Bugger the jetpack, where's my 21st-century Psion?

Forgotten form factors #2: The handheld PC

The Essential Guide to IT Transformation

Tight fit

The next attempt at a pocket-sized PC came from Hewlett-Packard – but not from the PC division. In 1991, the HP 95LX came from the calculator division, squeezing 512kB of RAM, a 240x128 pixel (40x16 character) screen, MS-DOS 3.2 and a keyboard – complete with numeric keypad – into a pocket-sized, 310g device for $699. Essentially a pocketable Lotus 1-2-3 machine, it also included a sophisticated financial calculator app: HP calculators were the leading tools of their type at this time, and the top-spec model was half the price of the 95LX.


From the calculator boys...the HP 95LX. Source: WT Shymanski

The 95LX was a bigger success than any of its predecessors, selling 400,000 units – but it was still seriously constrained. It didn't have the spec to run full desktop apps and DOS was not a convenient OS for a "personal digital assistant".

The device that redefined this category appeared later the same year – and like the Portfolio, it was British.

Psion's first attempt to follow on from the Organizer range was a range of laptops in 1989: the MC200, MC400 and DOS-compatible MC600. The lower-end models ran Psion's own OS, EPOC, later retrospectively renamed SIBO to distinguish it from its 32-bit successor. SIBO was an impressive achievement – a complete multitasking GUI running on an 8086 with 256kB of RAM.

The most desirable model, oddly, was the midrange MC400 model – but at £845, it was beaten by PC laptops. Psion's response was to re-engineer their device for a less-crowded market sector: the pocket.

By the time the famed Psion Series 3 shipped in 1991, others had pioneered the trail of pocket-sized 8086 computers. Atari's Portfolio and the HP 95LX showed that you could create such a device for a reasonable price, but it was then too compromised to be a general-purpose MS-DOS PC, and the Poqet PC showed that whereas a no-compromise PC was technically viable, it ended up costing more than a laptop.

Psion took a third direction – retaining and enhancing its proprietary OS but modifying the GUI for a small screen and keyboard-driven operation, and bundling it with a complete suite of apps in the ROM: a database, word-processor, spreadsheet with charting functionality, a world clock, a programming language and an Agenda program which to this day remains one of the best ever written for any platform.

Psion Series 3: had we but world clock enough and time

Compared to the DOS-compatible competition, it was another world: even the lowest-end 128kB RAM Psion 3 could flip between the graphical Agenda, address book and word processor programs with responsiveness and stability to provoke envy in the owner of a desktop PC with the then-current Windows 3.0.

The screen was small, the keyboard a "chiclet" type, but the flexibility and power of even the £179 entry-level model was remarkable. Its hardware design was impressive, too, with a clever (if fragile) pivoting hinge that meant that both halves of the machine were thinner than its own batteries. When open, the upwards-facing part of the battery compartment had a touch-sensitive membrane containing a row of buttons for quickly launching or switching apps.

Boost IT visibility and business value


Implementing global e-invoicing with guaranteed legal certainty
Explaining the role local tax compliance plays in successful supply chain management and e-business and how leading global brands are addressing this.
The Essential Guide to IT Transformation
ServiceNow discusses three IT transformations that can help CIO's automate IT services to transform IT and the enterprise.
Consolidation: The Foundation for IT Business Transformation
In this whitepaper learn how effective consolidation of IT and business resources can enable multiple, meaningful business benefits.
How modern custom applications can spur business growth
Learn how to create, deploy and manage custom applications without consuming or expanding the need for scarce, expensive IT resources.
Build a business case: developing custom apps
Learn how to maximize the value of custom applications by accelerating and simplifying their development.