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The Smartphone is 20 Years Old, Believe It or Not

Added on Nov 27, 2012 by Jon Gold,Network World (US)

The breakneck pace of change in the smartphone world is well known: Since the iPhone catalyzed popular demand in 2007, development has been moving faster and faster, to the point where devices are out of date mere months after their release. However, this wasn't always the case. In fact, according to some estimates, the smartphone is actually all of 20 years old, as of last Friday.

WE'VE COME A LONG WAY
: Bye-bye, mouse. Hello, mind control

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The IBM Simon was rolled out on Nov. 23, 1992, at COMDEX, though it was code-named "Angler" at the time. You likely couldn't have fit it in your pocket, given that it was about the size of today's Nexus 7, but then, at 18 ounces in weight, it probably would've made you walk funny anyway. It sported a 16MHz processor, 1MB of memory and 1MB of storage. Its operating system was a variant of DOS.

Its external app ecosystem consisted of exactly one program -- a PC-to-Simon texting tool called DispatchIt, which cost $3,000 for the PC software and an additional $300 for every Simon client. To be fair, however, it could do some things modern smartphones can't, like accept fax transmissions.

As primitive as Simon looks today, however, it was still recognizably a smartphone -- it used an app drawer, had touch-screen input (admittedly, in monochrome and with a stylus) and was even sold via the same subsidized pricing scheme commonly used today, at $900 with a new two-year deal from BellSouth Cellular.

[Video is complete with real knee-slapper of an Android joke at the end.]

Unfortunately, Simon wasn't a commercial success -- according to Bloomberg, it was plagued by half-hearted marketing, short battery life and a host of other problems, and spent a total of six months on the market before being yanked.

Still, despite all that, Simon was undeniably the forerunner of today's smartphones. What's more, it's a great reminder of how far the technology has come in two decades, and how fast it continues to develop. Just think of Simon the next time you complain that iOS 6 is terrible or that you haven't gotten an Android update for a whole month.

Email Jon Gold (who has done both of those things) at jgold@nww.com and follow him on Twitter at @NWWJonGold.

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