Shockingly new, yet shockingly old

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Steve Litchfield muses on how far we've gone backwards in many ways, in the last 15 years...

Read through a review of a current S60 smartphone (e.g. the Nokia N85, the Apple iPhone, the Blackberry Storm) and you're led to believe that, though imperfect, the device is the pinnacle of modern technology.

Yet I've just been playing with something startlingly more advanced. Here's the spec sheet:

  • Huge, wide (480 pixels), 5.3", high contrast screen that works even better in sunlight than indoors.
  • A lightning fast OS, a variant of Symbian OS, with menus and screens that appear instantly - no operation takes any noticeable time at all. Very impressive.
  • It's a robust, clamshell design, with full width, terrific Qwerty keyboard, including a number row. And almost every function in the device has a keyboard shortcut/accelerator.
  • Twin disk expansion slots.
  • Full Office suite, including a power spreadsheet app that allows the insertion of charts and full manipulation.
  • Flat file generic database that can be turned to any task, a real killer application.
  • Powered by removable, instant replaceable, ultra cheap power cells

Quite a list, isn't it? And you can have it today.

Old, yet innovative


Mind you, it's not currently sold in the UK, you'll have to rely on eBay. But you shouldn't have to pay more than £10 ($15) to buy it outright, so it's well worth dipping into your pocket for.

What on earth am I talking about?

Why, the Psion 3a, of course, launched in 1993, over fifteen years ago. An ETERNITY in the smartphone/PDA world.

How is it that the bullet points above sound so attractive still? I bet you couldn't take many other areas of technology and pick a 15 year old product that knocks spots off the current products in as many ways.

The Psion 3a

Let's work through the list again...

  • 5.3" screen. Well, we're getting there. The Nokia E90's display is close, as is the HTC Touch HD, and ditto the iPhone and Nokia 5800. But 5.3" AND great sunlight performance? The catch, of course, is that the 3a had a monochrome screen, whereas we all love and need colour these days.... apparently. But still.... 5.3".... Wow.
  • OS speed. To be honest, each version of Symbian OS seems to be of roughly similar speed and none of them come near to that of the also-fully-multi-tasking Psion. One reason modern devices are so relatively slow is that there's a lot more going on behind the scenes. Four or more times as many OS threads, integration of 3G, Wi-Fi, GPS and Bluetooth communications, they all need attending to and this slows things down. But I argue that things should either be better optimised or a faster processor put in - having to wait three seconds while an iPhone application launches itself, or two seconds while S60 Messaging deigns to render a simple email, or five seconds while S60 Gallery brings up preview image of the last photo taken, or six seconds while the Sony Ericsson Xperia X1 manages to change its home screen panel, is just not acceptable.
  • From Psion Series 5 (the pinnacle of mobile keyboard technology) to Nokia 9210 to Nokia 9500 to Nokia E90, the clamshell qwerty keyboard has been gradually decreasing in usability. That on the HTC Touch Pro is about the best of the current crop, but even it is nowhere near the level of the Psion 5. Why are keyboards continually designed to be fiddly, tiny-key-travel affairs for those with small fingers? 
  • Key shortcuts? The built-in applications on the Nokia E90, for example, have almost no shortcuts whatsoever. What's the point in a Ctrl key when you don't use many Ctrl accelerators? I can count the number implemented on the E90 on the fingers of one hand. With the E71 getting very popular and with the E63 now upon us, let's hope Nokia and others start to give higher priority to designing applications for phones with qwerty keyboards.
  • Twin expansion slots are perhaps less of a must these days. With capacity in a single microSD now getting to 32GB, there really is no need. But occasionally it's handy to be able to load up multiple disks, perhaps even of different types (e.g. microSD and M2)? Still, I won't cry any tears over only having one flash disk slot.
  • Full Office suite, with chart creation in the spreadsheet module? This in fact was the single aspect which kicked off this tongue-in-cheek piece. Previewing Quickoffice 6, I was struck that, although very slick in many ways (e.g. zoomable and almost WYSYIWG) and although it could cope with modern Office 2007 XML file formats, you still couldn't even edit charts in its spreadsheet module, let alone create them. 15 years of progress suddenly didn't seem so much like progress after all.
    I've ranted before on how one of Psion's crown jewels was its office suite - it's way too late now, of course, for anyone to do anything about the original code, but speaking as a mobile professional, I've been missing Psion Sheet since the late 1990s - I ran my life on those spreadsheets.... sob.
  • Psion Data was, of course, hugely popular and I never, ever understood why it was dropped by Nokia for their conversion of the Psion 5's software for the 9210 Communicator. To this day, I get half a dozen people a month emailing me wondering whether there's a modern equivalent to help them move from a failing Psion to an S60 or Windows Mobile or Apple phone. I usually plump for HanDBase, if only because it's truly cross platform and you don't burn any bridges by going for it - it'll run on anything. But it's not Data. It's not anywhere near as easy to use.
  • Do I really want to go back to the days of AA batteries? Not really. Strike one for the modern age here. Though I suspect that most phone owners simply won't believe the low power consumption of the old Psions - I used to get a month of use from 2 AAs in my old Psion Series 3mx - and I was a power user. Less demanding owners would report a battery life of over two months. In the modern phone's defense, it's more ecological and economical - and the modern battery also has to power 3G and GSM radios, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS, colour screen and so on. Somehow I don't think anyone would have stood changing the AAAs in their phone every other day.....

Was there a point to this piece? Yes.

Am I advocating everybody going off and buying up old Psion Series 3as on eBay? No, obviously not.

But that doesn't mean we (and I'm using the term 'we' in the global sense, to include the designers at Nokia, Sony Ericsson, Samsung, HTC, etc. - even the whiter-then-white Apple) can't learn an awful lot from some rather clever early 1990s technology...

Steve Litchfield, All About Symbian, 16 Nov 2008