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Tales In Tech History: Psion Organiser

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelance and long standing contributor to TechWeek Europe

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In the old days when bulky filofaxs’ organised our lives, a British firm created a pocket computer alternative called the Organiser

In the 1980s and long before the arrival of smartphones, people’s lives were usually contained within a paper-based filofax diary.

The filofax contained our contact lists, diaries, to do lists, and numerous other information crammed within its pages.

But lumbering around a bulky filofax often required a briefcase (for a man) or a big handbag (for a lady). Tech firms began to look at offering an alternative, and it was a British firm called Psion that soon began to offer a pocket computer to replace the filofax.

Glorified Calculator?

Psion organiser 2The Psion Organiser was the brand name of Psion’s pocket computer range and early versions often looked something like a buffed up calculator.

The device itself had a hard plastic sliding cover protecting a 6×6 keyboard with letters arranged alphabetically. Screen-wise, you were blessed with a single-row monochrome LCD screen.

The Organiser I was touted as the “world’s first practical pocket computer” when it was launched in 1984. It utilised an 8-bit Hitachi processor clocked at 0.9MHz (steady on old boy), with 4kb of ROM and 2kb of RAM.

It came with a simple (flat file) database, calculator and clock, and utilised EPROM storage. It also had no operating system.

In 1986 the Psion Two was launched, and this device featured a better keyboard and screen. It came with a 6303 microprocessor and a two-line LCD screen, plus two slots for memory cartridges.

For some observers, the Organiser II could be considered the first usable PDA (Personal Digital Assistant) in that it combined a contacts database, electronic diary and simple games.

Series 3

But it was the Series 3 Psion Organiser that was perhaps the zenith of these devices.

Launched in 1991, the Psion 3 models were a major advance on the older Psion devices, and came with a folding plastic cover that contained a monochrome 240 X 80 screen (i.e. 8 lines of 40 characters), which covered a small QWERT keyboard.

Blessed with a long battery life, stable software, and durable hardware, these devices were relatively inexpensive (for the time) and proved popular.

The impressive battery life was helped by the fact that the Series 3 was powered by two humble AA batteries. There was also an internal backup battery in the form of an easily changed small button cell. This allowed for the main AA batteries to be changed without losing any files. In addition the devices contained a DC input socket for optional external power-supply via a mains transformer.

The Series 3 still retained the original way of managing files (the available program icons were shown in a horizontal line and the associated files dropped down beneath them) of its predecessor models, and the new models were powered by 4.7MHz processor and came with either 128 or 256 RAM.

The Series 3 offered appointments and birthday organisers, alarms, a calculator, a world map displaying time zones, a word-processor (with a spellchecker), a spreadsheet, sketching capabilities and a program editor (OPL) to create your own programs.

Another novelty was the fact that the Series 3 could produce a tone dialling feature using a combination of its built-in loudspeaker and dedicated software for generating tones suitable for telephone systems.

Thus it could be used to dial a telephone number by holding the device to the mouthpiece of a tone dialing telephone.

The End

But in the 1990s the Organiser 3 was competing with rival devices such as the Apple Newton, devices from Palm Computing, and increasingly mobile phone makers such as Motorola and Nokia.

Manufacturing of the Series 3 was discontinued in 1998 and there was no Series 4 (the company reportedly adopted the Far Eastern superstition of not using the number 4).

The Psion 5 PDA arrived in 1997 and it featured a mobile operating system called EPOC.

Interesting side note here – in 1998, Symbian renamed EPOC as Symbian and formed a partnership with Nokia, Ericsson and Motorola o exploit its developer ecosystem on smartphones. In 2004 Nokia bought Psion’s share of Symbian.

But the Series 5 never replicated the success of the Series 3, and Psion itself withdrew from the PDA market in late 2001.

It specialised in ruggedised mobile devices after it merged with Canada’s Teklogix in September 2000, a maker of industrial handheld computers and wireless data collection systems.

In 2012 Motorola purchased Psion for $200m.

It was the end for a company that had started out developing software for Sinclair ZX81 and ZX Spectrum home computers, and Psion was also a source of the one-time leading  mobile operating system (Symbian).

But Psion will forever remain a name best associated with its range of mobile organisers.

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