Sunday, May 15, 2011

Has it really been 25 years?

Around 25 years ago, I bought something amazing.  It was a Psion Orrganiser II.  The world had never before quite seen its like.  The Psion II was a pocket (if you had pretty big pockets) computer, touted mostly as an electronic fileofax.  It was a lot more than that, though.  It had a programming language (OPL) and there were lots of nice things you could plug into it.  It had a two line display but a couple of years later I traded it in for the brand new four (count them) line display model.


The best thing about the Psion II was that it was obviously built by people who felt that what they were doing was really cool.  There was never the slightest doubt that everyone who worked on that machine woke up barely able to believe their luck that they were building something so awesome.  And it showed.  You might think ipads are beautiful objects (I’m not so impressed myself) but the Psion II combined beauty and functionality in an age where nobody had really thought of making technology look cool.

The Psion came in a sliding case that covered the keyboard making it look very, very Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  This is one of the reasons that the things were about as indestructible as it’s possible for anything to be.  You know when you pick up most bits of modern kit and feel slightly disappointed at it’s plasticy or flimsy feel?  The Psion II felt like it was hewn from solid rock.  I wrote an office suite for the Psion II and I actually managed to sell about 10 copies.  My first bit of commercial software!  And possibly the software I’m most proud of having written.

Psion was an amazing company.  It followed the Psion II with the imaginatively named Psion 3.  This was very much the same kind of thing, but in a lovely clamshell design with (for the time) a great big screen.  It had a touch-sensitive button bar that folded away behind the screen when you closed the machine.  This kind of design would become a hallmark of future Psion devices.  Hilariously, you could hold the machine to a phone receiver and use the contact application to dial the number by playing the tones through the speaker.

There were variations of the basic Psion 3 and then there was the Psion 5.  To my mind, this machine has never been surpassed as a PDA.  The various Palms were pretty awesome, but the Series 5 had that same quality of design and cool that the II had.  It was just a wonderfully exciting thing to look at and touch.  It doesn’t look dated even now, apart from the mono screen.  The batteries lasted for about ever, it was as responsive as hell, the keyboard was genuinely excellent and it was hard not to squeal with delight when you opened or shut the clamshell: the keyboard extended from the case as you opened it and then locked into place alongside the screen in a breathtaking bit of design.  

There was later a Psion 7 and variants.  This was yet another innovative product, being the first netbook-style machine.  It had a colour, touch-sensitive screen, an excellent keyboard and a battery life of weeks.  It was also, for some reason, finished in leather.  I used one of these for a long time instead of a more conventional laptop.  It was lighter than any laptop at the time, did everything I needed it to and I could use it all day without worrying about having to plug it in.  I was travelling a lot at the time, so this was ideal.  I could even plug it into my phone and get hilariously slow Internet access, hooray!

Sadly, my Psions 5 and 7 mysteriously went missing after I lent them to a friend who, I suspect, simply sold them.  It’s a shame, because they were such cool, fun things to play with.  As wonderful as all my modern kit is, there’s never been anything like the Series 5 for jotting down quick notes.

Unfortunately, Psion no longer make devices like this.  It’s such a shame because as well as being innovative and having appeal that hugely outlasted the currency of their technology, the machines just oozed quality, elegance and superiority of design.  They never lost that sense that the people who designed and built the machines were the kind of people who wanted to use them and who lived every day in a tingle because they were making such cool stuff.  Apple products are often lionised for their design, but they don’t feel like they’re designed by people so much as by a corporation.  They only ‘just work’ if you want to do exactly what the designers decide you should want to do and are bewildering otherwise.  Psion kit just worked and Psion didn’t feel it had to use this as a selling point.  Because it just worked.

Companies change and die, technology moves on.  But I really hope those amazingly talented people who worked for Psion back then are still doing something that makes them excited to get out of bed every morning.  They deserve it.

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