Before iOS came Windows Mobile and Palm

The smartphones and tablets which we take for granted nowadays are an evolution of technology over time. While the Apple and the iPhone, along with Research in Motion’s Blackberry (which ironically, is also sinking quite badly at the time of writing) bought these technological conveniences into the mainstream, such multi-purpose, pocketable devices have existed for a long time before the advent of the iPhone and for some reason, only few people seem to remember their existence. I’m not sure why this is – but it’s interesting to look back and see what we did with “so little”.

Before the present smartphones and tablet devices came the PDA, which many people used to consider ‘geeky’ and ‘uncool’ (and probably still do). Vendors such as HP (which had the very popular iPaq series of PDAs – note the use of ‘i’ similar in a way to the iPod, mostly manufactured by HTC) and HTC (which is also not doing too well at the time of writing, despite having been the major source of Windows Mobile devices under various brandings such as O2, iMate, dopod) reigned supreme over the landscape – the dominant OS of choice being Windows Mobile, itself, spawned off from Windows CE for embedded devices. Of interest is that Windows CE still lives on in many devices, such as the barcode scanners used by many courier delivery drivers, some train ticketing turnstyle systems, low end GPS navigators and industrial equipment. Back to Windows/Windows Mobile in a moment.

In fact, if we trace the evolution of the PDA over time, Windows Mobile itself took over from Palm and its PalmOS based PDAs – which produced predominantly black and white LCD based PDAs. These were exceptionally successful and popular devices, and in some senses, when Windows Mobile stole the market from under its feet, it was hard to understand how such a big shift could happen in such a short time.

In fact, I had the chance to play with a Palm Vx (1999 era) and it was quite a refreshing experience (in fact, I used it in my Introduction to Satellite Tracking video – the characteristic two-toned beeping alarm featured at 7:13). Alongside the less-capable ‘digital organizers’ of the time (from Casio, Citizen, Canon, all of which I also owned, often in 2kB, 4kB, 32kB or 64kB sizes), its handwriting recognition (crude, one character at a time, limited handwriting styles) made data entry much more speedy and accurate compared to the spongy rubbery thumb-boards of the time and its 8Mb memory was very capacious. It felt quick, much like how a calculator feels like – there is very little wait. Better yet, the device was thin and lightweight, and by virtue of its (roughly) 20Mhz CPU, would easily run for close to a month in standby off an internal rechargeable battery. The device was also capable of having apps installed to it (things like moon phases, tidal calculators) – and apparently IBM’s JavaVM was available for a time, but I got mine too late and due to a licensing agreement issue, it was no longer available for download. The device had an internal Ni-Mh battery which could be charged by placing it on a dock, which would also allow it to attach via Serial port to a computer to do sync through a package called Hotsync, which could sync calendars, contacts and notes. Unfortunately, I ended up selling my Palm Vx, but it was very handy and I now regret letting go of that one.

[The PalmVx Leather Belt Holster – one of the only things I have left from my Vx]

The devices were not all that expensive as well – they were about $300 if I remember correctly, and most executives loved to use it. In fact, it had one of the first forms of “wireless” data transfer – the old fashioned IrDA – i.e. Infrared, similar to remote controls. At the time, IrDA was heralded as a breakthrough – Canon even produced an IrDA printer, there were also Nokia phones with it, and people exchanged contacts with it. Its short range was a “bonus” in some sense with interception unlikely to be a problem, but it communicated at Serial Port rates, and often, quite slow ones and had line of sight limitations and limited range due to interference from light sources.

Later iterations of Palm OS bought devices with colour screens and more complex apps, but they were thoroughly being outpaced by Windows Mobile’s rapid rise. In fact, looking back from the present perspective, it can be hard to think of a time when Microsoft wasn’t dominant of the PDA landscape – but Windows Mobile wasn’t a defacto standard OS that dominated the market segment from day one. In fact, Windows Mobile devices were dramatically rising in popularity because their devices offered colour screens, heftier processing powers, more apps, and devices often offered more connectivity and peripheral options. Combined with powerful Activesync, and integration with Outlook, it naturally became the standard for many corporates. The added multimedia capabilities which only came late to the Palm platform was an added bonus.

I grew quite fond of Windows Mobile, thanks to my seasoned usage of it everyday. It wasn’t hard to grasp, as some people expected, and things could be customized to some extent (you could change your alert tones by shoving new .wav files into your Windows folder, choose what comes up on the Today home screen, organize your most recently used apps). The OS was capable of multitasking, although the lack of RAM and no swap space meant that some processes will be “autokilled” in the background (yes, it already existed in 2003!) Swapping between apps was somewhat clumsy, clicking on the app icon would bring up an active instance if it was open, clicking the close icon merely hid the program (until you headed to Settings -> Memory and killed it from there). Apps were pretty much all full-screen, especially given the small resolution of the screens at the time – this made somewhat good sense. (This is in distinct contrast to Windows CE which behaved and looked like Windows 95 – with windowed applications, a start bar with task bar and system tray – there were even some subnotebooks which had CE on them, but given that it’s basically an OS for ARM (shh, Windows 8 RT is NOT the first ARM OS Microsoft has had), application availability was rather limited.)

On screen keyboard was nice too – while it was a bit small, because the screens were small, using it with your fingernail was somewhat comfortable, and if not, a stylus was fine. It even had predictive texting … and support for multiple keyboards (change layout to T9 for example).

Devices had screen-backlight-off modes to save power, had standby/sleep modes (as bootup takes a while, just like the devices of today), and needed to be hard reset about once a week or two due to unusual behaviour (just like most of the PDA/tablet/phone devices I’ve owned – except the Nokia N800). Devices also had light-sensors for auto-brightness, but back then, no gyro/accelerometer, magnetometer, NFC of course.

Already from here, it is clear – we already had multitasking (iOS took a while to get there), sleep, long bootup times, full screen apps, running apps in the background, customizable ringtones/alert tones (iOS still not quite there), a filesystem to use (not on iOS).

Apps for Windows Mobile was actually quite plentiful, until such time iOS came along and made it look like a joke. Almost all apps did not feature DRM except for a very few, and could be installed from .cab files straight from the device (no need for a desktop or Activesync). They could also be loaded and unloaded via Activesync (required due to the apps only being stored on Flash memory, and that was limited in initial devices). In fact, there wasn’t even an app store – until Windows Mobile 6 which introduced a store, which has since shut down this year. Better still, the OS also supported .Net CF (Compact Framework), so some apps could be authored to run on desktops and PDAs alike (although this rarely worked as expected). There was also a Java VM on some devices which could be used to run Java games. In all, I found apps for almost everything I’d wanted to do back then – Media Player (TCPMP), GPS Speedometer and Clock Sync, GPS status (VisualGPSCE), VNC Viewer, Opera Browser, Network Scanner (WiFiFoFum) just to name a few. Before the existence of Tripview, CityRail actually offered .zip files with mobile-optimized HTML timetables for loading onto Windows Mobile devices. When the iPhone got momentum, they stopped publishing these .zip files, and while I complained as hard as I could, nobody seemed to care. It was as if Windows Mobile had suddenly changed from relevant to irrelevant overnight.

And the abilities of these PDAs, while somewhat limited by the hardware of the day, was really quite awesome. IrDA, which has all but disappeared from all devices of today was actually useful for quite an interesting purpose – to use as a learning remote control for your TV/DVD player. It worked well. Having Wireless B (or in a late model device, Wireless G) allowed surfing the internet without any cables – although most devices supported WEP only. The OS itself supported connecting to Windows shares, so playing media files via network through TCPMP (The Core Pocket Media Player – free!) worked a treat – no need to convert DivX files (although the inbuilt Windows Media Player was suitably braindead and crippled with very very limited format support).

And it was hardware expandable. Most of them are capable of at least CF-I/O for the ones with CF slots, and others without them had SDIO capabilities. I never had any SDIO devices, but I did have a CF wireless card for my PDA. I’m sure most of you may have never seen one!

Virtually all Windows Mobile devices had at least an SD or a CF slot, premium devices having both – and of course, FAT/FAT32 supported out of the box for “added expansion” which was dearly needed at the time. Bluetooth came as standard for the later, more premium devices, with OBEX supported out of the box for file-sending peer to peer. Funny how this isn’t even an integrated option in iOS resulting in a plethora of third-party apps. Bluetooth also offered another advantage – connecting to an external Bluetooth GPS made wardriving fun, allowed for track-recording and better still – you could install applications like iGO, Destinator and CoPilot and make your PDA into a GPS. In fact, that’s how some of the first Asus and MiO units worked (with integrated GPS).

[A HP Travel Companion rx5965 with integrated SiRF GPS, Windows Mobile 5 and TomTom navigation software]

[Bluetooth GPS I used quite frequently with my PDAs]

While it started as a PDA, many manufacturers tacked on a GSM/EDGE radio to it, to turn it into a PDA-phone. Regrettably, they didn’t always do a good job of it – many of the radios they used were of low-sensitivity causing lots of signal coverage issues. But it also meant that we could use mobile data to surf the internet (Pocket IE was rubbish, but Opera was available and much better!) What a shame GPRS was so expensive back then, making this an option only for the most wealthy (charged by the kB)! Some manufacturers were gutsy enough to tack on a 1.3MP camera (my two O2 XDAs both had one) which was barely webcam quality but allowed one to take a photo if they were desperate, and even shoot video with sound.

[O2 XDAII Atom]

Some even went as far as to try and make it ‘cooler’ by offering as a flip phone with no touch, but that just made for a very difficult to use interface. The reduction in hardware specs to accommodate the form factor didn’t help either.

[i-mate Smartflip]

One could arguably call this a “smartphone” – it wasn’t brilliant but it worked. Ultimately, the devices only reached a minimal amount of penetration with users and was not well remembered by the looks of it.

It was also somewhat both a blessing and a curse that most HP iPAQ PDAs had a “dock connector” – adapters and cables were used with it, as well as cradles to hold the PDA, charge and do data transfer. Almost all of the iPAQ range used this oddball connector – I had at least 5 which used it. They had switchable USB charging too, in case you had no dock with higher powered power adapter for faster charging.

[Dock Cradle]

[The iPAQ h5550 that went with it – biometric security sensor for fingerprint scanning, in a protective screen case jacket. Screen protectors were popular too as resistive screens would be permanently damaged by scratches.]

[Actually, I had a hx4700 with cradle too, but I’ve stowed that away in the roof-space as a keep-sake … my favourite PDA of the time, Wireless G, Bluetooth, 624Mhz Intel XScale CPU, 640×480 screen (best of the time – you normally got 320×240), ATi Imageon Video Acceleration and a Synaptics Touchpad (small) to drive a cursor around the screen.]

But devices of this era had a few issues – some of which we are still stuck with!

Fragmentation – be in Android or iOS, fragmentation is an issue. Devices of the day running Windows Mobile were literally quite like appliances. The core OS was rarely upgradable past its original version – if it shipped with WM2003, you had WM2003. Apps would be written to be only “upwards” compatible, so if that app you wanted only worked on WM5 or later, you were out of luck. Except if you were a bit adventurous – in fact, that’s why the forum/ROM site XDA-Developers exists – XDA is a reference to the O2 XDA (pictured earlier) which was a very popular PDA-Phone which had many cooked roms, significantly extending its life – mine had a WM6.1 ROM on it despite being shipped with WM2003SE (-> WM5 -> WM6). Unfortunately, the legality of cooked ROMs are dubious, but the utility is quite neat.

It was also an issue from the standpoint of software and hardware – each PDA was based on the same OS, but a different “recipe” for the hardware, much like how present Android phones are. Some software would flat out refuse to run, or run differently – e.g. the hx4700 had a ATi Imageon video accelerator (yes, graphic cards for PDAs!) whereas the hx5550 I had didn’t, so TCPMP would play videos smoothly on one and not the other, but you’d get occasional green casts due to a calculation bug in the Imageon itself. And while most WM devices were based on an Intel XScale ARM CPU (yes, Intel made ARMs), some were based on others like Samsung, and their performance differed somewhat too.

One of the main things worth noting is just how limited Flash RAM was back then. These devices would ship with 16-128Mb of onboard flash – due to write cycling concerns, the OS was stored in Flash, and sometimes the spare space was partitioned for storage, but not much of it was available – on some of my PDAs, as little as 2Mb. (Newer WM5 and or later devices were required to change their strategy – flash storage for everything became the norm.)

As such, pretty much all the data possible was stored in DRAM. That’s right, your calendars, e-mails, and app database. Your settings for the phone too. I’m not sure if you realize the gravity of the situation – yank that battery out unexpectedly, and you (could) lose everything. Flatten your battery to empty, and you could lose everything as well. In reality, some devices had a tiny Ni-MH cell inside to keep the DRAM refreshed without battery for about 5 minutes (but most have failed over time due to aging), but that’s cold comfort really when everything is at risk (i.e. you run through the setup procedure from step 1). This was the way of the past – the Palm stored everything in SRAM, which is volatile too – flatten that and lose everything, as with all the pocket organizers of the time (battery changes had to be performed quickly or you’d lose everything).

Okay, once you get over that, you think, no big deal. But crazy people (me included) who like to get a little more out of their cash will do some overclocking. But overclocking wasn’t fun – not by ANY measure. Crash the PDA, and you will need to do a hard reset, losing everything including the overclocking software itself. So everytime you hit a wall, you’d have to run through the setup procedure (calibrate touch screen, show the PDA you know how to do left clicks (short tap) and right click (tap and hold)) and then reinstall the overclocking software and hope you remembered which combination of multipliers were unstable. And even when it appeared stable, an unlucky wake from sleep gone wrong could cause everything to wipe. Fun.

Multitasking on it was not quite as useful as one might think, especially when the devices of the era had 32Mb to 128Mb. Very often, it was a struggle to get two sizable apps running as even a simple rendered webpage often ate the majority of the RAM. But, it did come in handy – say GPS logging + Sound Recording often worked just fine. But Web Browsing and anything else was a hard ask. The CPU power of a single core, mostly 333-628Mhz in most devices, was just not enough to make everything snappy. Dots chasing themselves around in circles (the busy indicator) was common when loading long lists of SMS Messages, searching through contacts (reminds me – it’s kinda similar to the Apple’s spinning wheel!)

Unfortunately this leads to another gripe with Battery Life. Screen on, working hard, you could only expect 2-3.5 hours of battery life. Luckily batteries were removable, but you had to be quite careful as some aftermarket batteries didn’t signal impending “doom” to the PDA and could result in full data loss (I had a few). But still, battery life could have done with a bit of a bump.

Which now leads me to the main reason why these devices might not have caught on – cost. Most of these devices were about $1000 (plus or minus a couple of hundred) to purchase new. This was pretty much corporate-level cost back then – most home users were already wary of costly feature phones and had them on contract instead of outright. Funny how an iPad/iPhone outright could end up costing somewhere in the vicinity of this, and yet people still buy it. Oh how attitudes seem to have changed …

Maybe the other reason why it didn’t appeal was because of appearance. Windows Mobile eschewed complicated looks for a simple functional look. It didn’t look like Windows CE which inherited its looks from Windows 95 (truly ugly grey and green but perfectly functional). It had more colourful gradiented blue bars, and I thought it looked nice with square dialog boxes and coloured icons. Things opened immediately, no fancy bouncing around, rubber-banding, animation (although in later builds people did add it, but it performed terribly with the hardware). Better still, there was a SCROLL BAR! No swiping your stylus around to scroll, although some apps did support that, others used that as a multi-select action. Somehow I still like this simple UI design that’s functional.

I guess what I should be saying is that, it looked simple because it had to be simple. Some versions of WM2002/3 fit in just 8Mb of flash space, and others for WM2003SE no more than 48Mb of flash. Compare that to the behemoths of iOS and Android which easily number close to 700Mb, we’re talking about a whole different ballgame.

So given all the hardware constraints, I think WM was a marvel and should be appreciated, rather than talked down upon like it was “nobody”. But that’s just my (biased) opinion of course. That being said, the release of Windows Mobile 5, its successor 6, 6.5, and 7 represented a big change in Windows Mobile which seemed only to make it less efficient, and more “store oriented” and pretty. It was more of an “apple-fication” of the OS, and I really didn’t like that at all. It was entirely out of character.

Interestingly, before all of this, apparently was Apple’s Newton/Messagepad, which I never had the chance to experience. So, in a way, we’ve come full circle – it seems to be a tech thing that the big names will become too big, and collapse under their own weight – unable to change to adapt to the changing landscape.

But given all this information, and all my fond memories of Windows Mobile, it seems remarkable that it didn’t really catch on. There’s something to be said about the efficiency of the device and what it was trying to do. Maybe it was a bit too ahead of its time.

Think Microsoft, Nokia, RIM, HTC, HP (which bought out Palm) … and their products. The pace of change is astounding, but what is more astonishing is just how long we’ve had the basic paradigm of phone, synced organizer, e-mail, multitasking, filesystem, full-screen apps and how long it took to truly go from “dork” to mainstream. What was once a luxury is now considered an essential everyday item. It’s also a case of timing, and realizing and marketing a device when it is technically feasible and there can be actual demand for it.

Attempts to “reignite” the market are plenty, but albiet, met with little success at the present moment. HP and its Touchpad met a firey (pun intended) end when they were sold in a firesale, pretty much losing money on WebOS development and the devices themselves. Blackberry fared no better, with the new OS and devices shunned, and people feeling “ashamed” of being seen with one. And now, returns Windows Phone in its 8th iteration, with Windows Phone 7 failing to “recapture” the smartphone market for Nokia.

It seems Apple has a momentum that cannot be stopped – yet. If history has its way, one day, even the great Apple will become the shrivelled Apple it once was, and someone else might just be the new king of the hill. We shall wait, and see …

About lui_gough

I'm a bit of a nut for electronics, computing, photography, radio, satellite and other technical hobbies. Click for more about me!
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