Qualcomm and the Birth of the Smartphone

by Steve Wildstrom   |   January 3rd, 2013

Qualcomm pdQ photoQualcomm CEO Paul Jacobs’ appearance on the Charlie Rose Show brought back memories of the earliest days of smartphones. Jacobs told rose that he originally proposed adding a cellular radio to the Apple Newton MessagePad. When Apple demurred, Jacobs headed to Palm, then owned by 3Com, where he negotiated a license for Qualcomm to build a phone based on Palm OS.

The original Qualcomm pdQ wasn’t very good–I later described it as “a Palm glued to a phone.” It had all the functionality of a Palm 3 PDA and a typical CDMA phone of the late 1990s, but virtually no integration between the two sets of features. As I recall, you couldn’t even dial the phone by looking up a contact on the Palm and tapping the number. The only real advantage was that you got to carry one big device instead of two smaller ones. Needless to say, it sold poorly.

The followup pdQ a couple of years later was a more interesting product. By then, Qualcomm had sold its handset business to Kyocera, including the in-development pdQ 2. The revamped pdQ was a much more appealing product. It was much smaller than the original and offered some real integration of PDA functionality. It also borrowed the primitive Web-browsing capability of the Palm VII. Data communication in those days was limited to a theoretical maximum of 14.4 kilobits per second and you often did much worse than that, so the Palm system relied on pre-digested an condensed web snippets.

Interestingly, in the same BusinessWeek column in which I wrote about the Kyocera pdQ, I also dealt with what turned out to be the true ancestor of the modern smartphone. The Handspring VisorPhone was pretty terrible product from the company set up by Palm’s founders to build licensed Palm-compatibles. The VisorPhone, $299 with contract (!), was a GSM phone module that slid into the accessory slot of a Visor PDA and added phone and SMS apps to the standard Palm repertoire. Not many people bought it, but Handspring used the design experience to build the Treo 300, the first trule integrated smartphone, and the Treo 600, the first successful one.

CLARIFICATION: Turns out folks at Qualcomm in addition to Paul Jacobs have fond memories of the pdQ. Engineers who worked on the project point out that there was some significant integration between the phone and the Palm including the ability to place a call from the Palm Address Book, a “find and dial” search for phone numbers across apps, Address Book search from the phone dialpad, and APIs to give third-party Palm developers access to pdQ phone features. These features don’t sound terribly exciting today, but they were breakthroughs in 1999.

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.
  • http://twitter.com/leicaman leicaman

    Interesting description of the Palm PDQ. Two devices glued together, lacking in basic integration. Hmmm, reminds me of a rather new product. I can almost remember what it’s called. If I think hard enough I might be able to make that memory Surface.

    • steve_wildstrom

      The Surface is a masterpiece of integration compared to the pdQ. It was really two devices with a single case and shared display.

      • http://twitter.com/leicaman leicaman

        Except for the fact that the Surface has a schizophrenic OS that is optimized for touch often in the wrong places, and for mouse and keyboard in the wrong places too.

  • grunion

    Steve, I think you give the pdQ short shrift. It was the first phone to afford true web browsing, sync to POP email, and most importantly open APIs and a 3rd party developer community. True, it sold poorly but Qualcomm at the time wasn’t in business to sell phones as much as to sell the capabilities of CDMA, which this did beautifully. It was big, and heavy, and ugly, and had poor screen resolution, and really hard to use in daylight, and poor battery life, but it was the first smartphone.