#ThrowbackThursday: 22 years later, meet Simon, the world’s first touchscreen phone

By Greg Ackerman

You just ran out the door and are driving to work. What’s the one item that will make you turn the car around and drive all the way home if you forgot it? Hint: It’s the item you’ve already looked at a dozen times since you woke up to check your email, Facebook, stocks, news and sports scores — your smartphone, of course.

Guess whom you have to thank for this incredibly useful, near-addictive piece of technology? If you answered Steve Jobs, thanks for playing; we’ve got some great consolation prizes for you. The first touchscreen phone, the IBM Simon Personal Communicator, went on the market in August 1994, and we’re celebrating it this week for our #ThrowbackThursday. This device was certainly ahead of its time, which was both a positive and a negative.

The first touchscreen phone

SimonThe Simon touchscreen phone was first demonstrated at Comdex (the essential computer trade show at the time) in 1992 to high interest and acclaim, and it went on the market in August 1994. Simon had many of the functions today’s smartphones have, such as email, calendar, contacts, news and stocks, plus a number of things that were very much of their time, such as faxing and receiving cellular pages. It foreshadowed functions we now take for granted, such as a giant touchscreen with application icons, predictive typing and even an expansion slot to provide for third-party apps such as music and GPS. Oh yeah, and it could make phone calls, too.

In the pre-internet era of 1994, the idea of a touchscreen phone was very ahead of its time due to some brilliant forward thinking by Frank Canova, the lead architect and inventor at IBM. An all-in-one device that could bring together all your most important communications in one place was truly setting the stage for the age of the internet and connected devices. Canova even thought to build in expandability by using PCMCIA cards, which were primarily used in peripherals for notebook computers such as network cards and fax modem cards. Simon even had a cameo in the very mid-’90s pre-internet Sandra Bullock film “The Net,” which now provides great retro entertainment value with its keen take on the big, bad World Wide Web.

The key hitches with the Simon were things we take for granted today: broadband networks (cellular and wifi) and loads of third-party apps you can download onto the device to constantly make it more useful. Cellular networks in 1994 were slower, more spotty and more expensive. Using data for an hour with the Simon completely discharged its battery, so users needed to throw an extra battery in their bags to swap out midday. Unfortunately, the Simon only stayed on the market for six months and sold a total of about 50,000 units. However, you know that the people who bought one must have gotten a lot of attention with them, as they were undoubtedly providing a look into the future.

With all that, the Simon was a groundbreaking device that deserves a respected place in tech history. Many years later, 2007 saw the advent of the iPhone. Since then, the world has seen a slew of smartphone releases, and every year, the devices have gotten more powerful, feature-rich and essential to modern life.

However, taking the long view, what will we think of the devices of 2016 when we look back in 10 or 20 years? How will our smart devices change and evolve in the coming years?

The future of smartphones and wearables

There have been many articles over the years about “the end of the smartphone,” making the case that the device seems to be nearing its perfection, with iterative improvements in speed and memory and the lack of game-changing features showing its maturity as a technology. The rise of wearables in recent times and the advent of augmented reality are starting to make the smartphone screen seem less and less essential. However, this is missing the point.

The future will not be one new category of devices, but rather a rich web of interconnected devices, including whatever form smartphones take as the digital hub; wearables that provide convenient glances of information; augmented reality; smart surfaces; voice-activated communication through an internet-enabled array of bots; and APIs talking to an IoT.

The key element tying all these together is the cloud and the fact that it can provide data and integration among all these various interaction points with increasing amounts of intelligence. The value of smart devices in the future will be not just in great new form factors such as wearables, augmented reality, voice, IoT and connected vehicles, but also in a seamless experience across the range of devices you use in a way that keeps the context of “you” in mind as the user.

For this #ThrowbackThursday, let’s all celebrate the truly ahead-of-its-time IBM Simon and the wave of exciting smart devices that came after it with inspiring promise and potential. Who knew in 1994 what would come of the Simon? Here we are in 2016, carrying around insanely powerful, always-connected, portable computers in our pockets and purses. I can’t wait to see what comes next in the cloud and cognitive era.

Written By

Greg Ackerman

Technical Specialist, IBM Mobile

Greg Ackerman is a WebSphere Client Technical Specialist with over 15 years working with IBM customers in multiple industries to solve their IT challenges. He has been an enthusiast in all things mobile since the Sharp Zaurus. Greg specializes in IBM's MobileFirst platform, including…

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