072 – Personal digital assistance – 1984

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Lord, grant that I may always desire more than I can accomplish. 

Born in South Africa, David Potter won a scholarship to Cambridge and earned his PhD at Imperial College, London.   After a period teaching in the UK and USA he founded Psion in 1980; from Potter Scientific Instruments.

Psion produced software for the ZX80, ZX81 and ZX Spectrum computers.  It distributed the popular Horace series under licence, together with generic programs such as Chess, Chequered Flag and Flight Simulator..

Psion worked closely with the Sinclair QL to produce the Quill word processor, Abacus spreadsheet, Easel graphics software and Archive database; the package was subsequently released for MS-DOS as PC-Four.

Psion launched the Psion Organiser in 1984; it was the world’s first handheld computer or PDA, personal digital assistant.  It could store phone numbers and addresses, maintain a calendar….  Its compact keyboard was arranged in A-B-C order (not QWERTY) and it had a single row LCD mono display.

The Psion Organiser II followed in 1986 with increased memory capacity, a two-line display and alternative data storage media such as EEPROMs and RAM packs.  It had built-in applications including a diary and alarm clock.  It used a BASIC called Organiser Programming Language.

In the 1990s the Psion Series 3, or SIBO, Sixteen Bit Organiser, and the 32-bit Series 5 moved on to a QWERTY keyboard and a clamshell design with an upgraded OPL language.  This revised OPL was the predecessor of the Symbian operating system, the OS of choice for smartphones.

2000 Psion acquired Teklogix International Inc, a Canadian company specialising in wireless data, data management and real-time data collection in the logistics business.  Purchased at £240m, the merged organisation became Psion Teklogix Inc.

Jeff Hawkins, Ed Colligan and Donna Dubinsky founded Palm Inc in 1992 to aid in the development of the Zoomer consumer-market PDA.  Zoomer was manufactured by Tandy, with software from Geoworks, and was distributed by Casio.  It reached the market before the Apple Newton in 1993 but failed to impress and sold only 10,000 units.

Palm survived because of the Graffiti software that recognised handwriting for the Zoomer and other GEOS-based devices.  Hawkins was inspired by the GRiDPad to create a series of PDAs starting with the Palm Pilot 1000 and 5000 in March 1996.  

Pilot Pen, the largest Japanese and third largest US pen manufacturer, objected to Palm’s use of the word Pilot and subsequent products dropped it.

Confinity was founded to securely process payments through Palm Pilots.  It developed a means of sending money tokens which could be cashed in or reconciled through a website called paypal.com.

Palm was acquired by US Robotics in 1995; in June 1997 both were taken over by 3Com.  Unhappy with 3Com’s direction, the three founders left to form Handspring.  They developed the Handspring Visor series and from 2002 moved on to the Treo series of handheld computers.  In 2003 the company was merged into Palm Inc. Hawkins and Dubinsky went on to form Numenta in March 2005, exploiting theories about the neocortex of the human brain.  The NuPIC, Numenta platform for intelligent computing, launched in March 2007, provided a series of tools for PCs.

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