A reflection on 20 years of smart personal devices, on the 10th Apple iPhone anniversary

A personal history of the use of smartphones over 20 years.

Whilst the media is busy celebrating ten years of the Apple iPhone, it’s easy to forget that the concept of smart personal devices has arisen much earlier.

The original Palm Pilot was launched in 1997, and Apple had a much earlier device called the Newton in the early 90s. Microsoft launched Windows CE in the mid 1990s.

The concept of carrying a personal computer small enough to fit in a pocket is an intoxicating one. I remember wanting a Windows CE device so desperately, but they were just a little too big and cumbersome, and I never liked the idea of typing on a small keyboard.

I was travelling a lot on business at the time, and my idea was that hotels should include monitors and keyboards in every room (I still don’t understand why this is not standard in a hotel room today) and I can just plug in a small credit card sized device and instantly have a computer.

Then when Palm introduced the Pilot, it refined the concept to a mostly read only device plus a stylus with gesture support instead of a keyboard. I understood why this might work – after all, I will only need to glance at information when I am on the move and not really need to enter a lot of data. I can still carry my laptop with me but leave it in the hotel room (believe me, laptops were REALLY HEAVY in those days).

The moment came when I attended a Gartner symposium in the late 90s and Palm offered all attendees 50% discount if they purchased a Palm III at the conference. I immediately bought one. I remember my boss (the CIO) very jealous of me – she had also recently purchased a Palm III but at full price.

The next year, Microsoft introduced the Pocket PC and again I was able to buy at a Gartner symposium – a Compaq (anyone remember Compaq? Hello???) model with a hefty 8GB of memory for a low, low limbo dancing special conference price of $200. Of course I bought one. The concept of running Microsoft Office on a PDA – wow!

Over the years I bought a succession of Pocket PC devices and one of the first to put a GPRS data compact flash card on my device so I can actually surf the Internet on the move. It was a supremely painful experience – I had to turn on the device, then turn on the GPRS modem (it’s not possible to leave the modem turned on all the time as the battery life is too short), then make a GPRS connection, before firing up IE and then launching the brand new Google Search page, which was of course not optimised for the mobile screen size.

Even so, our team won a treasure hunt competition in an innovation workshop. It was supposed to be a fiendishly difficult quest involving following breadcrumbs all over the city. I Googled the final answer from the first clue, and we retired to the pub to celebrate. We arrived at the final venue to claim our prize at least one hour before the second team showed up, much to the surprise of the organisers.

One team complained that we had cheated and didn’t deserve the prize, but the organisers debated and in the end ruled that my use of a smart device was legitimate and “innovative” in the spirit of the competition. Furthermore, the second prize was won by a team with a similar idea – they walked back to the office and Googled the answer as well.

When Microsoft introduced the “Pocket PC Phone Edition” in the early 2000s I was of course an early adopter. I was using a device called an “XDA” (presumably short for an “eXtended Digital Assistant”) but it was actually made by a little known company called “HTC” (at that time a contract manufacturer for the big companies). The company I worked for (a bank) was keen on trialling these devices on key executives so they enabled IntelliSync pushing emails and calendar onto my “smart phone” (yes, people were starting to use the term even then).

I was never a fan of checking emails on my phone, and for years refused to even launch the Mail application (the contraction “app” wasn’t invented yet – we called them “programs”). I remember being smart enough to turn off syncing on a business trip – the CEO didn’t and ended up with a $13,000 roaming bill.

By the time Apple introduced the iPhone, I was a mature smart phone user (as well as rapidly maturing in age, but clearly not in intelligence). I had by now graduated to using the brand new Sony Xperia (wow that device was incredibly sexy in its heyday). I also was a pioneer BYOD user – the company I was working for made an exception and enabled syncing to my personal device and everyone else had Blackberries.

In hindsight they shouldn’t have trusted me. I was bad to the bone – I had long ago given up running official ROMs and were building my own (complete with pink wallpaper and theme).

Needless to say, I was not impressed by the iPhone. It was a locked down system tied to the Apple iTunes ecosystem. By contrast, Windows Mobile had strong suite of apps, some of which I miss even today. However, Microsoft really killed the system through a succession of incredibly bad OS releases. Windows Mobile 5 was the beginning of the end – it was much slower and very unstable compared to Pocket PC Phone 2003SE, and Windows Mobile 6 wasn’t much better. I will not speak of versions after that because they were pretty much Dead on Arrival.

Not many people remember this, but Apple in the 1990s was a troubled company. Many saw it as a zombie living on past success, and some considered it amongst the Walking Dead. There were many rumours that bigger companies will buy it out just to kill it and the horrible Macintosh once and for all. HP, Oracle, IBM were all rumoured to be potential suitors. Eventually Microsoft made an investment which literally saved the company (something that Apple fanboys to this day never really acknowledged).

Apple found some success and renaissance with the iPod after Steve Jobs returned but even so Apple was not considered a strong company when it introduced the iPhone.

So I finally bought the Apple 3GS reluctantly. It was the GFC, I no longer had a job, so I was on a budget and just went for the fully subsidised carrier 8GB edition with no upfront payment. My partner went for the HTC Desire so we could compare and contrast the two.

The Apple was a clear winner. Compared to the HTC and also my old Xperia, it was rock solid stable and surfing the Internet on Safari was a dream – many sites were iPhone optimised but not Android of Windows mobile aware. The App Store was maturing fast, and gradually many of the apps I was used to on Windows mobile made their way to the iOS App Store.

By the time the 4S came out, I had turned from an Apple hater to an Apple fan. Google was clearly repeating every single mistake that Microsoft made with Windows mobile onto Android (fractured ecosystem, carrier limitations on updates, plus a lack of performance, usability and stability). The 4S was a beautiful device (I’ve always considered the 3GS a bit ugly) – I remember actually showing up at an Apple store one day nervously, and paid full retail price for an unlocked 4S. It went against every principle I had including “never buy anything at full price” – it was kind of a shameful day.

The rest is history as they say. Steve Jobs died, and I was never a big fan of him, so my last resistance to buying Apple faded.

I now buy nothing but Apple when it comes to computers, tablets and phones. I like the way the ecosystem ties everything together and I have no objections – it is a lot more open and flexible than Apple haters think, and I strongly agree with Tim Cook’s efforts at making the company more socially, environmentally and privacy focused. On the other hand, I have stopped using Google Services for the most part because I disagree with Google’s approach to privacy, and I have never liked Android.

I wonder what the next ten years will be like. I suspect Peak Apple is near, and I will not be surprised if some other company will take its place, but in the meantime it’s been an amazing ten years so … Happy Birthday iPhone! We love you.