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Microsoft Passed On iPhone-Like Device In 1991 184

Posted by samzenpus
from the late-to-the-party dept.
theodp writes "Microsoft apparently could have been a contender in the smartphone market, instead of what WP7 is today. Former Microsoft CTO Nathan Myhrvold says he tried to convince Microsoft to make an iPhone-like device more than two decades ago. 'The cost will not be very high,' Myhrvold wrote in 1991. 'It is pretty easy to imagine a $400 to $1,000 retail price.' So is Myhrvold bitter that cost-conscious and risk averse Microsoft opted not to pursue his vision? Nope. 'Hey, it was better than predicting the wrong thing,' Myhrvold explains."
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Microsoft Passed On iPhone-Like Device In 1991

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  • No kidding (Score:5, Informative)

    by Sycraft-fu (314770) on Sunday April 15, 2012 @10:31AM (#39692959)

    In 1991 2G aka digital cell technology had just launched. So most cell service was still AMPS and anyone who tried data over that knew it was a painful, painful, experience, not to shit battery life of analogue phones. Plus computers were still very slow. The 486 was the king of the heap and man, even that was slow. It took forever to do normal tasks. I remember having my computer print something and wandering off to the kitchen to get a snack while I waited for it to deal with all the work of rasterizing and sending the document to the printer. Of course since mobile technology will always be less powerful you'd be luck to have 286 class hardware at that time. Finally the Internet, which is what makes people really like smartphones, was something that only people at research and government institutions knew about, it was not a big public thing.

    For smart phones to work we needed three things to happen:

    1) Data networks to get fast enough to make surfing reasonable. This pretty much means 3G. It was doable on 2G networks, I suppose, but pretty bad. It needed to be fast enough that a person's attention span wasn't exceeded by the load time.

    2) Computers to get fast enough that even a slow computer is reasonable. Since a mobile computer will be many times less powerful than a full sized one, that means full sized ones first had to outgrow the era of always being slow. Wasn't until pretty recently that happened. We just needed chips to get shrunk enough that a reasonable amount of power could go in a tiny package.

    3) Something to do with them, a network to get on. BBSes weren't going to cut it. We needed the Internet, and more we needed it to actually be useful.

    None of that really happened until early 2000s. A smartphone before then would have been a flop because nobody other than a few geeks would have found it anything other than an unwieldy, expensive, useless gadget.

    Technology has to progress to certain points before ideas are feasible. A good example of where it hasn't would be flying cars. Idea has been around forever, prototypes have been built, nothing has happened. Why? Because the technology isn't there. It isn't an idea problem, it is a tech problem. We'd need some major new propulsion/levitation tech before that sort of thing would be feasible.

    Really, smartphones happened when they were ready, and the iPhone is not notable for that in any way. It was simply the device that made it cool for regular people. Blackberries had been popular with professionals and the government (especially the US government, they love them some Blackberries) for a few years.

    Hell for that matter MS had smartphones, they just weren't very good.

  • Not an 'iPhone'. (Score:5, Informative)

    by Junta (36770) on Sunday April 15, 2012 @10:35AM (#39692997)

    Basically, it was a smartphone. It might've been the first if they pursued it, but then again, the Simon being first didn't buy it much in the long run:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IBM_Simon [wikipedia.org]

    Having a smartphone on the market in the early 90s didn't really matter. Internet in early 90s didn't matter one bit to the mass market. The first browser wouldn't even exist for two more years. Until the relatively late 90s, most people didn't even bother with the internet. Without a large market demanding internet (and appropriate cellular resources to actually service that demand), there is no possibility of an 'iPhone'. This is no more an 'iPhone' than numerous smartphones that cropped up before the iPhone (and enjoyed moderate success too). What the iPhone specifically brought in its initial successful incarnation were two things. One, a web browser/interface that could reasonably render and navigate 'desktop' websites instead of being limited to crippled mobile sites that few sites bothered with at all or put something useless up. Two, the marketing momentum of their brand value from the iPod success.

  • Patent troll alert (Score:4, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday April 15, 2012 @10:36AM (#39693005)

    Nathan Myhrvold [wikipedia.org] is the most prominent of all patent trolls [thisamericanlife.org].

    Drawings like this where pretty common all through the 80s.

  • by iamhassi (659463) on Sunday April 15, 2012 @10:38AM (#39693019) Journal

    Idea was before its time. See the Apple Newton.

    The story is ridiculous. What network would the phone run on in 1991? 0.1G? There was no wifi, no Bluetooth, no 3G or even 2G. In 1991 the cellphones were giant bag phones that could only display a phone number. No text messaging, no email, no Internet.

    Microsoft had been making touchscreen phones for 5 years before the iPhone came out. Started as PDAs running Windows CE, then windows mobile 5.

    Microsoft had a good run but they just didn't keep up but dont feel bad, Palm was huge in 2005 and now they are gone and Blackberry is almost gone. This shows you anyone can run the cellphone game, you just have to have a good OS and apps people want.

  • by Dot.Com.CEO (624226) on Sunday April 15, 2012 @10:45AM (#39693061)
    I strongly disagree. I had a P800 and a P910 later on. They were BY FAR the best phones I've ever owned, considering the expectations of technology at the time. They had working email on a huge screen, an amazing input system (and I'm talking Graffiti here, it was truly amazing and I really miss it), they looked great and the battery lasted for ages. Why Ericsson gave up on UIQ I'll never know, but I'm sure it was the wrong decision. Whatever alternative plan they had, it didn't work out. Going a bit off topic here but, in my opinion, Nokia's Symbian S60 was also a great OS for people wanting connectivity on the go. Thing is, people didn't know they wanted to be connected until iPhones and, to a much lesser extent, Blackberries. I have great love for e-series Nokias of 3-5 years ago, and I'm sad to see them disappear. Build quality, form factor, yes even software, were excellent for what they were supposed to be.
  • by Grishnakh (216268) on Sunday April 15, 2012 @02:13PM (#39694473)

    My wife's a helicopter pilot, so I know a little about this. Just handling the machine is hard enough. While the coaxial+fly-by-wire stuff is obviously much easier to fly, I've never seen that actually put into operation for human-size craft, only R/C toys. All the ones that humans fly are not fly-by-wire, to my knowledge; they require someone on the controls at all times to keep them from crashing; the pilot has to make constant corrections every time there's a gust of wind or thermal updraft or whatever.

    However, this is only one small part of the difficulty of being a pilot. The other is navigation. Navigating an aircraft (helicopter or fixed-wing) is not easy, especially if you can't see (which is why there's VFR and IFR flying: VFR for when you can see, IFR for when you can't and have to fly by instrument). You have to plot out a course beforehand, taking into account airspace, navigation hazards, etc. You have to make sure you're flying higher than the terrain (not a problem with commercial jets usually, but it is with smaller craft that fly much lower), and you have to make sure you're where you're supposed to be. You can't just fly through Class B airspace (over any major city) without following the correct rules and procedures and being at the right altitude, following tower instructions, etc. For IFR flying, you have to follow established routes. It's all quite complicated, and takes pilots a while to learn. It takes a reasonably-intelligent person at least a year or two to learn all this stuff (maybe less, depends on how much time they can dedicate to it); there's no way an average moron on the street could figure this stuff out and pass an FAA exam. Even after all this, licensed pilots (esp. the private ones) screw up all the time.

    Sure, if you made an aircraft fairly easy-to-fly with some heavy computer assistance (the way $100M military planes have computer assistance to make them stable in flight, like the B2), and took away ALL air traffic, an average moron might be able to pilot a plane around decently. But add in all the rules, and all the extra traffic, they'd be crashing into each other constantly. It's already fairly crowded up there, and that's with just commercial traffic and a very small number of private pilots (relative to population); imagine adding millions of regular people; it'd be a mess.

  • Re:No kidding (Score:4, Informative)

    by petsounds (593538) on Sunday April 15, 2012 @05:23PM (#39695623)

    Yeah, that was mostly because NeXTSTEP used Display Postscript [wikipedia.org] as its display rendering engine. So it didn't have to do much translation work to send a Postscript of your file to the printer. A 68030-based Macintosh was certainly not as fast.

  • Re:Ouch too bad (Score:0, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday April 16, 2012 @01:36AM (#39697949)

    It should be said that Microsoft was in the smartphone market long before Apple (eg. HTC Magician running Windows Mobile 2003). They were given the opportunity. They did indeed fuck it up.

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