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A device with a touchscreen and few buttons was obvious
By Thom Holwerda on 2012-08-26 10:28:31
In light of the jury verdict in Apple vs. Samsung, the one-liners and jokes flew back and forth. One in particular, by Dan Frakes, has been copied and pasted all over the web, and it goes like this: "When the iPhone debuted, it was widely criticized for having no buttons/keys. Now people think the iPhone's design is 'obvious'." This is a very common trend in this entire debate that saddens me to no end: the iPhone is being compared to simple feature phones, while in fact, it should be compared to its true predecessor: the PDA. PDAs have always done with few buttons.

I was a heavy PDA user back in the day, and have become somewhat of a collector of these devices over the past few years. I never partook in the PalmOS vs. PocketPC debates, since I saw merit in both, and as such, used them both heavily. PocketPC devices were more versatile and powerful than PalmOS devices, but this came at the price of a more complicated UI and the occasional stability issues (though those were not as bad as some make it out to be today).

With the phone aspect of smartphones being such a small part of how we use smartphones today, you'd think people were smart enough to see that the lineage of the iPhone - and Android and Windows Phone - does not come from buttoned-up feature phones, but from the minimalistic, buttoned-down PDAs of the late '90s and early 2000s. Here's a photo of a few random devices I grabbed from my collection, spanning the full spectrum of just that period (an LG Prada has been thrown in for completeness' sake, showing that even if you look at feature phones, Frakes' comment has little basis in fact). I didn't even have to look - I just grabbed a few random devices.

Consider this: since the jury ruled that the Epic 4G - a device with a keyboard - infringed Apple's iPhone design patents, all of the above could infringe as well. And they are 2-7 years older than the iPhone.

It surprises me that a well-respected and good technology writer and enthusiast like Dan Frakes is also part of the "let's-forget-all-about-the-PDA"-crowd. Random commenters and people on the street, sure - but knowledgeable technology enthusiasts? As a PDA enthusiast, I expect better.

I've complained about this before, but where does this sudden disregard for history come from? Why are PDAs suddenly that weird uncle you never talk about and only see at birthdays? During the heydays of the PDA, every nerd and geek I knew seemed to have one or more of these things, since they were incredibly powerful and versatile for their time, and it wasn't until Android grew up that modern smartphones (modern as in, iOS, Android, WP) managed to match the PDA's versatility.

This was a very common scenario for me on my beloved iPaq: I'd be watching a Futurama episode on my iPaq, streamed over my network from my PC, when an email arrived. I could pause the video, switch to my email client, read the email, and go to the link mentioned therein. After checking out the link in the browser, I could write and send a reply, and go back to watching the video where I left off. This was back when Google was still a search engine, and Apple was still busy not dying.

As a geek, I do not want history to be revised to make it seem as if mobile computing started with the iPhone and Android - I want credit to go where it's due: Palm. The Zoomer was the first fully touch-screen operated graphical PDA, in 1992 (before the Newton, even), and PalmOS is the common ancestor to all that came after it: PocketPC, iOS, Android, Windows Phone, and everything else.

The iPhone did not introduce the concept of a mobile device with a fully touch-screen operated user interface and few buttons. This was a concept ingrained in the mobile industry since the late '80s and early '90s, and acclaimed and/or popular technology enthusiasts like Dan Frakes, John Gruber, Marco Arment, and the countless others who retweeted this nonsense are doing the industry a huge disservice by ignoring this obvious fact.

Just to drive the point home: a device with a touchscreen and few buttons was obvious - at least to the millions and millions of happy PDA users.

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