BlackBerry I used to say that I received my email faster than I could read it—and that was on the BellSouth 8 Kbps network. What I did not have was a single device for voice, email, and data, and I didn’t have the ability to sync my calendar and PIM over the air, open attachments, or read HTML email. But I had the basics for what has proven to be the core of RIM’s success: wireless email with a single user address.

Would broadband have made the Windows CE Jupiter class machines (netbooks) successful? Probably not because Microsoft messed up the in and outboxes. Email received via wireless had to be answered via wireless, likewise, wired email had to be answered via wireline. You could respond to a wireless email and connect via a wired connection, but the reply would not actually be sent until you reconnected via wireless.

Would tablet PCs have been a success with broadband? I don’t think so. In addition to broadband, they would have needed more memory, better screens, and faster processors similar to what we have today.

Cloud computing is the wireless version of mainframe and dumb terminal computing and it has been tried before by Sun Microsystems and others. Will cloud computing catch on today because we have faster wireless connections this time around? I don’t think so. It all comes down to trust, and I, for one, don’t trust the Internet with my applications or my data. Ask Nokia and others that have lost a lot of cloud data.

If you go through all of the devices and services listed above and have an idea about reincarnating one of them, ask yourself if faster processors, more memory, better screens, and broadband connectivity will make the next incarnation of the product or service successful. I am willing to bet that in 90% of the cases they won’t make much difference. If customers saw the need for the product then, they would have accepted it even with limitations because it would have solved a problem for them or helped make their lives easier.

Learning from the past is a great way to look into the future. Apple’s iPad will probably be more successful than any other tablet computer that has gone before it, but I don’t think the iPad will have the same impact or success as the iPhone. Perhaps if you have a “new” product idea you should revisit the past—it is easy with Google and other search engines. Read the initial reviews and follow it into the marketplace. Read later reviews and product evaluations, and read about its impact and uptake once it reached the market. Analyze why it failed or was successful and determine how you will make it better so it won’t fail this time. Above all, ask yourself, “What common problem do customers have that this device or service will alleviate?”

Good luck, and remember when charting your course for success to look into the past and learn from others’ mistakes. A lot of venture capital dollars were burned to learn these lessons—better to review the past before moving forward, if only to make sure you do not needlessly burn your own dollars.

Andrew M. Seybold

One Comment on “Resurrecting the Past”

  1. rmq007 says:

    Dear Andy:
    A thoughtful analysis of the past and what it portends for the future! You may be interested to know that the book I have been writing, “BlackBerry: The Inside Story of Research In Motion” will be published in Canada next month. In the United States copies will be available in stores and on by April 1.
    Meanwhile you can keep abreast on my wesbsite
    Again, many thanks for your help during the interview stage of my research.
    Rod McQueen

You must be logged in to comment or reply.