There Were Many Potholes On The Road To The Smartphone

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It was a bumpy and uncertain road to making the multipurpose phones we use today.

Angela Lang/CNET



[/collections/cnet-at-25/ This story is part of CNET at 25, celebrating a quarter century of industry tech and our role in telling you its story.]Every time you use a smartphone, you're enjoying something we thought might never exist: a device that does almost everything really well. But in the [/news/from-amazon-to-zuckerberg-25-years-of-technology/ early years after CNET's founding in 1995], there was a lot of debate about whether a single converged device was possible, or even needed. 
Even into the first decade of the 2000s, CNET talked to experts who [/news/more-divergence-or-better-convergence/ doubted that convergence was possible], asked "[ ]" and flat out said "[ ]." That may seem absurd today, but remember that not long ago a [ ][ ][ ][/topics/phones/ PDAs], BlackBerrys and then [/news/25-technologies-that-have-changed-the-world/ smartphones] suddenly clicked. 

"We were bringing something new into the world in an aura of failure," recalled Donna Dubinsky, former CEO of Palm, co-founder of Handspring and now CEO of machine intelligence company Numenta. "The [/news/apples-worst-failures-of-all-time-from-airpower-to-bendgate-to-the-newton/ Apple Newton] and [ Casio Zoomer] had been a huge bust."

PocketPC, Sony Magic Link and the Apple Newton were all early stops on the road to today's elegantly converged phone. But not all of them caught on.

Brian Cooley/CNET

Tech luminaries portrayed the groundwork for converged tech with Jetsons-esque visions of what was possible. Compaq CEO Eckhard Pfeiffer [/news/wired-home-next-step-for-compaq/ predicted] in 1997 that our homes would be wired, and in 2004 [/tags/microsoft/ Microsoft] CEO [/tags/bill-gates/ Bill Gates] forecast the [/news/microsoft-opens-windows-to-the-home/ smart home] and [/news/bill-gates-totally-predicted-netflix-in-1994-playboy-interview/ services such as Netflix], two developments we now take for granted. At their time, those pronouncements generated eye rolls and debate as often as serious consideration.

But the [/news/the-smart-home-wouldnt-exist-without-this-90s-invention/ home internet revolution happened]. For those who thought a home computer was too scientific or nerdy, there were home internet terminals such as [ ] or [ ][ MSN Companion]. From home computing and the internet came the understanding that connected services should be with us all the time.

Web TV, which later became MSN TV was basically a product line of cheap computers with a monthly access fee through an internet service provider.

KVH
The Big Bang: General Magic
[ ], developing what can still be easily recognized as [ the progenitor of the modern] smartphone with several partners 20 years before the [/reviews/apple-ipad-2018-9-7-inch-review/ iPad]. It was launched around the same time as the clumsy Apple Newton, which General Magic killed. Released in 1994, the Magic Cap platform sought to combine the existing PC and cellphone in a portable package, but didn't do so literally (Microsoft would try that later, with poor results). Magic Cap devices from [/tags/sony/ Sony] and [/tags/motorola/ Motorola] had a unique desktop interface, eschewing a T9 keyboard for a stylus-driven touchscreen. They were designed to communicate with any other connected device, regardless of platform. The prescience of these features is remarkable today.  

One of Sony's devices based on General Magic's platform, and the desktop interface it used. While slightly reminiscent of Microsoft Bob, it was a prescient step toward today's smartphone. 

Josh Carter and Computer History Museum

But [ ]. It struggled with the emerging internet, shipping on time and budget, and bringing the market along with its vision.

"It's not just the technology that wins, you have to create a very attractive product or service that people can understand," said former General Magic engineer Tony Fadell. "And you need marketing expertise early on as you develop, not later when you go to market." Fadell would go on to lead development for the iPod and much of the [/reviews/iphone-11-2019-battery-deep-fusion-review/ iPhone] at [ ][/tags/nest/ Nest] and then becoming the principal at tech investment and advisory firm Future Shape.

The Palm Pilot wasn't the first PDA, but it was the first to make it big.

Palm went so far as to recruit Donna Dubinsky's mother, as well as those of Palm founder Jeff Hawkins and marketing vice president Ed Colligan to work the show floor at the major Agenda technology conference, where the Palm Pilot was launched, to underline their device's approachability.

General Magic faded away in 2002 as Silicon Valley's biggest underdeveloped promise. Still, as former employee Tom Hershenson says in a 2018 documentary about the company, "Failure isn't the end, it's actually the beginning." Palm, Handspring, [/tags/blackberry/ BlackBerry] and Apple were all about to prove that.
Convergence in our grasp
General Magic was floundering around the time CNET started, and our attention naturally fell toward new products, including 3Com's [/news/ten-years-on-revisiting-palms-first-pilot-1/ Palm Pilot]. I remember when it launched in 1996: One day we were carrying nothing more interesting than [/reviews/motorola-startac-st7867w-sprint-review/ Motorola StarTACs], the next day we all had [/pictures/palm-products-through-the-years-photos/ Palm Pilots].



























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The Palm Pilot's combination of contacts, notes, calendar and a to-do list wasn't unique, but putting them in a small package with a purpose-built handwriting interface and syncing to your PC with the push of a button was transformative. It converged essential apps with a more human interface and synchronization with the then-dominant personal computer. "We had no idea how it would do," recalled Dubinksy. "But after the first four or five months, the line just went straight up." And the buzz came almost entirely on word of mouth from early adopters. 

In 2002 the [ ] married the Palm Pilot with a cellphone, wireless internet data and a rudimentary apps universe. We had entered the era of persistent partial attention and become used to walking around looking down at our phones. But we also realized that a device could do more tomorrow than it does today, thanks to its convergence with the mobile web. 

The [ ][/reviews/palm-treo-review/ Treo] was what you wanted to carry: Pull it out at the dinner table with friends and you were cool. Do the same with your BlackBerry and you had to apologize for being a slave to the office.