Tech.pinions

Qualcomm and the Birth of the Smartphone

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Qualcomm 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.