By Lem Bingley
1984. Orwell didn’t quite get it right. Big Brother wasn’t in power, but things were still pretty grim. Greed was good, Porsche sales were up, and men in striped suits carried thick wodges of paper crammed into bulging Filofaxes, to emphasize how busy, connected and important they were. Perhaps a bad time to a launch a hand-held computer, but a good time to launch an electronic Filofax. Something to take the bulk out of the executive pocket might go down a treat, the enterprising folk at Psion reckoned, if it substituted hi-tech appeal for ostentatious bulk. And so the Psion palmtop was launched as an organizer, and it has been mentally pigeon-holed as one ever since – even if the current generation might more accurately be described as a personal digital assistant.
The first Psion may have been called an organizer, but what it actually looked like was an absurdly chunky calculator. This impression was reinforced by its A-Z, rather than qwerty, keyboard, and its single-row, 16-character liquid crystal display. But inside the Psion’s slip-on, crush-resistant cover lurked a real computer boasting a whopping 4Kb of read-only memory, 2Kb of random access memory and the ability to slot in little 8Kb lozenges called Datapaks to provide programs or extra memory. Measuring kilobytes in single digits might sound laughable now, but the Psion was actually pretty hot stuff at the time. Remember, this was the era of the Sinclair ZX Spectrum, where televisions doubled as monitors and programs shipped on screeching music cassettes. The British entrepreneur behind Psion is former duvet-salesman and shrewd stock market investor Dr David Potter (who still heads Psion, as chairman and chief executive). Armed with a useful stack of money (accumulated from the aforementioned activities), Potter decided to go into the booming home computer business. In 1980 he founded Psion, and while the company name might sound exotic and faintly Greek, it actually derived from toying with the rather more mundane phrase ‘Potter scientific instruments’. Similarly, there’s nothing classical about the pseudo-Greek symbols that bedeck the company logo. Look closely and you’ll notice that each intriguing glyph is simply the letter below it artfully chopped up and rearranged. While the cultural icons of the eighties are now embarrassing history, the Psion lives on – with an enviable share of the palmtop market. Massachusetts-based number-cruncher Forrester Research Inc reckons that Psion has quietly scooped 33% of the world-wide market. That’s rather more than twice the penetration of Apple Computer Inc’s heavily-hyped Newton, for example. To date Psion has sold nearly 2m machines – even Bill Gates is rumored to be a fan. More than a decade of evolution has changed Psion’s machines considerably. Unlike Apple, Psion seems to have concentrated on getting the hardware right, rather than banking on Cupertino kudos, slick packaging and gimmicky software. All current Psion pocket computers (please, don’t call them organizers) are based around the same architecture, which has been continually evolving since 1987. Considering that a Psion’s primary power source is a couple of AA batteries, it’s no surprise that driving down power consumption has been one of the main architectural goals. Hardware is based on purpose-built CMOS chips that are designed to power-up independently, so that current is not wasted on warming idle chips. The central processing unit and its clock can also be slowed, or stopped and restarted, without ill effect. The Psion operating system is equally impressive for a piece of code with its roots in the mid- eighties. The current 16-bit incarnation boasts pre-emptive multi-tasking and a graphical interface. Fully asynchronous system services even mean that there’s no equivalent to the personal computer’s endlessly-refilling hourglass. Memory specifications now have a more modern ring to them, too. The top- of-the-line Series 3c can now be had with 2Mb of RAM. Only 512Kb of that is process memory, but an operating system that supports dynamically linked libraries helps matters. The fact that many application building blocks are continuously available in read only memory also helps programmers to work within the available space. ROM-resident system software includes the operating system; PLIB – a runtime library similar to the ANSI C standard libraries; graphics, fonts and windowing services; device drivers for external devices including RS-232 serial connections; and object classes that can be used with Psion’s C-based object- oriented programming system, called OPL, for Organizer Programming Language. Applications are generally written on personal computers using development software supplied by Psion – it can supply device emulators, and late last year it launched a Visual Basic-compatible rapid appication development tool called OVAL, which stands for Object-based Visual Application Language. Because programs are relatively modest, more than a few Psion owners have ventured into part-time programming. Psion shareware is surprisingly easy to come by on the Web, and a good place to start exploring is the site at http: //www.geo cities.com/Silicon Valley/8130/psioneer.htm
Roving Web client
For the future, Psion is busy working on a 32-bit upgrade to its operating system, and has begun the process of trying to establish itself as the standard setter for roving Web clients of the future. At the end of last year it announced a joint development with Oracle Corp to extend the Oracle Mobile Agents middleware to Psion handhelds. And two-way palmtop paging is now possible over the Sky-Tel network using moblile communications software developed by Scanco Inc of Uniontown, Ohio. Psion owners can download electronic-mail and browsing software from https://www. psion.com, and in July 1996, the parent company, which remains London-based, set up a subsidiary, Psion Software Plc, to license the operating system and application software to third-parties, including other palmtop manufacturers. The company’s US arm, Psion Inc, is based in Concord, Massachusetts.