The phones we utilize today almost didn’t occur


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It was a rough and unpredictable roadway to making the multipurpose phones we utilize today.

Angela Lang/CNET

This story becomes part of CNET at 25, commemorating a quarter century of market tech and our function in informing you its story.

Every time you utilize a smart device, you’re taking pleasure in something we believed may never ever exist: a gadget that does practically whatever actually well. But in the early years after CNET’s starting in 1995, there was a great deal of dispute about whether a single converged gadget was possible, or perhaps required. 

Even into the very first years of the 2000s, CNET spoke with professionals who questioned that merging was possible, asked “do we really want our phones to do everything?” and flat out stated “convergence devices scare me.” That might appear ridiculous today, however keep in mind that recently a tv just showed tv, a phone just made call, video cameras were simply that and just GPS gadgets had GPS.

Then whatever altered as PDAs, BlackBerrys and after that smart devices all of a sudden clicked. 

“We were bringing something new into the world in an aura of failure,” remembered Donna Dubinsky, previous CEO of Palm, co-founder of Handspring and now CEO of maker intelligence business Numenta. “The Apple Newton and Casio Zoomer had actually been a big bust.”

PocketPC, Sony Magic Link and Apple Newton

PocketPC, Sony Magic Link and the Apple Newton were all early stops on the roadway to today’s elegantly assembled phone. But not all of them captured on.

Brian Cooley/CNET

Tech stars depicted the foundation for converged tech with Jetsons-esque visions of what was possible. Compaq CEO Eckhard Pfeiffer anticipated in 1997 that our houses would be wired, and in 2004 Microsoft CEO Bill Gates anticipate the wise house and services such as Netflix, 2 advancements we now consider approved. At their time, those declarations produced eye rolls and dispute as typically as severe factor to consider.

But the house web transformation took place. For those who believed a personal computer was too clinical or unpopular, there were house web terminals such as Compaq’s iPaq Home Internet Appliance or WebTELEVISION and MSN Companion. From house computing and the web came the understanding that linked services must be with all of us the time.


Web TELEVISION, which later on ended up being MSN TELEVISION was essentially a line of product of inexpensive computer systems with a month-to-month gain access to charge through a web service supplier.


The Big Bang: General Magic

General Magic was practically the Big Bang of tech merging, establishing what can still be quickly acknowledged as the progenitor of the contemporary mobile phone with a number of partners 20 years prior to the iPad. It was released around the very same time as the awkward Apple Newton, which General Magic eliminated. Released in 1994, the Magic Cap platform looked for to integrate the existing PC and cellular phone in a portable plan, however didn’t do so actually (Microsoft would attempt that later on, with bad outcomes). Magic Cap gadgets from Sony and Motorola had a unique desktop user interface, avoiding a T9 keyboard for a stylus-driven touchscreen. They were created to interact with any other linked gadget, no matter platform. The prescience of these functions is exceptional today.  

Sony HIX-3000 and Magic Cap desktop

One of Sony’s gadgets based upon General Magic’s platform, and the desktop user interface it utilized. While a little similar to Microsoft Bob, it was a prescient action towards today’s mobile phone. 

Josh Carter and Computer History Museum

But General Magic had a couple of huge blind areas. It had problem with the emerging web, shipping on time and budget plan, and bringing the marketplace together with its vision.

“It’s not just the technology that wins, you have to create a very attractive product or service that people can understand,” stated previous General Magic engineer Tony Fadell. “And you need marketing expertise early on as you develop, not later when you go to market.” Fadell would go on to lead advancement for the iPod and much of the iPhone at Apple prior to starting Nest and after that ending up being the principal at tech financial investment and advisory company Future Shape.


The Palm Pilot wasn’t the very first PDA, however it was the very first to succeed.

Palm presumed regarding hire Donna Dubinsky’s mom, in addition to those of Palm creator Jeff Hawkins and marketing vice president Ed Colligan to work the program flooring at the significant Agenda innovation conference, where the Palm Pilot was released, to highlight their gadget’s approachability.

General Magic disappeared in 2002 as Silicon Valley’s most significant underdeveloped guarantee. Still, as previous staff member Tom Hershenson states in a 2018 documentary about the business, “Failure isn’t the end, it’s actually the beginning.” Palm, Handspring, BlackBerry and Apple were everything about to show that.

Convergence in our grasp

General Magic was going to pieces around the time CNET began, and our attention naturally fell towards brand-new items, consisting of 3Com’s Palm Pilot. I keep in mind when it released in 1996: One day we were bring absolutely nothing more fascinating than Motorola StarTACs, the next day all of us had Palm Pilots.

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The Palm Pilot’s combination of contacts, notes, calendar and a to-do list wasn’t unique, but putting them in a small package with a purpose-built handwriting interface and syncing to your PC with the push of a button was transformative. It converged essential apps with a more human interface and synchronization with the then-dominant personal computer. “We had no idea how it would do,” recalled Dubinksy. “But after the first four or five months, the line just went straight up.” And the buzz came almost entirely on word of mouth from early adopters. 

In 2002 the Handspring Treo married the Palm Pilot with a cellphone, wireless internet data and a rudimentary apps universe. We had entered the era of persistent partial attention and become used to walking around looking down at our phones. But we also realized that a device could do more tomorrow than it does today, thanks to its convergence with the mobile web. 

The BlackBerry had the corporate market sewn up, but the Treo was what you wanted to carry: Pull it out at the dinner table with friends and you were cool. Do the same with your BlackBerry and you had to apologize for being a slave to the office.

Microsoft made a run at both with pocket versions of Windows that almost put a stink on the whole convergence concept. They evolved through an unloved and confusing array of versions like Windows Mobile, PocketPC and Windows CE that were all too much an exercise in ramming a PC into a small package.


Five years before the iPhone, the Treo was the first to crack the code of converged personal devices.


“One of the big breakthroughs in our thinking was the notion that these devices needed to be their own design center,” Dubinsky said. “They were not just smaller versions of bigger things. Shrinking a PC turned out to be a flawed design idea.”

Compaq developed the best of the flawed bunch with its once-hot iPaq line and series of interesting hardware modules that could expand the device to be a barcode scanner or GPS device. The add-on modules were both the essence and antithesis of convergence: They made the phone something more, but in far fewer ways and with far greater friction than apps would soon do.

Just as General Magic was done in by its blind spots, its inability to see the power of a pure touchscreen device with a vast apps universe would mean the end end for Palm, BlackBerry and Microsoft’s mobile effort. And by 2008, when both the iPhone and Android had arrived with those attributes, 3G data, amazing cameras and cloud computing were powerful winds at their backs.

Donna Dubinsky

Donna Dubinksy co-founded Handspring and was CEO of Palm. She is currently CEO of Numenta.

Angela Lang/CNET

You know the rest of the story: The iPhone went on to create the most valuable company in the world, and Android achieved 80% of a market that’s since grown to 3 billion users. So what’s next?

“The iPhone came from the iPod, it wasn’t from Windows Phone, Treo or Blackberry,” Fadell said. “Those were corporate, corporate, corporate. But the iPhone was born of a different set of software and hardware, versus everyone else who was trying to make a Windows machine smaller.”

AR and health need convergence breakthroughs

Compaq iPaq with a BackPaq

Not quite convergence: The Compaq iPaq handheld had a BackPaq add-on camera module.

HP Labs

The recipe for convergence success was well stated in a 2008 CNET column by tech industry exec and advisor Steve Tobak: intellectual capital, content and great marketing. With slight tuning, those are still where you might look for the next big thing in tech convergence.

That recipe might be no better applied than to health and wellness convergence, raised in urgency by the COVID-19 pandemic. Technology that can measure our health is all around us, from biometric wearables to smart speakers that can detect nuances of our being, facial recognition cameras and even millimeter wave radar that can monitor us from afar. But they largely remain a balkanized mess, without a single platform or two that can create a cogent dashboard for us, our health care providers and payers. Our cars shouldn’t be a century ahead of ourselves in that respect.

“We’re seeing it in health care, things that Apple and Google are doing, but the issue that always comes up is privacy,” Fadell said. “It will be a step-by-step progression as you find the benefits while also plugging the holes that create downsides that might scare off people.”

Tony Fadell

Tony Fadell led development of the iPod and much of the iPhone before founding Nest. Today he is principal at Future Shape.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

Another strong candidate to write the next chapter of convergence might be augmented reality, which is still waiting for its formidable promise to line up with a use case that we can grok en masse. When, and if, AR can break out of its current General Magic-esque era, it will tightly map our digital world to our real one in the most sophisticated form of convergence yet. Virtual reality takes the theme even deeper, but I think AR is likely to scale and will achieve its “iPhone moment” sooner. That step might even come from the iPhone maker itself.  

Convergence has matured from the engineering of mashups and miniaturization to the art of integration and human machine interface. Such integration leads us to more transparent and persistent tech, keeping convergence as important to debate as ever.

See also: The best phones for 2020

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