Saturday, October 11, 2014

Psion - The end of an era

I ran the public relations for Psion PLC from 1993 to 2001.  It was an exciting, dynamic and creative environment, jam-packed with hugely talented individuals who worked wonderfully well together as a team.  Psion was acquired by Motorola Solutions, bringing the curtain down on a company that was once a household name.  In memory of Psion, I reprint below an article I wrote celebrating the 20 year anniversary of the original Psion Organiser.

Twenty years ago the world's first hand-held computer rolled off the production lines. Sleek, black, with red trim, the Psion Organiser 1 was narrower than a packet of cigarettes and the same weight as a pound of butter.

There was no QWERTY keyboard, no fancy colour screen and no handwriting recognition. But there was a calculator and a stopwatch and a smart conversion system if you urgently needed to switch from metres to feet. Forget Word and Exel; but if quadratics or polynomials were your bag, the Psion Organiser 1 was the business. Boasting an amazing battery life of six months on a single nine-volt battery, the device was priced at £99 sterling.

In engineering terms, the Organiser 1 was pure genius. The brainchild of David Potter and Charles Davies, it was conceived during a business meeting between the two in a café in London's Maida Vale in 1982. Both had forgotten to bring notebooks (the paper kind) and they ordered a flotilla of napkins to write on as they had coffee. "Wouldn't it be handy if you had a device you could carry with you that would keep track of all this jumble?" one of them said - no one is quite sure which. They returned to their desks and got down to work.

Top of their wish list was the "jumble tracker", so they included a database to store business and personal contacts. They designed a small window at the top of the device (you really couldn't call it a screen) that allowed a maximum of one line of text, or up to 16 characters, to be entered and viewed. But with only 2KB of internal memory for the entire machine, it helped, when entering your contacts, if you weren't too popular.

Potter and Davies also wanted the device to be durable - and they succeeded. With almost no moving parts and a brick-like design, the only worry you had when the Organiser 1 slipped from your grasp was whether the object you were dropping it onto might be damaged. Despite its physical clunkiness the Organiser won a number of design awards, though these were mainly for clever electronics rather than aesthetics.

The first batch of machines was prone to the occasional bout of eccentricity. During initial testing the software engineers were perplexed as the calculator added two and two together and repeatedly came up with nine. A tribute to Douglas Adams, perhaps? But these were just the awkward beginnings for a device that would transform the way a generation did business. The internet blossomed at exactly the right time and whole legions of Psion users rose up, swapping tips, files and advice. The Organiser's successor, the Series 3, became standard issue, alongside loud ties, for all self-respecting yuppies. By the early 1990s Psion's devices had made rapid technological advances and had, in marketing speak, "crossed the chasm", moving from niche product to mainstream. Their appeal was cross-generational. Pop stars such as Madonna and Cher carried one, yet the Series 3 also had a following among more sober audiences - a user group sprung up in the House of Commons and three found their way into Buckingham Palace.

The Series 5 was the last generation of consumer hand-held computers Psion produced. They retained many of the classic touches that marked Psion out from the crowd. Battery life was still an impressive month on one set of AA batteries, durability still good and the design awards continued to flow.

But the technological contrasts with the Organiser 1 could not be more striking. The Series 5 could record music, had built-in e-mail and, with 8MB of internal memory (well over 400 times the capacity of the Organiser 1) allowed access to thousands of phone numbers, names, addresses and appointments. In total a staggering 4 million people were set to fall under the magic spell of Psion, an amazing achievement for a company that raced from obscurity to number 75 in the FTSE 100 at its peak.

In June 1999 Psion launched the final variant in the series, the Series 5mx, designed to help equip and support a new breed, the mobile worker. Serious corporate applications had been developed with global giants such as Citrix, Oracle and IBM and many small companies now depended upon Psion devices to help run their businesses more efficiently.

Today the customer has never had it so good. A whole range of hybrid products have sprung up trying to pack the best features of a mobile phone and a hand-held computer into a single device. It is a fiercely competitive market with some of the most innovative, dynamic companies in the world battling for our cash. But sadly it is a market without Psion.

In 2001 the IT industry experienced its worst downturn since 1985 and Psion was not immune from the impact. The company conducted a business review and decided to cease manufacturing its consumer organisers. Competition from leaner, hungrier, more cost-efficient competitors meant that the company that had invented the organiser and defined a new category of gadgets had finally decided to shut down its production line and Psion off.