Being first with an innovation is never enough by itself. You must have the means to realize the concept properly and timing is important if you want a receptive audience. Leonardo da Vinci conceptualized the helicopter, calculator, tank, parachute and many other things long before they were actually built. A design much like the iPod was patented by a Brit called Kane Kramer back in 1979.
Even physically creating innovations isn’t enough to guarantee success. The first electric car was made in 1828 and the first functioning solar cell was built in 1883. The modern age of electronics is particularly prone to innovations that flop horribly on launch and then reappear a few years, or even months later, and meet with success. There have been several examples in the mobile industry since then. Here are some of our favourites.
EO Personal Communicator and Apple Newton
The first tablets? The EO Personal Communicator and the Apple Newton both arrived in 1993. Handheld computers have come a long way since then. The idea of using electronic tablets that you could write on actually stretches back to the 19th century, and tablets became a staple of sci-fi shows and movies long before they were actually realized. The EO Personal Communicator ran PenPoint OS which allowed the user to draw gestures on screen, had a notebook interface, and allowed the user to press and hold to move a floating icon around. The Apple Newton was the first device to be called a PDA (Personal Digital Assistant) and it was packed with productivity tools. Neither took off, but they undoubtedly influenced what came after.
The first touchscreen cell phone, launched in 1994, was IBM’s Simon Personal Communicator. It could also lay claim to the first smartphone title as it combined PDA elements with cell phone functionality. It could make calls, send and receive faxes or emails, and it had simple apps like a calendar, calculator, and an electronic note pad. Around 50,000 were sold in six months, despite a really high price tag, but then it disappeared.
Who wants to play games on their phone? The quest to combine a decent handheld gaming console with a cell phone is on-going. The Xperia Play didn’t exactly set the world alight, but back in 2003 Nokia failed even more miserably with the N-Gage. This is a classic example of a good idea being realized horribly. The N-Gage looked ridiculous and it didn’t work well as a handheld gaming console or as a phone.
The history of smart watches begins in the eighties when Pulsar produced a watch capable of storing 24 digits of data. By 1983 Seiko had produced a watch with an external keyboard that could store 2000 characters. The first watch with its own miniature keyboard followed the next year as did another Seiko watch that could be hooked up to your computer. The missing wireless connectivity factor was delivered in 2004 when Microsoft launched Smart Personal Object Technology. For $59 per year you could suck in FM radio broadcast signals that would update the weather and other data on your watch. The watches were discontinued in 2008, but the service wasn’t switched off until 2011.
It was the first device to be called a “phablet” as it broke the barrier between tablet and phone, but it was a commercial disaster. At the time the 5-inch touchscreen was considered huge, but the trend has been towards larger screens and 5-inch is no longer remarkable (the Galaxy S4 has a 5-inch display and is not considered a phablet). Other manufacturers had experimented with larger devices that combined tablet and phone functionality in the past, things like the HTC Advantage, but the idea didn’t take off until Samsung released the Galaxy Note at the end of 2011.
Released in 2011 the Motorola Atrix was packed with innovations. There was a fingerprint scanner for security. The Android device also featured the Webtop platform which allowed users to plug it into a laptop dock for access to an Ubuntu-based desktop (it was still possible to get Android notifications on the desktop). It generated a lot of excitement on release, but expensive peripherals and a series of bugs ensured that it never took the market by storm.
You never know where the next innovation in mobile will spring from, but you might find a few ideas on the scrap heap just waiting for someone to breathe new life into them.