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Psion PSection

Who are these guys?


By Conrad H. Blickenstorfer
April 2000, issue 33

Our regular Psion/Symbian platform editor Mark Esposito has been detained and so I'll take this opportunity to share a few thoughts about Psion/Symbian. It's a platform that has long puzzled me for it has so much potential and so little follow-through, at least here in the United States.

Longtime readers of Pen Computing Magazine know that we've followed and chronicled Psion's efforts since our very first issue back in early 1994. In those days, Nigel Ballard, who was our UK Bureau Chief at the time, made sure our readers knew everything about Psion and then some. Nigel was so well connected with Psion that he generally seemed to be a step ahead of Psion's management and marketing folks.

In those days, the Psion 3 series was all the rage. In many respects it was the perfect little clamshell computer, and a lot of people preferred it even over HP's venerable 95/100/200 LX series. The Psion had a terrific keyboard that seemed impossibly large given the small size of the unit. Unfortunately, it lacked a pen interface (which we bemoaned) and a PC Card slot (which everyone bemoaned). Word had it that Psion's management detested those two features and would never allow them into any of their products.

Times change, however, and so did Psion. The Series 5, introduced in 1997, was a total stunner. Psion somehow managed to design every desirable feature any user of a little clamshell computer would ever want into the Series 5-including a pen interface and a CompactFlash slot. The Series 5 also premiered Psion's new 32-bit EPOC32 operating environment. This hardware/software combo impressed us so much that we decided to add a dedicated Psion/EPOC platform section to the magazine. There was new hope that Psion was going to crack open the US market after all.

Unfortunately, that didn't quite happen, and things turned rather confusing when Symbian was formed. According to Symbian's website, it is their mission "to set the standard for mobile wireless operating systems and to enable a mass market for Wireless Information Devices." A number of illustrious players joined the Symbian effort which built around Psion's EPOC technology. Current licensees include Ericsson, Matsushita, Motorola, Nokia, Philips, and, of course, Psion. I have no doubt that there are folks who could explain what Symbian is all about and what we can expect from the consortium, but I'd say those people are few and far between.

Psion, in the meantime stepped up its hardware efforts. The already terrific Series 5 received a major face lift last year and became the even better Series 5mx. But that was just the opening salvo in a period of veritable hyperactivity at Psion. Towards the end of 1999, the company released the trendy Revo, a scaled down, hipper version of the 5mx, and then two high-performance čber-handhelds in the Psion netBook and Series 7. Both are powered by blistering StrongARM processors, both have gorgeous color screens, both offer functionality and speed that owners of Windows CE-driven "Jupiter" devices could only dream of, and the top-of-the-line netBook even promised to be a highly configurable Java machine for the enterprise. Psion/Symbian played a prominent role at Andrew Seybold's prestigious Annual Wireless Dinner at the '99 Comdex in Las Vegas. Each attendee received a brand spanking new Psion Revo and there was plenty of Symbian and Psion top execs to mingle with. The Symbian execs told me the thrust of their effort was software. The Psion brass said it was hardware. I left more confused than ever.

Since I have to keep up on all platforms we cover, I thought my confusion about the Psion/EPOC/Symbian strategy in the US market was simply the result of not having the time to follow them closely enough. But as it turns out, our very own Psion/EPOC/ Symbian editor Mark Esposito, who follows the platform very closely, seems nearly as confused. In fact, the usually mild-mannered Esposito recently fired off an open letter to the Psion/EPOC/Symbian troops blasting them for a virtually non-existant, and wildly inconsistent, marketing effort in the United States and also a near total lack of support of those who cover the platform. Psion/ EPOC/Symbian may disagree, but it sure looks that way from our direction.

At this point I cannot help but view the US efforts of Psion/EPOC/Symbian as one big missed opportunity. With Windows CE on the ropes, at least with their clamshell devices, the market was wide open for Psion and its products that are/were actually superior in many respects. The whole story is eerily reminiscent of Apple's past tendencies to tenaciously snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

Oh, and did you know that Oregon Scientific's EPOC-based Osaris handheld isn't even sold in the US? You need to go to France to get one. Oregon Scientific won't return calls from interested US parties. Fits right in with the Psion/EPOC/Symbian saga.

Conrad H. Blickenstorfer can be reached via e-mail at chb@pencomputing.com.


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