The world's first smartphone, the IBM Simon, with its stylus´┐Żfor input using the touchscreen

World's first smartphone turns 20

The world’s first smartphone will celebrate its 20th birthday tomorrow, ahead of going on display at the Science Museum later this year.

The IBM Simon first went on sale in the US on 16 August 1994 selling 50,000 units and though the term ‘smartphone’ had yet to be coined it was the first device to combine the features of a PDA and a mobile telephone.

But the project was ultimately a commercial failure and after slashing the price from the initial $899 to $599 IBM took it off the market just six months later, a sign that IBM were too far ahead of the game according to Charlotte Connelly who is curating a display featuring the Simon as part of the Science Museum’s Information Age exhibition opening in October.

“It was a nice vision, it’s just the infrastructure and the technology weren’t there to support it,” she said. “The microchips were still developing, the batteries were still developing, the network was still developing. There wasn’t really any mobile Internet; the phone still had fax built into it. It was very analogue so it wasn’t really fit for purpose.”

Nearly 20cm long and weighing in at half a kilo, the phone was closer in size to the mobiles of the 80s than the rapidly shrinking offerings of companies like Nokia.

As well allowing users to make and receive telephone calls, as well as send fax messages, emails and pager messages, the Simon boasted PDA features such as an LCD touchscreen with a stylus for input, an address book, a calendar, a calculator, an electronic note pad and both standard and predictive keyboards.

The Simon ran the ROM-DOS operating system designed by software company Datalight alongside a unique touch-screen user interface software layer known as the Navigator that had been created especially by IBM. The phone could be upgraded to run third party applications either by inserting a PC card or by downloading an application to the phone's internal memory.

But the Simon’s two nickel-cadmium batteries, recharged using a base station that came with the phone, struggled to power all this functionality – talk time was only one hour.

And according to Connelly the device suffered from the same faults as other early smartphones, which struggled due to overly complicated interfaces and catering too much to the business market’s desire for PDA-like functions that were of little use to everyday consumers.

“They did OK commercially, but they were so expensive they never really took off. They were either one thing or the other – they were either using a primarily PDA model or a primarily mobile phone model. There wasn’t a complete integration; no one came up with a complete package.”

The display the Simon features in at the Science Museum is one of 21 stories covering the breakthroughs in communication technology over the last 200 years and covers how the mobile phone became a miniature computer in everyone’s pocket.

The term ‘smartphone’ was coined by Ericsson to describe its GS 88 Penelope concept in 1997, but according to Connelly a truly smart phone didn’t come into being until Apple released its iPhone.

“The iPhone is the complete package because it does everything through a single interface,” she said. “Apple was building on the success of the iPod, which was designed with a definite mainstream head rather than a business head. The audience they were aiming for was non-techy so the interface was completely non-techy.”

But the iPhone also benefitted from major developments in micro-processor technology and the appearance of 3G cellular networks, according to Connelly, suggesting that the Simon’s biggest problem was being ahead of its time.

“It was a perfect storm,” she said. “Microchips became small enough to power the computing capabilities and mobile internet became more or less useable. You kind of need all those components together for a smartphone to be a useful device.”

The Information Age exhibition opens on October 25 and features more than 800 objects from the Science Museum collections and state-of-the-art interactive displays that will explore six key historic communication networks – the electric telegraph, the telephone exchange, radio and television broadcasting, satellite communications, computer networks and mobile communications.

The focal point of the exhibition will be the 6m-high aerial inductance coil from Rugby Radio Station, which was once part of the most powerful radio transmitter in the world, donated to the Science Museum by BT.

Among the other objects on display are Lord Kelvin's original galvanometer used to receive the first telegraph messages sent across the Atlantic, the original Marconi radio transmitter that made the first public broadcast in 1922 and the NeXT cube, the original machine used by Sir Tim Berners-Lee to design the World Wide Web in 1989.

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