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The history of Personal Digital Assistants 1980 – 2000

Psion netBook of Y2K

Psion netBook of Y2K

What’s now called a smartmobile, smartphone or pocket pc was once called a PDA – it was a Personal Digital Assistant and part from Psion’s first attempt in 1984, no one has had any real success until Apple launched the iPhone. As a curiosity in this day of buzzword technology – Psion released a netBook in March 2000. The first netbook, as they were first with the PDA? Exciting to see the result on the oncoming counter suit from Psion for Intel’s use of the term “netbook”

The early years

HP Jaguar

HP Jaguar

In 1980 Psion defined what a PDA was, and in 1984 they launched their first Digital Assistant. Nothing really hap pend after that, until 1991 when HP launched their HP Jaguar and Psion had made it to Psion Series 3.

 The Jaguar (Hewlett-Packard 95LX) was released June 1991 and the Psion series 3in august. the Jaguar  had way superior specs with a massive 1mb ROM, 512kb RAM, PCMCIA II expansion slot, 4,8″ screen and a resolution of 240 x 128 against the Psion’s 1mb ROM, 256kb RAM, 4,3″ screen with 240×80, both on monochrome and with QWERTY keyboards. In 1992 HP launched a new Jaguar with double the RAM.

The Jaguar was running on MS DOS 3.22 and Psion had their own EPOC (EPOC came from epoch, the beginning of an era, but was backfilled by the engineers to “Electronic Piece Of Cheese”) Around 2000 with the release 6, EPOC changed name to Symbian OS.  .

Apple MessagePad

Apple MessgePad (Newton)

Apple MessgePad (Newton)

In March 1993 Psion released the series 3a PDA and HP it’s next cat – HP Cougar in May.  In august Apple  released their first device based on the Newton platform, the MessagePad. Probably the first device with a stylus and handwriting recognition. 

Apple manufactured and marketed the NewtonOS from 1993 and it was discontinued by Apple in a press release February 27, 1998. The MessagePad and the eMate 300 was at their end with the discontinuation of Newton.

From 1993 until october 1995 it was mostly Apple releasing  updates for the MessagePad/Newton and HP upgrading the cougar.

The Palm Pilot

Palm Pilot 1000

Palm Pilot 1000

In October 1995 HP released a new model called HP OmniGo 100. On the OmniGo HP had dropped MS Dos as it’s operating system and started using GeoWorks GEOS Ensemble 2.0. A DOS based graphical user interface. Another important event of 1995 was  US Robotics acquired Palm Computing which was leading up to the release of he Palm Pilot. 

US Robotics launches the Palm Pilot 1000 and  5000 in June 1996. The difference between them was the amount of RAM. where the model 1000 had 128k and the 5000 had 512k.

In  my opinion, the Palm Pilot was the first real functional PDA for the mass marked and gave a glimpse of what to come. By the looks of it the Palm Pilot inherited a lot of it’s look from the Apple MessagePad.

The smart phone

In august 1996 Finnish company Nokia released what seems to be the first combination of a cellular phone and a PDA - the Nokia Communicator 9000. The Communicator 9000 was replaced in October 1997 by the Communicator 9000i, a version 9000il came out in july’98, which seems to be a decoy for the release of the Nokia 9110 Communicator  released in September 1998. Since then the communicator has evolved and updated versions have been released in 1999, 2001, 2002, 2005, 2006 and with the finally in June 2007 the Nokia E90 Communicator was released, a successor of the Nokia 9500 Communicator.

Microsoft and the PDA

Ericsson MC12

Ericsson MC12

You could say that Microsoft has been into PDA’s since the early days of 1991, since the jaguar was running on MS DOS 3.22, but what looks like their first real step into the handheld industry came with the release of Microsoft HandheldPC 1.0 (pegasus) November 01, 1996 based on Windows CE 1.0. 

In December 1996 Hewlett-Packard released  palmtop 300LX og 320LX and Swedish company Ericsson released their MC12 PDA. All three pda’s were quite similar in specs but the Ericsson came with a serial cable for their GH600/GH700 handheld cellular phones. In 1997 another 10 0r so different pda’s based on MS Handheld PC 1.0 was released by Sharp, NEC, Casio,Compaq and Philips. Version 2.0 was released in September 29, 1997 based on Windows CE 2.0. And on October 08, 1998 version 3.0 Professional was released looking more and more like it’s big brother, the desktop OS.

 From a PDA point of view the HandheldPC OS was not what was needed on a digital assistant and  January 08, 1998 saw  the release of Microsoft’s new palm sized pc operating system “Microsoft Palm-PC 1.0″ (Glyphon). The first device with this new OS was the Casio Cassiopeia E-10 that was released in September, and the E-11 in November. In December Compaq released the new and slick Compac Aero 1500.

1998 exit Apple

Apple eMate 300

Apple eMate 300

Apple released the eMate 300in March 1997. It was more like a laptop running Newton OS 2.1 than a PDA.It was  targeted for the education marked as a low cost laptop but the technology just wasn’t good enough . The design features however is something the engineers at Apple brought on from the eMate  in 1999, to the release of their first iMac laptop which also was targeted to the educational marked. Apple  manufactured and markeded the iMac from 1999 to 2006.

 In November 1997 Apple released the MessagePad 2100, the final product that would be using the Newton OS before it’s discontinuation. They would not enter the PDA/smart phone marked again until June 2006 with the much rumored release of  the 8GB iPhone.


In 1997 3Com acquired US Robotics which made Palm Pilot one of the biggest contenders in the pda marked. March 1998 the 3Com Palm III was released. and by 1999 Palm was the industry leader  with the Palm V.  Palm continued as the marked leader and would reach it’s peak with the release of Palm Tungsten model PDA’s.

Research In Motion

Research In Motion (RIM)  released their first device - the RIM 850 in December 1999, based on their Blackberry OS. RIM has become a powerful contender to the PDA marked in the US but not quite yet there in Europe. They are gaining more and more foothold around the world with their high-end business PDA’s

Fun Fact: In Norway there is about 2000 active Blackberrry subscribers.

This is the fragmented history of digital assistants as i see it from an European/Norwegian point of view. Should i have missed anything or got someting plain wrong – please email me. The modern history of PDA’s 2000 – 2008 will be out sometime later.

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5 Responses to “The history of Personal Digital Assistants 1980 – 2000”

  1. The history of Personal Digital Assistants 1980 – 2000 – Agile mobility is an interesting name for a blog, keep up the good work, thanks, from Elmo Harrington


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  3. [...] by the nomenclature for his … pocket communicator device thingy. It’s a pager, a Personal Digital Assistant, a GPS, a Gameboy, an Email Appliance, a Walkman, a camera, and a can opener telephone, all in one [...]

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