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IBM's Simon 'smartphone' is 20 years old

It was almost 13 years ahead of its time
Fri Aug 15 2014, 11:03


THE FIRST SMARTPHONE, as both a handheld touchscreen cellular phone and personal digital assistant (PDA), was the IBM Simon Personal Communicator, and it hit the market 20 years ago tomorrow.

The Simon was rather awkward like other mobile phones of that era, brick-like at 200x64x38mm (8x2.5x1.8in) and weighing 510g (18oz), with a tall, narrow 4.7in 114x36mm (4.5x1.4in), 293x160 resolution monochrome backlit LCD touchscreen, and laughably underpowered by today's standards, with a 16MHz 16-bit, x86 compatible CPU, 1MB of RAM and up to 1.8MB of PCMCIA memory card storage, powered by a NiCad battery. It had a 33-pin Hayes-compatible 2,400bps modem connector with 9,600bps fax support, an RJ11 analog telephone port and a PCMCIA I/O port. Optional PCMCIA cards available included an RS232 port for connection with a PC to transfer files via PC-Link and a Motorola pager.

Its PDA features included contacts list, calendar with scheduling, world time clock, calculator, note-taking and both onscreen keyboard and predictive stylus input apps. Only one aftermarket app was developed for the Simon. PDA Dimensions marketed a remote desktop application called Dispatchit, priced at $2,999 for the host PC and $299 for each Simon device.

Built by Mitsubishi Electric for IBM, the Simon was introduced in 15 states of the southern and southeastern US by Bellsouth on 16 August 1994, priced at $899 - the equivalent of at least $1,445 today - on a two-year contract. Before it was taken off the market the price dropped to $599 - still more than $960 in today's money. During the six months that the IBM Simon Personal Communicator remained on sale until February 1995, only about 50,000 units were sold.

With the benefit of hindsight, it's easy to see where Big Blue went wrong with the Simon. By merely combining the features of a cellphone with those of a PDA in a device with little more processing power than a handheld calculator of the day, IBM failed to envision enabling easy personal access to the internet in one small device that could be held in the hand.

Three years later in 1997, something called the iPhone was shown off at the Consumer Electronics show in Las Vegas. Apple didn't actually release the iPhone until the end of June 2007, but that immediately sold 1.46 million units within the first six months. µ


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