Psion mourners see hope in shrunken Communicator

Fingers do the talking

It's five years since Psion launched what proved to be its final consumer product, the Revo, and four years since the company abandoned the consumer market altogether.

On a typical European intercity train carriage in the mid 1990s, Psion computers were a common sight. How many of the business plans of subsequent years were created on these tiny computer's Sheet program, we can only guess at. Now you're likely to see a bored executive playing Solitaire on a Thinkpad: at five times the price and one hundredth of the battery life.

But Nokia's slimline 9300 is already giving mourners of the keyboard PDA cause for celebration.

"Natural successor to the Revo," writes a happy poster on My-symbian's forums. "It's clear that the Nokia 9300 Communicator is taking a lot of its design cues from the old Psion hardware," observes former Revo user, now Gizmodo editor Joel Johnson.

As you can see from this picture, the 9300 is little larger than a 6110. So does it live up to the expectations?

Superficially, it's not hard to see why users are excited. The Nokia 9300 certainly looks the part. Nokia has lost half the weight of the 9200 Communicator and reduced it to something only a little larger than a 6110. That's thanks to the incredibly-rising pixel density. Note that there's still plenty of plastic housing around the screen... The 9300 also has the curves of the 3 Series (launched in 1991, but going strong eight years later even after the launch of the Series 5).

But not having seen one ourselves, we thought we'd better ask someone who had. Matt Millar was the technical lead for the new phone's predessor, the Nokia Communicator 9200, and co-founded Mobile Innovations, a design house and integrator that does a lot of work that he can't talk about, a little infuriatingly for us.

"Why isn't anyone innovating in this area?" he asks.

"Today's gadgets are designed by people with Meccano sets who've turned them into products," he reckons. "Why do these companies think people are happy with them?" The only recent innovation that impressed him is Motorola's two-way hinged phone.

"Nokia is going in the right direction with the 9300; the 6110 was their biggest ever seller and it was a really boring business phone," he told us. The problem, he reckons, is that sales are so low that most phone companies don't see the keyboard product category as worth the trouble. That's not to say we won't see more, as people pay a premium for a keyboard-based device.

"Many of these phones are read only devices - it's what Palm got right. So you can make the screen big and you don't have worry if there's an awkward way to get data onto the device, like some freaky bizarre handwriting recognition system. Data is going to get there from a PC or via Web services."

So for old Psioneers, is the 9300 the best we'll get? Nokia has left its marketing options open - and pitched the 9300 to appeal to the traditional PDA consumer buyer as well. But if you scan the press photos for the new device, you'll see thumbs in action.

Millar told us he'd happily used a Series 90 phone, the sidelined 7700 'mediaphone' for six months, and rarely missed having a keyboard. He says we can expect more keyboards on phones but couldn't elaborate. He left us with one intriguing prediction, though.

"The market for keyboard communicators is millions worldwide; there are simply many more people who just want to read off a device. So you can hit a much bigger market with just a big screen. But then, frankly, it only costs a few pounds to put in a keyboard. with some good engineering. Then people will pay a premium."

"The smart guys will do a whole bunch of market skimming and put a few keyboard devices out underneath them," he says.

And why not?

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