How Apple Won the Mobile War

by Steve Wildstrom   |   October 18th, 2011
HP LX 95

The HP 95 LX

I have been following handheld computing products for about as long as they have existed, going back to such forgotten products as the Hewlett-Packard 95 LX and the Psion Series 5. In 20 years of effort, only three products truly caught the popular imagination: The Palm PDA, the BlackBerry, and the iPhone. And of these, only iPhone became a true mass market success.

Why? In the early days, especially, these products faced impossible technological hurdles. Miniaturization was still in a fairly primitive state,  so the devices were saddled with seriously inadequate processing power. Displays were awful–low-resolution, low-contrast LCD screens. And wireless connectivity was nonexistant.

But designers managed to make a bad situation worse by trying to make devices do too much. The HP 95 LX and its successors were actually tiny MS-DOS computers; their ability to run Lotus 1-2-3 was a key selling point. But only a relative handful of people, mostly engineers, had any desire for such a product and it attracted an enthusiastic, but tiny, market. Numerous other devices came along in the mid- to late-1990s in an assortment of sizes and form-factors: the Apple Newton MessagePad, the Casio Zoomer, the IBM/BellSouth Simon (perhaps the first smartphone), the AT&T EO, the Motorola Envoy. All tried to do too much with too little, and all failed miserably.

Palm P{ilot photo

The original Palm

The first device the break the paradigm was the original Palm Pilot of 1996. Its designer, Jeff Hawkins, had a Jobsian focus on the user experience; during development, he dropped any functions that he felt were too complicated and he swore that Palm users would never see an error message on their screens.

The Palm didn’t try to do much; essentially it maintained contacts and calendar in sync with your computer and took input through a modified handwriting called Graffiti. But it worked vastly better than anything else at the time and was a hit. It was also, by way of the Handspring Treo, the direct ancestor of the modern smartphone, though its only means of communication was to a PC over a cable. (My review of the original Palm Pilot.)

The first BlackBerry, in 1999, was also a very specific solution to a specific problem: mobile email. Early BlackBerries  had no voice capability. They were built on pager technology and the first model was called the RIM Inter@ctive Pager 950–the BlackBerry name came along a bit later.  The name is something of a giveaway; RIM came out of the pager industry and the 950 was conceived as a vastly improved pager.

Instead of having to know a special pager number, send a page, and wait for the recipient to call back, the BlackBerry let you send an ordinary email and reach the recipient anywhere, any time.  A tiny but surprisingly functional keyboard, much better than those on the primitive “two-way pagers” of the time, allowed replies.And like the Palm, it also synchronized contacts and calendar with a computer. (Read my review of the original 950.)

BlackBerry 950 photo

The BlackBerry 950

The BlackBerry was not an instant success. It started to catch on in a big way once RIM created the service that provided a secure link to corporate mail systems and enterprises started deploying the devices in large numbers. And, of course, the popularity grew once it gained voice capability. Like the Palm, the BlackBerry caught on because it served a real need and concentrated on doing one thing really well.

Throughout the late 90s and early 00s, there was a continuing effort to build handheld computers. Microsoft and partners such as Compaq, Hewlett-Packard, and Toshiba, struggled mightily to cram something resembling Windows into a handheld product, but its PocketPCs, with their miniaturized Windows desktops, left users cold. It was only when Windows Mobile imitated the much simpler design of the Palm Treo that it achieved some modest success.

Apple, after the failure of the Newton, avoided handheld computing in favor of creating a new market for the iPod. In typical Apple fashion, it let others get beat up and learned from their mistakes. By the time Apple came out with the iPhone in 2007, the world had changed again. The amount of processing power you could cram into a small device had grown tremendously. Big, high-resolution, touch-screen displays were economical. And wireless networks were ubiquitous.

But like its few successful predecessors, the iPhone didn’t try to do too much, at least not all at once. The original iPhone was a limited device. There was no app store and no apps other than the ones Apple provided. Despite the widespread availability of 3G wireless networks, the phone was limited to 2G. And the battery struggled to get through a day of normal use. But it was an  instant hit because it did what it did well, without compromise, and in a way that delighted users. A year later, the iPhone 3G remedied the most glaring defects of the original, the App Store let a million apps bloom, and people finally had a full-fledged computer that fit in a pocket.

Strangely enough, the rest of the industry was pathetically slow to respond to the iPhone. Microsoft stuck by Windows Mobile, not seeming to realize that the iPhone’s design had rendered its Windows-derived user interface as obsolete as punch cards. RIM, too, saw no need for fundamental change even as the iPhone began to steal away its core corporate market. Only Google, with no history in the business, rose to the challenge with Android. Android is good enough, and has an attractive enough business model, to make it the only real remaining challenger to Apple. But even it has yet to prove that it can do any better than remain a beat behind the iPhone.

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Steve Wildstrom

Steve Wildstrom is veteran technology reporter, writer, and analyst based in the Washington, D.C. area. He created and wrote BusinessWeek’s Technology & You column for 15 years. Since leaving BusinessWeek in the fall of 2009, he has written his own blog, Wildstrom on Tech and has contributed to corporate blogs, including those of Cisco and AMD and also consults for major technology companies.