Simon

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Historic articles, documentation, and technical data for Simon, the first Smartphone

View the Project on GitHub simoneer/history

Simon History

What is a Simon? It was the first Smartphone. This repository contains articles, documentation, and technical data for it. This collection is from the personal files of Frank Canova who lead the vision and architecture for Simon, and from other “Simoneers” who created this groundbreaking device.

The Simon was developed by a small team of dedicated engineers at IBM in the “Advanced Technology” department in Boca Raton, Florida. It was actually created in two phases:

In many ways, Simon was ahead of its time. Cellular used AMPS (1G analog) technology so Simon used an internal modem to dial-up remote computers to transfer data. It was also before the internet was well known, so the remote computers were generally running Lotus Notes to act as eMail servers. At a time when most computers had keyboards, floppy disks and ran on DOS, Simon had a touch screen, virtual disks in memory and apps that ran on a specially developed “Navigator” that replaced most of DOS. You could start apps like eMail, calculator, FAX (which was popular then), world clock, address book, calendar, games and more.

Although the 1992 vision was bold, there were practical constraints that limited what was in the final product. For example the 1992 technology demo showed examples of weather, stocks1, maps, sports, entertainment and news apps, but these were not in the final product due to the lack of commercial internet services to provide the data. In 1992 it was also envisioned that cameras, GPS, and many other types of add-ons would be possible with PCMCIA cards. In the commercial product the PCMCIA slot was mainly used to add more memory or a pager which could deliver news and text messages.

The LCD touch screen was 640x200 pixel CGA size. This made it taller than most cell phones at that time, and the older cell phone and battery technologies made it thicker. At an introductory price of $899, it was also more expensive. But Simon had a lot more features and was ready to do many things for that price.

IBM and BellSouth delivered on its visionary product despite its shortcomings. There were about 50,000 Simon smartphones sold in an era when there were none. By comparison the Apple-I, the first personal computer, sold about 200. There was some interest by Alcatel to sell a version of Simon in Europe, but it never materialized.

For a time, IBM continued development. A follow-on project to Simon was code named “Neon” which was much smaller with a 320x480 pixel LCD, a digital radio, and more advanced features like text that would change between portrait and landscape simply by tilting the phone, similar to today. However, IBM began to down-size all Boca Raton operations and move future development to Raleigh, NC under a new code name “Bobcat”. Without the original Advanced Technology team the transition failed to make progress and IBM eventually decided to abandon follow-on projects and leave development to other companies. There were many attempts by other companies to make a successful Smartphone and it would be over 13 years before Apple released the first iPhone.

Resources

Footnotes

1: Fun fact, if you stop this Youtube video right at 6:19 you’ll see the 1992 prototype of Simon shows the Dow Jones industrial average was around 3260. Now 28 years later (this is written in the year 2020) it is nearly 10x that! For those that are curious, in 1992 the internet was not yet mature for consumers and as a result the phone did NOT have a live link to the stock market. Instead, to demonstrate what the world would be like I scanned a newspaper and showed a static image of the stock market on the phone. A similar approach was taken to show how news, sports, weather, and maps would be on smartphones. Because the internet was still not generally available in 1994 when Simon was in production, these apps were not included. Because Simon still supported eMail which was considered the “killer app”, nobody hardly noticed these other apps weren’t yet available.