Before the beginning

3. Before the beginning

The creation of Symbian has its roots in the mid-1990s in a looming existential crisis anticipated by senior managers at Psion. How would Psion cope in a world with increasingly powerful competitors?

By the mid-1990s, Psion was Europe’s leading manufacturer of what were increasingly called PDAs: Personal Digital Assistants. The term “PDA” had been coined by John Sculley, Apple’s CEO, during his keynote speech at the CES tradeshow in Las Vegas in January, 1992. Psion tended to prefer its own term “Personal Organiser” to describe the product category – deliberately using the UK-style spelling “organiser” with an ‘s’, rather than “organizer” with a ‘z’, as more common in North America.

In the mid-1990s, the PDA space was still relatively small, but clearly had lots of growth potential. Psion was en route to reaching the watershed figure of one million “Series 3” organisers sold, and work was well under way on a new software system that would eventually find its way into “Series 5” organisers. Psion made a handsome profit on the organisers themselves, and an even more handsome profit on the sales of peripherals such as solid state memory disks and modems.

But the world was changing. Other companies had the emerging PDA space in their sights. Psion had survived competition before – from the likes of Japanese manufacturers Casio and Sharp, and from Hewlett Packard (HP). However, the new competitors seemed to be from a different league. They included General Magic, formed from former high-flying employees at Apple, with backing from Sony and Motorola. They also included Apple itself, who had demonstrated a pre-release Newton MessagePad as early as January 1993. They later included Palm Computing, whose emphasis upon simple, elegant solutions echoed much of Psion’s own culture. And they included Microsoft, widely seen as all-conquering; Microsoft’s ongoing “Pegasus” initiative seemed particularly fearsome. Some of these new competitors might (and did) stumble, but Psion realised it could not count on all of them missing the mark.

Psion executives mulled their options. Should Psion respond to these new challenges by knuckling down and redoubling its own efforts, keeping its software system to itself? Or should it seek new partners, via licensing its software?

And what were the upsides and downsides of these different strategies – especially when viewed against the self-reliant, hard-driving culture and processes that had sustained Psion through its first decade and a half?

Before directly addressing these questions, it’s useful to peel another layer of the history onion, in order to appreciate more of the forces that eventually gave birth to Symbian. The genesis of Psion led to many influences on the genesis of Symbian. The Psion story illuminates both the Symbian story and the smartphone story. Let’s review what happened “before the beginning” of Symbian.

It started with games

Psion had been formed in 1980 by David Potter, a physics lecturer from Imperial College, London. Alongside his career in academia, Potter had a track record of successfully investing his personal savings in hi-tech companies like General Electric, Racal Electronics, and Xerox, as well as in smaller, lesser-known companies in the emerging semiconductor industry. The not inconsiderable earnings from these insightful investments enabled the founding of Psion.

Psion’s earliest employees – many of them with backgrounds in physics and maths – were soon immersed in writing software for pioneering home computers such as the Sinclair ZX Spectrum and the Acorn BBC Micro. Psion’s developers initially focused on games, using great ingenuity to cope with hardware limitations many orders of magnitude more taxing than today’s developers typically encounter. One example was a version of Chess that could run in only 1000 bytes. Astonishing. Other Psion games that were well received by the market included a series of Pacman-like games featuring a character named “Horace”, and a Flight Simulator that sold over one million copies.

Psion had some stunning hits on its hands, and had the confidence to place adverts in magazines that boldly proclaimed:

The best software on earth comes from Psion… Our range runs rings round other software. In short, it’s faster, livelier, and more colourful… It’s all down to programming skill.

(Years later, in the 1990s and early 2000s, when I was interviewing potential new software engineering recruits for Psion or Symbian, I was often struck by how many of the interviewees had fond memories of playing these games in their younger lives. These games clearly made a lasting impression.)

Although Psion earned a healthy income from games software, its executives were increasingly uncomfortable with the way the games market was evolving. Their own interests and culture led them to prefer cerebral types of games, such as Chess and Scrabble, but customers often preferred “shoot-em-up” and other high adrenaline genres of games. Rather than change the fundamental culture of the company, Psion’s managers took a deliberate decision to diversify their product line.

One diversification was to provide built-in software for two new pieces of hardware developed by external companies: the Sinclair QL and the ICL “One Per Desk” (OPD). Both these products contained a would-be revolutionary “micro-drive” system of data storage. Alas, this micro-drive failed to live up to its promise. As a result, the products flopped. Psion, whose finances had been looking so good a couple of years earlier, encountered its first set of losses, and needed to make its first round of redundancies.

However, the project to create software for the Sinclair QL had one positive side-effect with long-lasting consequences. Part of the software written by Psion for the device – in a move that long pre-dated the rise of the Microsoft Office suite of productivity applications – was a collection of serious-minded business applications.

[ SNIP ]

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