Steve Wozniak's smartphone adventure

From Blue Box to Hiptop

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Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak has joined the board of Danger Inc, the startup founded by a number of ex-Apple luminaries and backed by carriers Deutsche Telekom and Orange. Danger's Hiptop communicator was unveiled in October: it's a tablet-based device that runs Java apps. Danger also provides back end services and software for carriers to support Hiptop.

"Danger embodies the excitement, enthusiasm, and passion that innovative technology is capable of producing. It reminds me of Apple's early days and the focus on building products easy enough for anyone to use," said the great man in a canned statement released by the company today.

Woz's original inspiration to became a hardware hacker was reading about legendary phone phreaker Captain Crunch in Esquire article reprinted here, so there's a nice symmetry to it all.

The Hiptop is expected to be launched next spring. It's a phone of course, but will use either GPRS or CDMA 1XRTT, often referred to as 1x, as the transport for packet data. Both of these 2.5G always-on interfaces in early deployment, but the networks are involved in a frantic roll-out, with Cingular and AT&T Wireless adding GPRS services and Bell Mobile launching a 1x service in Toronto last month.

The Hiptop itself weighs 5oz, features infra red and USB (but not Bluetooth) ports, and will accomodate a detachable camera and earpiece. The 240x160 screen is monochrome, with "multi color" alerts, and the screen slides up to reveal a QWERTY keyboard.

And very nice it looks, too. It's slicker than its immediate rivals, RIM's Blackberry pager and Handspring's Treo, and more functional too. The Treo does voice calls, but not packet data (at least not initially, Handspring promises an upgrade in time), and of course the Blackberry does packet data but not voice calls.

There's surely a market for this kind of device: less capable, but lighter and cheaper than the smartphones that will begin to flood onto the market next year, led by Nokia's US-tuned 9290 communicator.

But there's an even greater opportunity for someone who can break through some of the idiocy displayed by US carriers that's resulted in a fragmented and consumer-hostile wireless market. We'd love to see the Hiptop form part of an all-you-can-eat pricing tariff for packet data, for example. Or even better, if Danger can broker agreements between rival carriers and instant messaging gateways to bring SMS-style text messaging to the US, then surely world+dog would beat a path to its door.

Based on Palo Alto's University Avenue, Danger was founded less than two years ago by former Apple staff including Andy Rubin, a General Magic and WebTV veteran, Joe Britt who worked on the POWERPC chip and Matt Hershenson, whose credits include designing the PowerBook 150. ®

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