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If you asked someone in 2020 what was the first smartphone, iPhone would probably be your answer. But in fact, smartphones have been with us much longer than you might think. And while they may no longer be serviceable on modern networks, you might be surprised just how many tasks they had in common with the device in your pocket--or perhaps, in your hand--as you read this article.
Facebook, Twitter, Google Maps, photos and videos, your entire music collection, your notes, your to-do list, some games to pass the time… oh yeah, and phone calls too. Fundamentally, not much has changed. It's all gotten better, faster, slimmer, sleeker, and more convenient, but it's fascinating to look at the origins of smartphones and realize just how much we got right so early on.
While there were several contenders before the market zeroed in on the Android/iOS duopoly, I always had a soft spot for Palm. The app library was huge, and the OS was open and comfortable to use. Using a Palm always felt like setting one foot in the future. They were just capable enough to feel like anything was possible. Even as the OS stagnated without meaningful updates in the later '00s, creative software thrived on Palm, and the cultural impact can still be felt today.
As cell phones took hold, it became common to carry a PDA in one pocket and a cell phone in another. Palm Treo was an obvious marriage of the two, with significant business appeal that quickly bled into more tech-savvy homes as well. The first Treo was released all the way back in 2002, and became a mainstay product line all the way up to 2007, with a few offshoots releasing as late as 2010.
And no wonder: many models not only combined PDA smarts with phonecall and texting capabilities, but also threw in a camera and wireless internet. This naturally lent itself to the smartphone becoming a social device, despite the business aesthetic. Indeed, there was a time when a Treo was even more capable than an iPhone. Despite cheaper and more capable hardware, Apple was starting from zero and took several years to grow into all the same software use-cases. In fact, Palm's shadow still looms over iOS to this day. Many features and gestures first seen in Palm webOS in 2009 only recently saw adoption by other operating systems.
Sadly, gross mismanagement of the Palm company and IP held it back from being all it could've been. Still, they remain a fascinating part of tech history, and I'm always happy to get my hands on another piece of it.