How It Started: Mobile Internet Devices of the Previous Millennium

How It Started: Mobile Internet Devices of the Previous Millennium

Evan Koblentz (Historian, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60960-499-8.ch010
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Internet access on cellular phones, after emerging as a new technology in the mid-1990s, is now a thriving activity despite the global economic recession. IDC reported smartphone sales of 1.18 billion units in 2008 (IDC, 2009), compared to the unconnected personal digital assistants approaching merely 1 million units per quarter in the second half of 2003. However, the concept of using handheld devices for wide-area data applications began 25 years prior to the beginning of the end of PDAs.
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The key year in the history of PDA devices is 1978. That year, a start-up called Lexicon sold its handheld electronic language translator (Levy, 1979) called the LK-3000. Its interchangeable modules included database and notepad applications, and the product was licensed by Siemens-Nixdorf. Meanwhile independent inventors Robert Hotto and Judah Klausner patented what may be the world’s first PDA (Klausner & Hotto, 1977). Toshiba acquired the rights and produced it as the Memo Note 30 model LC-836MN. It combined a handheld calculator with an alphanumeric keypad and had the ability to store up to 30 data entries.

Noteworthy in these devices were their applications to the intelligence community. Lexicon founder Michael Levy revealed in 2003 (Koblentz 2003) that an encryption module was created for the U.S. National Security Agency, while Toshiba’s product was featured for its own cipher value in the April 1980 issue of Cryptologia. In both cases, the intention was that military and intelligence staff would use proprietary hardware to send data over public landline telephone networks – a technique not dissimilar from modern commercial VPNs.

More ambitious devices developed in the realm of science fiction, such as Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy on BBC radio beginning in March, and Gordon Dickson’s story Thank you, Beep published that summer1 in the Hewlett-Packard Calculator Journal.

It would take time for reality to equal the hype. Miniature landline acoustic modems only available to the defense and intelligence community in 1978 were publicly launched by the early- and mid-1980s. Two examples of devices which could employ such technology were Panasonic’s RLH-1400 Hand Held Computer (introduced in 1981) and Psion’s Organiser (introduced in Britain in 1984), both in support of applications such as file transfer and remote access to larger computers.

Data advances in handheld devices finally began changing from wired into wireless in the first half of the 1990s. Among the most successful advances was the Nokia 1011 introduced in 1992. It was the first commercial GSM phone and therefore the first with text messaging. Texting is based on radio protocols, not Internet protocols, but at the time it showed consumers and service providers alike that mobile phones had applications potential beyond telephony. Also that year, IBM targeted its 9075 “PCradio” subminiature laptop at Sears field technicians, so they could access service documents. Similar technology was available for Atari and Hewlett-Packard's own handhelds (Gregg 1992). Next, an optional cellular modem was available for AT&T’s EO 440 in 1993. Motorola’s L3000 phone introduced the iDen push-to-talk application in 1994; and cellular modems appeared in Apple Newton clones such as the Motorola Marco and Digital Ocean Seahorse in 1995 and 1996, respectively. By this point, Tim Berners-Lee’s nascent World Wide Web was engulfing the Internet, and laboratories such as the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center began evaluating the feasibility of Web browsers for prototype mobile devices such as the ParcTab (Theimer et al., 1993).

However, it appears that the first mobile consumer device with native Internet applications was the IBM Simon, developed by engineers at IBM’s Boca Raton, Fla. facility in 1992 and 1993. “To me it was somewhat of an obvious idea,” lead architect Frank Canova said in a 2007 interview. IBM’s executives were convinced to allow the development of a smartphone when members of the Simon team appeared at meetings carrying a bag with a portable computer, fax machine, organizer, and telephone. Bigger challenges included battery life, component miniaturization, and designing a user interface without any previous examples, he said. The pioneering smartphone also included a memory card slot, predictive text entry, a touchscreen, and wireless software updates – all still considered modern features today. Code-named Sweat Pea, it entered the market through BellSouth in 1994, but was discontinued later that year despite plans among Canova’s team for improved versions.

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