This weekend I took the kids to Staples to pick up supplies for the start back to school. Adam (Son #2) was looking for a folder to keep his homework and other assorted books in, when he spotted Filofax folders and decided that would work for him. It took me a while to explain what Filofax was and that they were nothing like what he was looking for. Both the boys laughed when I explained what a Filofax did; a paper organiser with removable sections, all bound in a nice leather wallet. Today, both boys have iPods and can manage their contacts, calendar, notes and emails all on a single device. Paper doesn’t even figure in their world. In fact, it’s the same for me too now, as I can get all the information I need from my iPhone. Whilst this isn’t always the most ideal form factor, I can at least read and edit all my data, regardless of the format. However, back in the 80’s, I had a Filofax and it was my information bible. Over the years I’ve had numerous PDAs (Personal Digital Assistants). I thought it would be interesting to reflect on some of them.
As we will see, many personal organisers have had their origins or been developed by British companies. Lotus Organiser was developed by UK company Threadz and acquired by Lotus, being sold as part of their SmartSuite package. The software mimicked the look of a paper organiser, with images for calendar, contacts and so on. Although I liked Lotus Organiser, I remember it as being buggy and being annoyed by the inability to easily move data between formats and platforms.
Psion, another British company, released their handheld organiser in the mid 1980’s. Looking like a rugged calculator, the Psion Organiser II model I owned, came with a two line screen and plug-in memory modules or RAMPAKs. Style wasn’t one of the Psion Organiser’s strong points, with an A-Z keyboard and solid shell cover. However it was an electronic device that was to a certain extent, portable.
Psion followed the initial Organiser models with the Series 3 and 5. I had both, but my favourite was the Series 5; I owned both the 5 and 5mx versions. The Series 3 and 5 models were elegant with their clamshell open and close design, ran for a month on just two AA batteries and could be read outdoors in bright sunlight. Ultimately however, they had two fatal flaws; first there was never a colour model (the drain on battery life I assume deemed too much of a compromise) and synchronisation with Windows was flakey at best and useless at its worst.
Windows CE Devices
What Psion didn’t do, devices like HP’s Jornada, based on Microsoft Windows CE did. They offered colour screens and better PC integration, but suffered with performance, screen quality and battery life. I owned a number of Windows CE-based devices, including a Jornada 540 (with a massive 16MB of memory), an iPAQ hx4700 and the tediously dull iPAQ hx2790. The hx4700 was great as it had a large screen, but I dropped it onto a concrete floor and to my chagrin, the device didn’t bounce and wasn’t replaceable as HP had stopped making them.
The Rise of Apple
2007 was probably my low point of PDA ownership. I’d tried other alternatives like the Palm Pilot, but then I happened on the iPod Touch. This evolved into owning three iPhones and today the iPhone I have does everything I need. The modern version of the organiser (whether Android or iOS-based) goes right back in functionality to the original paper organiser I first had, except apps have replaced the different types of removable pages a Filofax offers. In essence both “devices” are not dissimilar, both being extensible from their initial configuration.
Best of the Rest
Some of the ones that got away, which I’d liked to have purchased but couldn’t afford included the enigma that was the Apple Newton, which looking back now was a genius of a device, that was too far ahead of it’s time. There was also the Nokia 9000 Communicator. That almost brought together the best of Psion and a mobile phone but again, was outside of my price bracket at the time.
What’s the future going to be in the next 25 years? I’m sure the Filofax will still exist in paper form. However electronics is both fast moving and totally unpredictable past 2-3 years ahead. It’s easy to suggest faster connectivity and better quality displays, but past that, perhaps the next wave of improvements will be software-based, combining information, intelligent and predictive search and data presentation to the user. Personally I can’t wait!