Charlotte Connelly, Content Developer, blogs about the IBM Simon, the first smartphone to go on public sale.
Twenty years ago, on 16 August 1994, the Bellsouth IBM Simon hit the American market. Weighing in at a hefty half a kilogram, and looking rather like a grey brick, the Simon was advertised with a not-so-snappy slogan declaring it to be “The World’s First Cellular Communicator”.
Although the slogan was a bit of a mouthful, the Simon really did break new ground. It took some of the best technology that the handheld computing world had to offer – personal digital assistants (PDAs) were all the rage in the early 1990s – and combined it with a mobile phone.
With a stylus and touch screen, Simon’s users had all sorts of software applications, or apps, at their fingertips. They might sketch a drawing, update their calendar, write notes on a document, or send or receive a fax.
The Simon was, in effect, the world’s first smartphone; a device that could make calls and be programmed to do a wide range of other things. The built-in features could even be expanded by plugging in memory cards – not quite an app store, but long similar lines.
Despite having some loyal users, and after selling around 50,000 units, the Simon was withdrawn from sale after only 6 months. There were still some key pieces of the puzzle missing to enable a device like the Simon to become really successful. In 1994 the web was in its infancy, so the idea of downloading apps was not practical.
The mobile internet, accessible through mobile phones, was virtually non existent – explaining why fax was a key feature of the Simon. The hardware was also limited. With a battery that only lasted an hour in ‘talk mode’ it wasn’t practical to rely on the Simon to keep you in touch all day long. To top it all off, at $899 the Simon was simply too expensive for most people to justify.
Despite its imitations and brief foray in the marketplace, the Simon brought together many of the key things that underpin today’s smartphones. The next big splash in the market came over a decade later. By then, 3G mobile phone networks were available, online app stores were a genuine possibility and microprocessor technology had advanced enough to pack a really powerful computer into a small handheld device.
The IBM Simon will go on display in the Science Museum’s Information Age gallery which opens on 25 October 2014.