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.

Mobile phone forgiveness–how I reinstall my PDA

20110311-mobilephone

What better way to begin Lent than by offering your mobile phone complete forgiveness? It was getting slower and slower, and last week I was needing to soft-reset it every day or two.

So, last night I performed what is now becoming a six-monthly hard-reset and reinstallation of Windows Mobile 6.1 on my O2 Xda Zest.

Installation order

I’ve pretty much got it down to a fine art now, and simply need to follow the instructions on my custom-made Excel spreadsheet which tells me what to do and in what order.

20110311-mobilephoneexcel

I have 5 main categories of actions:

  1. Hard reset which includes setting the date/time, the O2 Auto Installer, selecting the correct O2 network package (pay monthly), uninstalling the default (and outdated) Spb Mobile Shell and Opera.
  2. Connect to PC which includes connecting to my PC using Windows Mobile Device Center, and setting up Exchange.
  3. Basic Setup which includes setting up the owner (which is used by some software when registering applications), regional settings, calendar settings (week starts on Sunday, show 7-days, show half-hour slots, show week numbers, do not set reminders for new items), connect to WiFi, backlight and power settings (battery: 5 mins; external power: always on), change my ring tones, and schedule ActiveSync (set to manual and no email push service).
  4. Essential software which is now Spb Mobile Shell, Spb Wallet, SK Tools (for the registry editor), Opera Mobile, Microsoft MyPhone (to backup online my files, texts, photos, etc.), Agenda One (for improved handling of Outlook Tasks), CoPilot Live, moTweets (although I haven’t installed it this time and MyMobiler (so that I can view my mobile phone screen on my PC).
  5. Optional software which includes Pocket e-Sword bible, MobiPocket (eBook reader), DivX Mobile Player (for movies), FourWinds mahjong, Spb Keyboard, A-Z (Edinburgh, Glasgow and London).

This time I have purposely not reinstalled any of the optional software. Most of it I don’t use on a day-to-day basis so I just want to see how I get on without it.

Regional settings hack

By default in the UK regional settings the long date format is either

  • dd MMMM yyyy (e.g. 01 March 2011)
  • d MMMM yyyy (e.g. 1 March 2011)

but there is no option for including the day of the week. However, I discovered that if I did the following I could trick Windows Mobile 6.1 (and I’ve used this hack with earlier versions of Windows Mobile too) into using the format that I wanted:

  1. Start > Settings > System tab > Regional Settings.
  2. Set Region to English (United States).
  3. On the Date tab select dddd, dd MMMM yyyy from the drop-down.
  4. Click OK.
  5. Reboot Windows Mobile.
  6. Start > Settings > System tab > Regional Settings.
  7. Set Region to English (United Kingdom).
  8. Click OK.
  9. Reboot Windows Mobile.

If you now visit Start > Settings > System tab > Regional Settings you’ll see on the Region summary tab that the long date has remained in the format dddd, dd MMMM yyyy (e.g. Friday, 11 March 2011):

20110311-mobilephoneregionalsettings

Custom ring tones

The other thing that I have to remind myself every time I reinstall is where to store custom ringtones. I have two that I use an old phone ringtone for my calls, and the ‘24’ CTU phone ringtone for my text messages.

Once the files are in place I go to Start > Settings > Sounds & Notifications > Notifications tab to set the ringtones.

Phone ringtone

I have a .wma file that I drop into \Windows\Rings\ on my phone’s internal memory.

SMS ring tone

I have a .mp3 file that I drop into \Windows\ on my phone’s internal memory.

Conclusion

And that is pretty much it. It took me about two and a half hours to do, including backing up old files and photos from my Micro SD card.

Moving to Microsoft Exchange 2007

Computers and devices connected to a server
You say single point-of-failure, I say synchronized data!

Back in July 2009 I upgraded my mobile phone from an O2 Xda Orbit to an O2 Xda Zest. All was well until I tried to synchronize it with two copies of Microsoft Outlook, one at home, the other at work.

It didn’t work.

Windows Mobile 6.1 won’t sync

A quick Web search showed me that I wasn’t alone. It turns out that there was a bug in that version of Windows Mobile 6.1 on my phone. Microsoft had fixed it and rolled out the update to OEMs but it appears that O2 wasn’t going to let it roll any further.

Diagram of Windows Mobile phone synchronizing with 2 PCs
My Windows Mobile 6.1 phone would only synchronize with one PC

So I was stuck with a phone that would synchronize with only one PC. Which was somewhat bothersome as I was rather used to the convenience of my calendar, contacts, tasks and notes being available both at work and at home, as well as on the go on my mobile phone.

I needed to find another solution.

XTND Connect

The first thing I looked for was an alternative to Microsoft ActiveSync (I was using Windows XP at the time) and I discovered XTND Connect.

I wondered if the problem could be bypassed by using an alternative to ActiveSync.

It couldn’t.

That didn’t work either, which made it quite an expensive mistake. The demo version looked promising but was so highly crippled in terms of functionality that I had to buy the full version in order to fully evaluate it. Which rather defeats the purpose of a demo version, in my view.

Sync2

So I looked around at alternative solutions and it appeared to me that there were only two options left:

  1. Synchronize with an online application (e.g. Google Calendar)
  2. Synchronize to a server (e.g. Microsoft Exchange)
  3. Synchronize to a local folder (e.g. USB flash drive)

I explored the Google Calendar and Google Contacts option but (and for me, it’s a deal-breaker, which is one reason I’ve not gone rushing out to buy an Apple iPhone) one the elements of Outlook that I use perhaps more than any other is Tasks. And I couldn’t sync my tasks with Google Calendar.

I assumed that Exchange would be out of my price bracket so focussed on the second option which led me to Sync2 from 4Team.

Not only does Sync2 synchronize your Outlook calendar, contacts, tasks and notes with a folder of your choosing (USB flash drive, local folder, LAN folder, etc.) it will also synchronize with Google Calendar and Contacts.

I discovered that if I synchronized it with a folder in Dropbox at home I could then synchronize it again from the same folder on my PC at work, without having to worry about remembering to pack my USB flash drive.

Three computers using Sync2 synchronizing with a Dropbox folder
Using Sync2 to synchronize using a Dropbox folder

That has been the solution I have been using for the last six months to synchronize my data between home, work and my laptop.

Occasionally I ran into problems with data not synchronizing properly and so had to either

  • Resynchronize a profile (i.e. make it think it was doing it for the first time again.
  • Delete a profile and recreate it from scratch.
  • Reinstall Sync2 completely.

But most of the time it worked pretty well.

Except that it still didn’t address the issue of my mobile phone being out-of-sync for most of the day, between synchronizations at home.

Hosted Microsoft Exchange 2007

So in January I went in search of an affordable, UK-based hosted Microsoft Exchange account.

After some shopping around I eventually selected Simply Mail Solutions (SMS) based in Warrington. What attracted me about their hosted Exchange 2007 account features were (in order):

  • Only £4.99 per month
  • Full support for Windows Mobile including push
  • Full Outlook Web Access (OWA) in Internet Explorer
  • Out of office assistant
  • Free copy of Outlook 2003 or Outlook 2007

With each device connecting directly to the Exchange server I can guarantee that my data is always up-to-date (server outages withstanding).

Various devices connecting to an Exchange Server
Two PCs, a laptop, a mobile phone and Outlook all connecting to the Exchange Server

Another welcome benefit is that I won’t have the problems of duplicated entries that I’ve experienced so many times when synchronizing multiple devices. Here’s a screenshot I took of Outlook and posted to Twitpic last month showing a repeated entry for “Doug Aitken’s Birthday” duplicated 13 times!

Calendar entry (Doug Aitken's Birthday) duplicated 13 times
Calendar entry (Doug Aitken\’s Birthday) duplicated 13 times

I can even resynchronize my mobile phone when I’m out and about using my roaming Web add-on from O2.

Conclusion

So far I’m really pleased with Exchange and with the service offered by Simply Mail Solutions (SMS).

I’ve noticed only one outage from Simply Mail Solutions which lasted only a couple of minutes when connection to the server went down, and one period of particularly slow connectivity … but then it was 01:00 in the morning, they were doing some maintenance on the servers (I discovered via a quick support call) and I should have been in my bed!

There is a balance to be made when using a hosted service like this for such important personal data between:

  1. the reassurance that I have one ‘golden copy’ of data, stored centrally that is accessed by all my devices, and
  2. the potential for it to be a single point of failure: if it goes down completely I can’t synchronize between locations and my data isn’t up-to-date.

But given my previous experience of hours and hours wasted by repeatedly cleaning up corrupted or deleted data through failed synchronizations, and living with the uncertainty that perhaps my work calendar isn’t exactly the same as my home, laptop or mobile phone calendars … I think I’ll stick with Exchange for a while.

PsiWin 2.3.3 under Windows 7 Ultimate

Windows 7 Ultimate running PsiWin 2.3.3

Let’s hear it for Psion. Not only did they make first class PDAs, which still have a massive community of user going nuts over, but their PC connectivity software PsiWin — which they stopped developing at version 2.3.3 (copyright 1997-2001) — still works perfectly even under the beta version of Windows 7 Ultimate edition.