The iPhone celebrated its 5th birthday this week, but before the iPhone there was Simon.  The worlds first smartphone which IBM and Bellsouth brought to the market in the early 90’s.  The idea of cellphones or smartphones didn’t  caught on as fast so the phone saw an early exit.

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In the 1995 techno thriller, The Net, Sandra Bullock plays a software programmer who unwittingly uncovers a plot to gain access to the world’s most sensitive computers. The bad guy, played by Jeremy Northam, tries to kill Bullock literally and virtually—by stealing her identity. (For a hacker, Bullock’s character is remarkably dim; when she finally catches on to what’s happening, she whines: “Our whole lives are on the computer.”) Apple (AAPL) gets the customary product cameo as the movie imagines a world in which ordering pizza online or accessing a database from a laptop computer in a car is commonplace.


A second product has a more prominent role, only there’s no logo or corporate sponsor credited for the cell phoneused by Northam’s villain. In the final chase scene, he makes a call simply by pressing his phone’s touchscreen. When The Net was made, there was only one cell phone with a touchscreen and sufficient smarts for one-touch dialing: the Simon Personal Communicator. By the time the movie hit theaters that summer, the phone was off the market after its brief, six-month run before consumers. At least Simon left a more lasting impression than the movie did.Early prototype designs. The yellow one (never produced) got all the attention in presentationsEarly prototype designs. The yellow one (never produced) got all the attention in presentations

Simon was the first smartphone. Twenty years ago, it envisioned our app-happy mobile lives, squeezing the features of a cell phone, pager, fax machine, and computer into an 18-ounce black brick. The touchscreen (monochrome) had icons you tapped, or poked with a stylus, for e-mail, calculator, calendar, clock, and a game called Scramble in which you moved squares around the screen until you formed a picture. It featured predictive typing that would guess the next characters as you pecked. And it had apps, or at least a way to deliver more features—including a camera, maps, and music—by plugging a memory card into the phone. BellSouth wanted customers to think of the phone as being as easy to use as “Simon Says ...”

BellSouth wanted customers to think of the phone as being as easy to use as “Simon Says …”

It would take an additional 10 years before anyone called a cell phone “smart,” and a further five before the iPhone shattered our view of what these digital devices could do for us. Simon retailed for $899 and sold approximately 50,000 units. If you were a heavy data user, you had about 60 minutes before you needed to recharge—as little as 30 minutes in areas with poor cell coverage. The Smithsonian Institution has one. Nearly two decades later, you can still find Simons for sale by collectors at the same retail price.

When a few IBM (IBM) engineers first showed a working prototype at the 1992 Comdex computer show in Las Vegas, the model was code-named “Angler” and drew crowds of people eight-to-10 deep. BellSouth Cellular teamed with IBM to turn it into a commercial product with a Milton-Bradley-meets-Gene-Rodenberry name. The two companies hold 11 Simon-related patents—including how to highlight text on a touchscreen to do things like place a call, update apps in the field, and remotely set up and activate a cell phone—among other unique functions that are now standard on smartphones.

The story of Simon is the timeless lesson of tech innovation: Groundbreaking products require a rich ecosystem before the “big idea” can become truly useful or widespread. In this case, what was needed included fast networks, Web browsers, and a whole lot of apps waiting to be pulled off the Internet. In the early 1990s, none of these were available. Phone networks were designed mostly for voice, not sending data. When Simon was conceived, a Web browser had yet to be released. IBM was hemorrhaging money and people, losing $16 billion and over 100,000 jobs in the years from 1991 to 1993. In the end, technical limitations, product delays, a world-class corporate meltdown, revolving-door management, and bad business decisions conspired against Simon.

IBM and BellSouth chose to drop the phone and abandon a next-generation version of Simon that would have been closer in size to an iPhone. Motorola (MOT), a supplier of the cellular smarts for the prototype, passed when it came time to build the product, concerned that it would be helping IBM become a future competitor. Mitsubishi (6503:JP) replaced Motorola and built the commercial product.