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Communicators – the history of
It’s not a rare occasion when I’m asked whether some device is a smartphone, communicator or something in between. In fact, consumers seem to have absolutely no idea what a communicator” is and where it stems from. We find out what it really is in this write-up.
Like it usually happens with other device types, all manufacturers were striving to roll out an array of mobile solutions, peeking at what others had under their belts, addressing the consumers’ needs and with own vision of the market in mind. Some set off to create the most feature-rich device, others – the most portable one, while the rest wanted to cause a major shakeup with the most quirky product. We could go into detail on each and every example of these three approaches, but now we are going to look at the mobile device market with a little overview of its history.
The debut of Nokia’s communicator could never have happened in the vacuum, beyond the market context. The truth is, this breed is a direct follow-up to the ideas from the past, solutions that had been presented by other manufacturers in UI and product design. Without giving you a breakdown of how the market of pocket computers emerged, we will never be able to properly explain why Nokia walked this path and not the other one.
First pocketable devices for crunching numbers were calculators, and as microelectronics progressed, they were getting increasingly sophisticated. The first scientific calculator to go portable was the HP-35 that debuted back in January 1972. In ten years’ time many companies got into pocket-friendly calculators, so these devices became widely adopted.
The computer industry wasn’t threading water either, as the idea of a pocketable PC was fluctuating around the market, and there was a bunch of contenders trying to snatch the market. One of this need breed of computers as the Radio Shack Pocket Computer TRS-80 that retailed for 250 USD. The maker actually offered a whole range of desktop PCs (TRS-80), and in 1980 this model came to push the boundaries of its portfolio. We couldn’t find any earlier mentions of portable computers, so let's think of this one as the world's first.
Now take a gander at the looks of that pocket PC, and it won’t take long before you actually realize that it doesn’t differ much from programmable calculators, so the maker put strong emphasis on the fact that it was not the same thing.
«This new TRS-80 Computer is another "first" from the company which brought you the best-selling, world renowned TRS-80. A truly pocket-sized Computer (not a programmable calculator). Of course it is an ultra-powerful calculator too... And it "speaks" BASIC - the most common computer language, and the easiest to learn. You'll soon be impressed by the phenomenal computing power of this hand-held TRS-80 - ideal for mathematics, engineering and business application».
Another thing of note is that the manufacturer built a bridge between calculators and first pocket computers. So if we drew parallels with the term of “evolution” used in biology, then the TRS-80 Pocket Computer would be an intermedium.
The model came installed with a battery, 1.5 Kb of RAM and a BASIC language interpreter in ROM, allowing the user to create own programs. The display was capable of showing one 24-symbol line; on top of that they offered a tiny printer that could be connected to the computer, and a cassette memory device.
One of the important things about the TRS-80 is its price – not only did this pocketable computer utilized the looks of a programmable calculator, it was positioned at a pretty much the same price point. In effect, the maker rolled out an advanced programmable calculator and called a “computer” just for the sake of distinguishing itself from the pack.
The following two years saw the Sharp PC-1500 Hand Held Personal Computer, Sanyo PHC-8000, Toshiba Pasopia Mini and Radio Shack’s next offspring – all these devices got their power from AA batteries, which was nothing out of the ordinary, and came equipped with single-line displays. While they retailed for 100-300 USD, they weren’t mass-market devices in any sense – rather, this niche was kept afloat by enthusiasts.
Manufacturers preferred to proceed with caution on this market and didn’t see much potential in it, yet kept putting in more experiments, beefing up memory banks, increasing screen sizes, which eventually gave birth to a couple of very quirky devices, like Seiko’s computer it released back in 1984 which was embedded into a writs watch and sported a 4-line screen (10 symbols in each).
Then the market entered the deadzone, with no fundamentally new offerings coming out, that lasted until 1989, when on April 11th Atari Computers introduced its Portfolio Portable at COMDEX. Unlike the TRS-80, it was a full-featured computer running DIP DOS (a counterpart to MS DOS 2.11). Plus, its dimensions of 200x105x25 mm made it the most pocketable and palm-friendly computer around.
That’s the first time we come across the laptop-esque form-factor (when its display is hidden inside) picked by the maker for this tiny device. And while it is not something Atari Computers can be extremely proud of, since – similar solutions were already out there (the HP-110 employed a resembling design), however size-wise it was in a completely different league.
The merit of Atari Computers is that the maker proved that this design was suitable, easy to use and applicable to tiny devices. Moreover, given its price tag of 399 USD, Atari could well expect very solid sales. That’s pretty much how the market for PDA devices, that were yet to advent, came along.
One of the pioneers on this market that had a good hand in its development at that was HP. It also opted to stick to the folder-type design and remained true to it for a very long while. This price computer of this breed was the HP-95LX, where the LX has nothing to do with its dimensions, but rather stands for Lotus Expandable. It was meant to handle Lotus 1-2-3, on top of that it could send mail and upload files remotely. For a device that debuted on April 23, 1991 it was, if not a revolution, a remarkable improvement over the rest of the field.
The specs of the 95LX weren’t all that common for 1991 – it ran MS DOS 3.22, boasted 512 Kb RAM, and an LCD display showing up to 40 symbols (25x80 or 248x128 pixels). It had spent around 15 months in HP’s workshop under the codename “Jaguar”; interestingly, its development was on the shoulders of HP that had created such calculators as the HP 28C, HP 28S, HP 48SX. On its release day, the HP-95LX went for 699 USD.
As far as first communicators are concerned, though, we need to point out that the HP-95LX made use of shortcut buttons for select features, like calendar, phonebook etc.
For HP, the 95LX ushered in a whole array of solutions, including the OmniGo models in 1995 and 1996, the HP 300LX and HP320LX in 1997. In fact, they shaped the way market was going to develop and set the price brackets for this device type.
Our story would have been only half-way done if we made no mention of how the PDA term came along (personal digital assistant) to become synonymous to portable computers for years to come. Back in January 1992 this term was put forth by Apple's chairman of the board, John Sculley. As he saw it, a PDA was a portable PC controlled with the help of a touch-sensitive display and a stylus. Later that same year, more precisely in May, the maker announced the Apple Newton, the world’s first touchscreen-powered PDA. While it was well ahead of its time, despite the success reports that were floating around the market for a couple of years, it never became widely adopted. To back up this assumption I’ll toss an example of this device’s successor - the Apple Newton MessagePad 100. First ten weeks saw the sales of 50.000 units, which was a terrific figure; however over the product’s entire life span they managed to hand out only around 80.000 devices, which wasn’t all that tremendous. The Apple Newton sparked a whole class of devices, but for our story this branch is of very little importance.
Internet in pocket – the market emerges
The advent of devices that could readily slip into the user’s pocket, along with booming web had to prepare the market for Internet access for both carriers and device makers. But this wasn’t the case in early 90-ies – the major forte of pocket PCs back then was mail and ability to tap into corporate networks to upload data. There was a multitude of reasons for that, but the foremost was stratospheric data tariffs, plus there was no pay-per-Kb(Mb) schemes – that’s how come these services enjoyed no demand at all.
The market was desperately searching for an alternative to expensive data connections in carriers’ cellular networks. In Canada, for example, they offered a service (InfoWave) allowing the user to access the Web in order to upload mail – 49.95 dollars, by GDT Softworks. The users needed to get a PC Card modem at that, but the real drawback was in the poor coverage zone, even compared that the cellular networks of those days. And, frankly, the market for this type of services had little to no future.
In 1999, with the debut of the Palm VII they made an attempt to utilize a similar scheme for the US, although originally they tried to charge every Kb of data, but to no avail; so the monthly subscription fee made the same 49.95 USD, but the users didn’t have the entire Web on their hands – just weather forecasts, market shares and so on.
On the other hand, the first wave of pockatable devices hinted at the prospects of this market, inclining different companies to build platforms and develop operating systems. In 1995 Palm OS made its debut and after very little struggle it got to the top, but initially it had no ability to browse www (it would come along much later). 1996 saw Microsoft’s foray into this market, with its Windows CE, which came preinstalled with Internet Explorer. The next year brought EPOC32, the prototype of Symbian. First Series 5 devices, specifically the PSION Series 5 came packaged with no www browser, however this glitch was dealt with in 1999 in the 5mx (Opera 3.62).
At the same time, Internet was getting more and more real for mobile phones as well – in 1997 AT&T launched the AT&T PocketNet with an HDML (Handheld Device Markup Language, a simplified HTML) browser on it. For this browser to grab a page, it had to be reworked for HDML’s needs, since standard HTML sites were of no use. When the service debuted, there were around 25 specially tweaked sites, plus for 29.9 USD of monthly subscription the user got unlimited access to mail, although all extra data services were to be paid for separately. Among the obvious letdowns of this solution were a very limited number of web resources, inability to load any page on the web, and also the fact that HDML never made it as a mass-market standard. Curiously, the browser for that phone was developed by UnWired Planet, know as OpenWave these days.
The ideas that constituted the basement of the AT&T PocketNet were fleshed out in WAP later on, the first handset to embrace this technology was the Ericsson R320s. But again, as far as our research is concerned, this piece of information is not relevant.
Based on the above facts, it is clear that mobile Internet was quite far-off even as concept for manufacturers in 1994-1996 – everybody was looking for an effective way-out, while high prices only added to the complexity of the situation. That was the time hen Nokia decided to initiate development of communicator, since this maker saw much potential in the yet-emerging market. However that was only one of a handful of projects, as the company didn’t have a good understanding what solution or device type were going to dominate on the market. Although communicators were deemed sustainable investments that could generate some good sales, therefore most manufacturers had their eyes on this branch, and so did Nokia.
Nokia - in search of a spark
The Nokia 9000 was the market’s first communicator, released in 1996. The primary goal the maker set off for this product was to fuse a PDA (not in the sense that established much later, along with the term itself) and a mobile phone in one package. The very name for this device originated from the project's aim – to allow for communication with the environment. Then, they went on to register this word as a trademark. So other manufacturers, by using this term in their products, pay respect to Nokia and it has done for the market, and violate the Finnish maker’s copyright along the way.
The rapid development of the Internet faced the maker with the necessity to add a default browser to its solutions. But, on the other hand, mobile phones of those days boasted displays with poor resolutions; at the same time, a PDA-esque device would have shrunk the potential audience outright. At a glance there was no easy way out, but Nokia decided to go for a new device type – with the flip closed the communicator looked more like a smartphone, and snapping it open made it appear to be some sort of a portable computer. That was what ensured continuity of user experience – they got both a conventionally looking phone for their calling needs and a pretty much pocket PC esque concept inside. Having struck the right balance between these two extremes, Nokia didn’t have to worry about consumers being put off the by communicator’s quirky design.
The development of the 9000 Communicator was carried out under the veil of secrecy – nobody was allowed to have a glimpse of it prior to the official announcement. Despite a plethora of innovations in software, like the web-browser, the company opted to forgo full-scale public testing of this and other features. The browser underwent these field tests only in 1996, which were more not regular or systematic. The second round of testing occurred down the road in 1997, when the company investigated this matter in more detail.
At that time Nokia was looking into the possibility of team-based product development, with each team having a personal area of responsibility. Starting mid 1995, the core Nokia 9000 dev team, the headquarters if you like, was based in Tampere, Finland. Two software teams were located in the US (Seattle and San Francisco), along with the group in charge of the CPU (Phoenix). Finally the people who supervised the release of the resulting product were nested in Salo, Finland.
In hindsight, the developers of the Nokia 9000 say that tests of the communicator's software literally never stopped – thanks to the time differences the dev team in Finland regularly checked the day’s work of the US branch and when the latter came back to the office they would always find comments and further guidelines on their desks. Nokia was jamming the 9000 Communicator through indeed.
The problems faced by Nokia were by no means casual – by the time they sat down to create a browser for the world’s first communicator this application had long been available with desktop PCs (around 6 years to be precise), so they users came in with own habits and experience. For want of a touch-sensitive display or a pointing device (a mouse, for instance) they had to figure out a way to allow the user to pick hyperlinks in the application. So they came up with a straightforward and elegant solution – when you bumped into a hyperlink on a page, it would get highlighted and become pressable. While it is nothing out of the ordinary these days, since, frankly, all browsers in feature phones work along these lines, this method was pioneered by Nokia.
Another choice to make was what had to be shown on the browser’s startup. It took a fortune for a mobile device to upload a default page in 1996-1997, plus it meant the user would have to wait one to two minutes, depending on the size of the page in question. That’s why the developers found a way around – they presented the Hotlist view for the browser’s home screen, meaning that it showed an array of list, enabling the user to take his pick and thus initiate a data connection. On top of that, it was possible to add own links. All in all, it was another intuitive solution, which is pretty much par for the course these days. Curiously, in November 1996, we saw exactly the same approach with Windows CE’s PocketInternetExplorer – same menu, same views.
The ability to save documents was embedded in the Nokia 9000 from the word go, the reason still being the same – stratospheric prices for every minute of data connections made reading docs online a very expensive treat.
The technical talents of the Nokia 9000 Communicator were in line with other products of those days or a tad better than that. They used a modified Inter 386 for CPU and GEOS 3.0 for OS. HP would then use the same OS in its OmniGo. The communicator’s display sported a resolution of 640x220 pixels and showed 8 shades of gray. The area that could be used for the needs of applications made 540x200 pixels, while the right side was always occupied by button. Flip-closed, the 9000 was identical to the Nokia 2110i, which many knew so well.
As for technical innovations, Nokia opted to utilize bundled BIOS for the Nokia 9000, acquiring the license for the General Software’s solution (Embedded BIOS 3.1) for these purposes.
In order to get a better idea of this product’s specifications, let’s look at the first Windows CE powered device, the Casio Cassiopeia A-10 – it came along half a year later, in late November 1996. Its display sported four shades of grey and a resolution of 480x240 pixels, 4 Mb ROM, 2 Mb of RAM (expandable to 4 Mb). Plus it was a touch-sensitive screen, although without handwriting recognition (even though originally it packed this feature), meaning that it reduced to a mere mouse replacement. While it retailed for less money than the Nokia 9000 Communicator, it wasn’t the foremost edge for the target audience.
On the face of it, the idea of the “communicator” is right on the surface, with all solutions backing it up being relatively straightforward and intuitive. However nobody before Nokia had ever crossed two device types in one package, and frankly there had been no stimuli to do so. The maker tried to forge into the lead on an emerging market for Internet communicators, primarily, www. Its first communicator was well ahead of the competition, plus it arrived half a year earlier than the Windows CE device, as the Nokia 9000 went on sale in August 1996, whereas the Cassiopeia A-10 made it to select markets only by the end of that year. At first the 9000 retailed for 1000 USD, but then started going down in rungs on the pricing ladder to 550 USD in 1998. With this price tag on, it was a worthy rival to various pocket-friendly solutions and didn’t seem overly expensive, despite being somewhat dated. This period also heralded the ascension of Palm that gave a good nudge to all Windows CE devices, establishing a separate market, yet without mobile Internet capabilities. Palm’s devices get the full spectrum of Web-related smarts only in 2000, when it was already too late, for the market had taken some huge strides forward, leaving Palm behind in dust.
Initially, the Nokia 9000 Communicator was offered only on markets with highly developed GSM-networks, for Nokia realized that its new offspring had a shot only there. This way, the US market had to wait for the 9000 to come until March 1998. Its first sales reports indicated that not only did the communicator have a reputation as a tech-savvy device for Internet, it was also popular as a pioneer, a revolutionary solution, which, in fact, made up for its hefty price tag with its head-turning merits.
For Nokia this device was their first experience with pocket computers; however, while the company clearly saw the potential of that market back then, they never used it up until 2006. Features phone got pretty good at interacting with the environment, which took some value off the original meaning of the “communicator” term. But over the past years it has settled down in the vocabulary to the extent when consumers keep using it and eventually associating it with Nokia’s products. Many other manufacturers, having the example of the Nokia 9000 Communicator right in front of their eyes, tried to unofficially slip this name into their product titles as well. Basically, this approach was more popular with Windows CE device makers, although their solutions could well be classified as PDA (the term ushered in by Apple). The mess with names that was sparked back then still remains unresolved, even among professionals that have been on this market for years. As I see it, the models that have the right to bear the “communicator” title on them are Nokia-branded solutions, plus all offerings that come in a similar form-factor and with a full-size keyboard inside. All other devices, leave alone those with no thumbboard, cannot qualify; but yet again, I shall emphasize that the word “communicator” is nothing but a tribute to Nokia’s pioneer device, and these days the original meaning of this word has faded away, so that it fits just about any contemporary mobile phone.
Published 12 March 2008
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