Where and when did pocket computing start? Did it start in Silicon Valley, at HP, IBM, or Apple? Did it start with the Palm Pilot, or Apple’s Newton? Not quite. No, it started in the United Kingdom, with a device that today looks more like an old calculator than a modern smartphone – but it has applications, a homescreen with apps in a grid, two memory card slots, and a whole lot more.
I’m talking, of course, of Psion, the British company operating out of London that built and sold the very first personal digital assistant – a full computer small enough to slide into a pocket, with various functionalities common to mobiles phones and smartphones, like clocks, alarms, an address book, phone book, a file manager, a database, a search tool, and more. It also had an implementation of BASIC, and support for external hardware accessories and two memory card slots.
The computer in question is the Psion Organiser II, a successor to – you guessed it – the Organiser, retroactively dubbed the Organiser I. The Organiser II improved upon its predecessor in a few key ways that vastly expanded its capabilities and usefulness. First and foremost, the RAM was expanded from a mere 2 kB to 8, 16, 32, or 64 KiB (or even 96 KiB, but I’ve never seen one of those), which gave developers and programmers a lot more room to play. Second, instead of a single-line display, the older Organiser II models had two lines, and later models doubled that to four lines. Third, while the original Organiser did not have an operating system, its successor came with a single-tasking operating system.
Another major change between the two generations is the addition of an expansion connector for hardware accessories. Situated at the top of the device behind a tiny sliding door sits a female hardware connector in which you could plug things like an RS232 port, and devices such as speech synthesizers, telephone dialers, and more. Especially the ability to connect barcode readers and thermal printers made the Organiser II incredibly popular in a variety of industrial applications.
The beating heart of all Organiser models is a Hitachi HD6303XFP processor running at 0.9 MHz, which isn’t the fastest processor in the world, but fine enough for the intended use of the device. Since opening up my Organiser II to check for the exact part and model number of the processor is out of the question (I would need to remove and deform a glued-on metal band), I don’t know which exact model my device has.
Using the Organiser II
I have a Psion Organiser II LZ64 model, which is one of the later models with the four-line display and 64 KiB of RAM. After sliding down the cover – its sleeping bag, as I call it – you reveal a battery door at the bottom of the device. Slide in a 9V brick battery, press the ON button, and the first thing you need to do is pick a language.
After selecting your desired language, the Organiser II will start to look and feel remarkably familiar – especially considering it came out in 1986. The default screen is what can only be described as a home screen, with apps listed in a grid. You use the arrow keys to move a blinking underscore cursor around to select the app you want, and hit the EXE button on the keyboard to launch it.
The software of the Organiser II has a few interesting characteristics. First of all, the ON button functions as a back and home button too – pressing it will always take you back one screen until you hit the home screen. It’s nice to know that no matter what you’re doing or no matter how much you’ve lost your way, this button will always get you back to familiar ground. Subsequent and modern mobile operating systems all have a similar button.
Second, the main storage is addressed as A:, and two memory slots as B: and C:, probably in an effort to feel familiar to users of CP/M and DOS-like operating systems, which all used the same concept of drive letters. What makes this doubly interesting is that the Organiser’s drive letter convention survived and made its way into the next operating system Psion would develop, EPOC. You probably know EPOC under a different name – Symbian. The incredibly popular and successful Symbian mobile operating system used drive letters, and it can trace that all the way back to Psion’s Organiser line.
Many of the applications listed on the home screen are pretty self-explanatory. Time allows you to check and set the time, including daylight savings, and the device has no problems related to Y2K. With Alarm you can set up to eight alarms that can ring daily, every hour, and so on, which will ring even when the device is off. Notes opens a simple notepad, Calc is a calculator, and so on. There are three other applications that I’d like to focus a bit more on.
The first and second are Find and Save, prominently listed as the first two items on the home screen. Unlike later and modern devices, the Organiser II treats things like phone numbers, addresses, and other similar and related information a bit differently. Basically, using Save, you enter information in what is effectively a flat database, without using any specific entry fields like “Phone number” or “Last name” (with Xfiles you can copy, paste, and create additional databases alongside your main one). After saving your entry, you can then use Find to retrieve it.
So, after opening Save, you get the following prompt:
12:30 Save on A: >_
You can then enter a name, address, and phone number, e.g.:
123 567 890
12 BEOS STREET
You can then use Find to retrieve this entry using any of the entered data as a query. It’s a very simple and straightforward way of managing information, but I absolutely love it. I use a simple plain text file as my calendar, and I note down translation assignments and deadlines in basic plain text, ordered by date. I find using actual calendar applications where you have to deal with specific entry fields cumbersome, annoying, and time-consuming, and to me, it’s much easier to just write something like this in a plain text file:
FRIDAY 14:00 corporateflufftext.docx 1473w
I fully understand this simplistic method simply isn’t realistic for a lot of people with fuller, more varied calendars with entries that involve other people too, but for me, this works like a charm, and makes me appreciate the information storage and retrieval functions of the Organiser II all the more.
The third application I want to highlight is Prog, which takes you to OPL, or the Organiser Programming Language. OPL is a BASIC-like language that you can use to write programs on the Organiser, but since I’m not a programmer, it’s difficult for me to write a proper summary of what, exactly, OPL is capable of. Here’s an example dice program from the Organiser II programming manual:
dice: LOCAL dice%,key% KSTAT 1 top:: CLS :PRINT "DICE ROLLING" PRINT "PRESS S TO STOP" DO dice%=(RND6+1) UNTIL KEY$="S" CLS PRINT "** ";dice%;" " BEEP 50,100 AT 1,4 :PRINT "ROLL AGAIN Y/N" label:: key%=GET IF key%=%Y GOTO top:: ELSEIF key%=%N RETURN ELSE GOTO label:: ENDIF
Even for a non-programmer like me, this is entirely readable, which is no surprise considering the BASIC heritage. The programming manual contains a lot more examples, some of which are far more advanced and definitely above my non-existent skills.
As was normal during that time, the most common way of loading these programs onto your computer was by typing them out manually. The keyboard on the Organiser II is definitely its weakest link, with tiny, wobbly keys in an abysmally frustrating alphabetical layout. Bad keyboards weren’t entirely uncommon during the 8bit era, and sadly, the Organiser II is no exception. You’re not going to have fun typing out long, complex OPL programs.
The other way of adding software to the device is through the aforementioned memory cards, called DATAPAKS. They come in various shapes and sizes, using an EPROM, an EEPROM, or battery-backed RAM. The EPROM variants can only be formatted by exposing the chips inside to ultraviolet light, and Psion even offered a postal formatting service so you could send your PAKs to Psion for formatting, for a small fee.
Software available for the Organiser line consists of exactly what you’d expect – word processors, spreadsheets, financial software, and so on. Considering the widespread adoption of the Organiser II in industrial settings, there’s also a lot of software catering to that market.
Overall, the Organiser II is an interesting and hugely important device in the history of pocket computing, and it played a big role in laying the groundwork of what would eventually become the smartphone world we live in today. Aside from the crappy keyboard, it’s also surprisingly usable and easy to grasp, especially considering it’s almost 35 years old.
At the very least, the Organiser line if product formed the foundation of one of the most successful mobile operating systems of all time, but we’ve got about 15 years to go before we get there.