Unified communication (UC) is rightly seen as a means of revolutionising the way people work and communicate. However, it didn’t evolve in a vacuum. Previous attempts at bringing elements together and even early versions of some of the parts of what we now call UC are all but forgotten. Guy Clapperton looks at pioneering devices, some of which may have misread the market and others that were simply ahead of their time
In 1993 Apple joined Psion, Sharp and others in putting together an electronic organizer, but gave it a lot more “oomph”. The Newton included handwriting recognition, notes, names, dates and maps. The company described it as a Personal Digital Assistant (PDA); the name caught on and companies like Handspring, subsequently acquired by Palm, took the concept forward. It would be over a decade, however, before Apple took the step of introducing a phone into the equation in order to pick up emails – few people had emails to pick up in 1993 anyway. But it was the start of carrying digital information around.
By now the iPad is so well established it’s difficult to understand that early attempts at a tablet computer pretty much bombed immediately. GRiD was one of the first companies to try what was essentially a PC that accepted pen input and Compaq took it further with its Concerto model in 1992. The clever bit about the Concerto was that it had a removable keyboard. It was well reviewed but expensive; the company slashed the price, but by 1994 it had discontinued the model and it would be over ten years before tablet computing truly took off outside a few niches.
If you have a chance, have a look at some old episodes of TV’s The Apprentice and you’ll see they’re using an unusually bulky phone with a big screen. This was the Amstrad Em@iler, released in 2000, which aimed to deliver email without a computer. From 2004, it also allowed people to video conference. It was subsidised by advertising delivered to the owner’s handset. It worked but it was bulky for a domestic setting and the market failed to catch light. Meanwhile, the cost of laptops was plummeting and they suddenly all had webcams built in, so the appeal of what now looked like a relatively restricted device diminished quickly.
During the 1992 General Election, no politician could be seen without his or her pager for fear of missing a message from on high about how to answer a difficult question. Motorola was the market leader, but importantly RIM took a significant amount of sales very quickly, soon realising the importance of being able to communicate by text on the move. RIM would go on to create the BlackBerry.
It may not be immediately obvious that music players became a major factor in the development of unified communications. Consider, though, that before we had the Walkman from 1979, we weren’t in the habit of carrying technology around with us. It’s doubtful that people would have developed MP3 players, leading to the iPod, without the Walkman. It’s equally doubtful that the iPhone would have existed in its current form without the Walkman’s influence and, although Apple’s phone was far from the first smartphone, along with the BlackBerry it was the one that took this sort of technology to the popular market.