Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2007/06/07/forgotten_tech_atari_portfolio/

Atari's Portfolio: the world's first palmtop

18 years before Palm's Foleo...

By Tony Smith

Posted in Phones, 7th June 2007 11:59 GMT

Forgotten Tech There's nothing new under the sun, some folk say, and that's certainly true of Palm's recently announced Foleo. It's the palmtop reborn in a slightly sexier, slightly larger form. Even its name is reminiscent of that bygone arena - it's rather like the Atari Portfolio, the world's first palmtop PC, released in June 1989.

Atari Portfolio
Atari's Portfolio: a rebranded DIP Pocket PC

Atari's compact clamshell ran an MS-DOS compatible operating system - DIP-DOS, from Guildford-based Distributed Information Processing (DIP) Systems - on a 4.92MHz Intel 80C88 processor. The Portfolio has 128KB of memory on board, 32KB of which was reserved for data storage, exposed as the C: drive and backed up by the three AA batteries the Portfolio ran from. A built-in long-life cell protected the memory when the batteries needed changing.

The Portfolio's display was a 40-character by eight-line job with a 240 x 64-pixel graphics mode, mounted next to the unit's speaker and above the calculator-style QWERTY keypad. A slot on the side took a range of device-specific memory cards running from 32KB to 128KB.

Anticipating Palm's own Pilot - which shipped in April 1996, seven years after Atari first showed its palmtop - the Portfolio had diary and address book applications, along with a basic word processor and a spreadsheet package. The apps and the OS resided in 256KB of ROM. Plenty of space, you might think, for programming tools, but the Portfolio had none, not even a Basic language interpreter. To be fair, this wasn't a machine aimed at coders but at the growing number of folk who wanted a computer for information storage and retrieval, a feature Palm was later to major on with the Pilot. In any case, programming tools were later offered as add-ons.

Atari Portfolio
Atari's Portfolio: expandable

Unlike the Pilot and, now, the Foleo, the Portfolio was designed to operate on its own, independently of a desktop machine or other device. That said, data could be transferred back and forth between the palmtop and a desktop, via a cable connected to the Portfolio's add-on parallel port.

Incidentally, movie buffs may recall an Atari Portfolio was the device the young John Connor used to hack an ATM in Terminator 2.

Atari Portfolio Ad - scan courtesy Attached
From 1989: Atari's Portfolio advert, page one...

Atari Portfolio Ad - scan courtesy Attached
... and page two

The Portfolio measure 20 x 10 x 2.8cm, so it wasn't much smaller than the hefty ring-bound manual it and other computers of its era came with. The manual, like the on-board software and even the hardware itself, was created by DIP, which launched the Portfolio as the DIP Pocket PC not long before Atari licensed the technology and released it under the Atari brand, primarily in the US but in the UK too, where DIP continued to sell its own version.

Palm Foleo
Palm Foleo
Palm's Foleo: palmtop de nos jours

DIP would go on to offer three versions of the Pocket PC: the unit on its own; an Executive version bundled with an AC adaptor and a 64KB memory card; and the Professional, which packaged the Pocket PC, a 128KB memory card, a serial adaptor and cable, and the AC adaptor in a custom-made briefcase.

DIP was co-founded by three ex-Psion employees, David Frodsham, Ian Cullimore and Peter Baldwin - their first-name initials providing the firm's name, though it got a more appropriate, business-friendly full name soon after.

Incidentally, the lid of the Foleo sports a dark grey ribbed look decidedly reminiscent of Psion Series 3 palmtop... Another nod by Jeff Hawkins to his new toy's ancestry?

The Poqet PC
The Poqet PC: palmtop circa 1989

Cullimore, who had worked on Psion's original Organiser, would later go on to co-found Poqet, which produced the Poqet PC and shipped it in the US in September 1989, five months after Atari first showed off the Portfolio. Slightly larger than the Portfolio, the Poqet had a more PC-like keyboard, a 7MHz 80C88 processor and a full 640KB of memory. It ran MS-DOS 3.3. Poqet was acquired by Fujitsu in 1994, shortly after which the machine was killed off.

How long the Portfolio and Pocket PC lasted is less clear. Certainly it was doing a good trade in 1992 - DIP cut its prices, for instance - but with the launch of the Apple Newton MessagePad 100 in August 1993, the arrival of the Palm Pilot in April 1996 and Windows CE in September 1996, its days were numbered at that point.

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Compact Disc: 25 years old today
From 1981: the World's first UMPC
The IBM ThinkPad: 15 years old today
Apple's first handheld: the Newton MessagePad
'Timna' - Intel's first system-on-a-chip
BeOS: the Mac OS X might-have-been
Sony's first Mylo