Chapter 7 – My First PDA Phone

Despite my high-level geekery I’ve only ever wanted two things from a connected mobile device. You’ll read about the second one shortly but the first is quite simple, a feature that we take entirely for granted these days. However, back in the winter of 2000 I was the only person I knew with a synchronized phone book, and it was all thanks to my VisorPhone.

I  had already been using personal digital assistants (PDAs) for about two years. I got started with an Apple Newton; some hospital or pharmaceutical company had returned a bunch of them to a local electronics shop, who in turn passed the savings on to me. It wasn’t nearly as bad as people were making it out to be — remember that “eat up Martha” gag on The Simpsons? — but the Palm Pilot that succeeded it was orders of magnitude better.

Walking around with my entire calendar and address book in my pocket was incredibly convenient, and the idea was catching on. As I was starting to make a name for myself as an actor a local radio station invited me to debate PDAs vs. paper-based organizers on-air. My opponent clearly didn’t stand a chance; nonetheless, I went easy on her right up until the very end, when the moderator challenged us to produce contact details for our respective dentists. The poor woman had barely cracked open her not-so-little black book as I was already blurting out the name, address and phone number of my dental office — much to the delight of the folks who worked there.

Here’s the thing, though: beyond the quick access my electronic address book wasn’t actually that useful. Sure, it synchronized with my desktop computer, but the desktop version was a lot more useful. To compose an email to someone all I had to do was click on their name. I could even dial their phone number thanks to the modem attached to my computer. Why couldn’t my PDA do this?

Thankfully, some clever people were considering this problem even before I was. One of them was Jeff Hawkins, co-CEO of Handspring, Inc. He was the inventor of the original Palm Pilot for U.S. Robotics, and when USR was bought up by 3Com he moved on to start his own company. Where 3Com targeted the business market Handspring went straight for geeks like me. The distinguishing feature of Handspring devices was an expansion slot at the back called a SpringBoard, giving you the ability to add and remove specific modules — games, dictionaries, memory expansion, the spool of dental floss I got at the Handspring booth at Comdex 2001… But the VisorPhone trumped them all, turning my Handspring PDA into a PDA phone.

It wasn’t the only PDA phone on the market, nor was it the only Palm OS-based PDA phone at the time; Bell Mobility sold a Qualcomm device called the pdQ — but it cost a thousand bucks and was ugly as sin. The $99 VisorPhone wasn’t technically available to Canada, but as it wasn’t locked to any carrier and my brother lived in the United States at the time he was able to bring one home for me at Christmas in 1999. And what a Christmas present it was! No more fiddling around with infrared connections; now I could text directly from my Visor. I could dial numbers from it, too. And the conversation I remember most?

“Are you on your VisorPhone? It sounds like crap…”