A brief history of Psion PDAs

David Potter is the Psion King
David Potter is the Psion King

Clearing through a number of boxes that I hauled down from the attic, I discovered the following brief interview with David Potter, CBE founder of Psion—the former personal digital assistant (PDA) pioneer.

(Unfortunately, I didn’t record which magazine this was taken from or the year. Maybe you recognise it; if so, please leave a comment below and I’ll update this post.)

Horace and the Psioneers…

The history of Psion PDAs is not quite what you’d expect!

How did Psion get started?

In 1980 David Potter started a software development company above an estate agent’s office in North London. He had one employee, Charles Davies.

So they’ve always made handheld computers?

Nope. They made games for the Sinclair Spectrum. The first flight simulator available for the Spectrum was a Psion product. Later they released Horace Goes Skiing, which was part of a huge series of famous Horace games where the eponymous character fought spiders and dodged traffic.

Er, right. When did the first Psion PDA come about then?

Not so fast! Before the term PDA was even coined, Psion produced the Psion Organiser, virtually creating the electronic organiser industry by itself. Launched in 1984 the first Organiser had 8K of memory, could hold around 120 phone numbers, had a non-QWERTY keyboard layout and lasted a week on its AA batteries. Then came the Organiser II in 1986, which had twice the memory and was the first device to use a solid-state “disk drive” for non-volatile storage. Marks and Spencer adopted it for stock control and British Midland used it for its ticketing staff. There was also a brief attempt at a laptop in the shape of the MC400 in 1988. This was used by British Gas sales staff. Psion was floated on the stock market in that year.

Blimey. But how did we get from there to my Series 7?

In 1990, Psion took over Dacom communications and became Psion Dacom. A year later it released the Psion Series 3, which used 16-bit technology, had 128K of memory and a proper QWERTY keyboard layout. It sold one million units in two years! This success was quickly followed by the Psion 3a with 2MB of memory, and the 3c with 4MB. There was also a ruggedised industrial machine called the Psion Workabout that included built-in short range wireless communications.

In 1996 the Series 5 was born. This device has a 32-bit architecture with true multitasking, 16MB of memory and a better keyboard. 1996 also saw the launch of the Siena, which was a smaller machine, the precursor to the Revo. The Revo itself wasn’t launched until last year, along with the 5mx — an improved version of the Series 5 — and then the gorgeous Series 7, which sports a colour screen, laptop keyboard and PC-card slots.

Where’s David Potter now? Sold up and living in Bali?

No, he’s still Chairman of Psion. And Charles Davies is his Development Director. They now have a £160 million turnover and 1,500 employees worldwide.

Why are all the machines odd-numbered?

The jump from 3 to 5 occurred because the number 4 is unlucky in China. Now that Palm have copied this numbering strategy, Psion says it may release a Psion 16 in the future, just to confuse everyone. Nice.

Source: www.mcu.co.uk, page 87

Of course, they didn’t release a Psion 16. Next up was the netBook, which eventually became the netBook CE running the Windows mobile operating system, plus a Revo MX, and then they iterated on the WorkAbout range for business.

I have very fond memories of my Psion machines. They were great.

Published by

Gareth Saunders

I’m Gareth J M Saunders, 47 years old, 6′ 4″, father of 3 boys (including twins). Scrum master at Vision Ltd, Dundee. Latterly, web architect and agile project manager at the University of St Andrews and former warden at Agnes Blackadder Hall. Enneagram type FOUR and introvert, I am a non-stipendiary priest in the Scottish Episcopal Church, I sing with the NYCGB alumni choir, play guitar, write, draw and laugh… a lot.

2 thoughts on “A brief history of Psion PDAs”

  1. Why is the psion PDA no longer produced? WHile I suspect the mobile phone superseded it, the fact I still yearn for the series 3a, when I have a samsung note 8, means the 3a was giving me something the note 8 doesn’t.
    Namely it gave me
    -the best organiser experience any device has ever given me
    -a neat “always on, but is kind of actually off, feature” that draws very little battery power, but still manages to turn itself on with an alert that always caught your attention
    -no need for a third, those two alone leave me wanting more. Still, the reason I name the 3a was it ran on AA batteries and I have a shed load of rechargeables at my disposal [later models had lithium batteries which on the revo I owned eventually failed to hold a charge: and not after many years of heavy use, they failed in less than 2 years]. I’m actually very fond of lithium batteries, in all my other devices, save the first samsung watch which died, they have served me well.

    1. Hi Andrew, I can’t disagree with much of what you’ve written. It took me a long time to adjust to non-Psion applications. I still haven’t found anything to replace Data, which was a fabulously powerful and adaptable application. I now use a combination of Google Calendar, Google Contacts and Todoist to give me the same functionality that Agenda and Contact offered me.

      In terms of hardware, though… absolutely, no question that Psion had it covered. Instant on, I could change 3mx batteries every month, I didn’t have to recharge it twice in a day!

      Long live Psion, after all this time they still are showing us how it could be done.

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