Mobile Archive

The Psion Organiser II: laying the groundwork of our smartphone world

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 hardware 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.: T HOLWERDA123 567 89012 BEOS STREETAB1234 DANO 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,

Librem 5 Evergreen vs. Pinephone

I recently received my Librem 5 (Evergreen) from Purism. The Librem 5 is a smartphone that runs an otherwise standard linux kernel. However, unlike Android which also relies on the linux kernel under the hood, the Librem 5 uses a GNU userspace, adapted for mobile. This makes it more akin to your typical laptop in some ways, although the form factor still resembles a modern smartphone (at least, mostly). Here are some preliminary thoughts about the phone and how it compares to Pine64’s Pinephone, which is another phone that uses neither Android nor iOS, and relies on a GNU / Linux based OS. A detailed look at and comparison between these two smartphones that definitely share a target market. Devices like this are an excellent example of something I can now consider buying and reviewing thanks to our lovely supporters on Patreon.

Sailfish OS 3.4 released

The headline improvement in this new version of Sailfish OS is a big upgrade tot he browser engine. We’ve upgraded the browser engine to Gecko ESR52. This makes using the Sailfish OS browser already much more enjoyable! This isn’t the end of the story though, and is in fact just the first step of our plan to gradually upgrade the browser. As the browser is open source, some of you may have already noticed from the repositories that we are continuing to upgrade the engine for upcoming releases. Newer browser engine versions bring in thousands of bug fixes, improvements to the rendering and compatibility with various newer browser technologies. On top of that, this release brings experimental Rust support, the first steps towards 64bit ARM support – about time, I would say – and support for multiple users on a single device.

Huawei’s Harmony OS is coming to smartphones, with code release promised for October 2021

Huawei has been in a tight spot in the past couple of years, and their situation keeps getting tighter. But the Chinese giant has no intention of going anywhere, at least not without putting up a good fight. Last year, at HDC 2019, Huawei had announced its own first-party operating system, Harmony OS, showing off an important piece of its vision for the future. Harmony OS was shown off first on the Honor Vision Smart TV, and Huawei remained committed to Android at the time for its smartphone needs. The company reiterated those plans again in December 2019. But recent developments have forced the company to rethink its strategy. At HDC 2020, Huawei has now announced that Harmony OS will come to smartphones after all, with an expected beta SDK by the end of 2020, and a phone release around October 2021. We will probably not see much of this operating system here in the west, but I’m still intrigued. It’s entirely custom – not based on Linux – and they’ve been working on it for quite a while now. I have no interest in it from a general use perspective since I doubt it will be very useful here in the west, but am incredibly curious to see what they’re cooking up.

First look at the LG Wing with its twisty dual display

We’ve been hearing rumors over the past few months related to a secret phone project at LG, codenamed “Wing.” The LG Wing appears to be a new take on dual-display phones by featuring a secondary display that flips out in a twisting motion. Android Authority has obtained an exclusive video that shows a near-final version of the phone, making us think its release date can’t be too far away. The video gives us a better idea of how the phone will work while simultaneously giving us some hints of why the secondary display could be useful. I’m so glad that device makers are getting a bit more adventurous again. We’re sure not at crazy Nokia level yet, but at least we’re slowly getting devices that aren’t boring slabs.

Sailfish OS 3.3.0 released

There are a lot of things that are not visible for a casual Sailfish OS user. This 3.3.0 release contains a vast number of updates for the lower level of the stack. We’ve included for example the updated toolchain, a new version of Python and many updates to core libraries such as glib2. In this blog I will go through a few of the changes and what they mean in practice for users, developers and Sailfish OS in general. You can also read the more detailed release notes. It’s nice to see my original Jolla Phone – released in late 2013 – is still supported, as is the ill-fated Jolla Tablet from late 2015. I’m probably one of the few people in the world who actually got a Jolla Tablet, delivered straight from Hong Kong in a non-descript brown packaging, but I never seriously used it.

KaiOS Technologies and Mozilla partner to improve Gecko engine on KaiOS

Today KaiOS Technologies, maker of KaiOS, the leading mobile operating system for smart feature phones, and Mozilla, developer of one of the world’s leading web browsers, announced a partnership to enhance the Gecko engine for KaiOS, enabling a more diverse and open mobile internet for users around the world. Kai’s engineering expertise and Mozilla’s software support together will ensure future versions of Gecko are compatible with KaiOS-enabled devices and their web-based resources. I really want a KaiOS device to give the platform a proper test. It seems like such an elegant midway point between the cell phone of yore and modern smartphones.

EU considering forcing smartphone makers to make batteries user-replaceable

Are you constantly annoyed that your smartphone battery dies before the rest of the phone? Angry about the wastage that creates? Well, leaked EU proposals could force smartphone manufacturers to to make all batteries removable. That would mean that all brands wanting to sell in the EU would have to make sure each phone has a battery that can be removed by the user – and that even would include Apple, the company most resistant to legislation around its iPhone designs, if attempts to make it change ports in the past is anything to go by. This makes perfect sense. People are keeping their phones for longer and longer, so the ability to easily and quickly replace the battery is a big boon.

An open source rotary cell phone

Why a rotary cellphone? Because in a finicky, annoying, touchscreen world of hyperconnected people using phones they have no control over or understanding of, I wanted something that would be entirely mine, personal, and absolutely tactile, while also giving me an excuse for not texting.  The point isn’t to be anachronistic. It’s to show that it’s possible to have a perfectly usable phone that goes as far from having a touchscreen as I can imagine, and which in some ways may actually be more functional. Genius.

The story of the audacious, visionary, totally calamitous iPad of the ’90s

Of course, AT&T wasn’t the company that ended up bringing us most of the tech predicted in the “You Will” ads. But it did bring that tablet device to market. It’s called the EO Personal Communicator 440, and while not the first mass-manufactured tablet computer — that honor goes to the GRiDPad, a device sold by Radio Shack’s corporate parent Tandy — the EO is generally considered one of the first tablets with mobile connectivity. Released by AT&T in 1993, not long after the telecom giant bought a majority stake in its maker EO, it was a tantalizing glance into the future. Any article on the EO is an article I will post – I’m a simple man – but that website’s fonts and font colours give me a headache.

EU lawmakers, with eye on Apple, call for common mobile charger

EU lawmakers overwhelmingly called on Thursday for rules to establish a common charger for all mobile device makers across Europe, a drive that iPhone maker Apple has criticised. Members of the European Parliament voted by 582-40 for a resolution urging the European Commission, which drafts EU laws, to ensure that EU consumers are no longer obliged to buy new chargers with each new device. This story is a case of government regulation done extremely well. This whole process started with a voluntary agreement in the industry to standardise on one charger and port, and if they failed, the EU would step in and enforce it by law. This agreement has worked out quite well – first micro USB, now USB-C. However, one popular phone maker decided to not adhere to the agreement, and so, more than ten years after the agreement, and thus ample time for this phone maker to follow suit, the EU will now have to step in. Apple has already moved all of its devices to USB-C, save for one – the iPhone. Now they won’t have much of a choice but to follow along. Much like with RoHS, the rest of the world has only benefited from this push for a charging standard, as anyone who remembers the feature phone and PDA days can only attest to (you should see my mutually incompatible collection of just PDA chargers – I must have dozens of them!). And no, this won’t stifle innovation. This whole process is done in collaboration with the industry and standards bodies, so if newer options come along that the sector wants to standardise on, they can – just as they did with the move from micro USB to USB-C. Apple will just have to suck it up – maybe while they’re at it, they can finally make a charging cable that doesn’t suck?

Librem 5 phone hands-on: open source phone shows the cost of being different

I wonder about the approach Purism took with the Librem 5. The company chose to do everything all at once by building a new smartphone OS and a new hardware supply chain. For a customer receiving a Librem 5 today, you’re getting an unfinished operating system and rough, gen-one open source hardware. That’s a bunch of compromises to accept for $750. A more reserved approach would have been to build an open source GNU/Linux-based OS on closed source hardware first and then make the difficult jump to custom hardware when the OS was in a more complete state. The Librem 5 is a tough sell, even for people who value the open source nature of the device. That’s simply too much money for such an outdated, unfinished device.

The PinePhone starts shipping – a Linux-powered smartphone for $150

Pine64 has announced that it is finally shipping the PinePhone, a smartphone that takes the rare step outside the Android/iOS duopoly and is designed to run mainline Linux distributions. The PinePhone starts shipping January 17 in the “Braveheart” developer edition. An interesting device for sure, and the dip switches on the motherboard that act has hardware kill switches for things like the microphone and camera are pretty neat. I do take issue with the “Linux-powered” as if that’s some unique quality or anything. Save for the odd iPhone, every single smartphone in the world runs Linux. Maybe not in a form that adheres to your no true Scotsman idea of Linux, but 100% Linux nonetheless.

Sailfish OS 3.2.1 released

We’ve included many reliability improvements in Nuuksio especially targeting Email, Calendar synchronisation and VPN settings. In addition to reliability improvements, the Email app now has enhanced support for handling HTML formatted messages. Audio routing for Android apps has been improved on Android app support 8.1, fixing issues with applications such as WhatsApp calls and Youtube. The operating system now supports hardware MPEG2, VP9 and h.265/HEVC video decoding (the exact support depends on the device). The detailed release notes are also available.

The sad saga of Purism and the Librem 5

Today I’m going to tell you a sad tale of a device called the Librem 5 and the company behind it, Purism. As of right now, this story does not have a happy ending. I am writing this series of articles as a protest against the behavior of Purism, a company which claims that transparency and openness are their core values. If they won’t tell the world the truth about the Librem 5, then I’m willing to at least give it a go. Everything in these three articles – part two and part three are available as well – reads like the usual kind of stuff that goes down in mismanaged crowdfunding campaigns, especially those for computer hardware. This is why you should always be extremely skeptical of crowdfunding campaigns, and doubly so for ambitious ones. Worse, though, are the claims that the Librem 5 will, in fact, not be entirely open source as promised. This is a big promise to make, and to the people supporting open source projects such as the Librem 5, this is a massive breach of trust.

Rebble with a cause: how Pebble watches were granted an amazing afterlife

Rebble is an inspiring repair story, and the way Pebble enabled this second life is a path that every gadget manufacturer should strive to emulate. Pebble created an open (and open-source) environment for developers and enthusiasts. As a direct result, Rebble is saving thousands of gadgets from the bin and building a real community around dogged longevity. Keeping Pebbles running, in the face of much fancier options, knitted the community together. This should be a legal requirement. If a company wants to end the life of a cloud-connected product, they should be legally obliged to open up the code and tools necessary for third parties to keep the product alive.

Rwanda just released the first smartphone made entirely in Africa

Rwanda’s Mara Group has grand ambitions. The company hopes to help turn Rwanda into a regional tech hub, and it just got one step closer to completing that mission. This week, the company released two smartphones, earning Mara Group the title of the first smartphone manufacturer in Africa. If you know Rwanda’s recent history, you know just how monumental of an achievement this is.

Xiaomi’s Mi Mix Alpha is almost entirely made of screen

The “surround screen” on the Alpha wraps entirely around the device to the point where it meets the camera module on the other side. The effect is of a phone that’s almost completely made of screen, with status icons like network signal and battery charge level displayed on the side. Pressure-sensitive volume buttons are also shown on the side of the phone. Xiaomi is claiming more than 180 percent screen-to-body ratio, a stat that no longer makes any sense to cite at all. Settings aside the obvious usability concerns associated with this design, I do have to say I can barely believe technology like this is now entering the market. This was the kind of stuff confined to science fiction not too long ago.

Apple announces iPadOS

The iPad’s device-specific features have been advancing for years, and Apple is finally making the divergence official. Though the first version seems to still be iOS with some iPad-specific components (not all that different from previous versions of iOS on the iPad), presumably this release signals that in the future the iPad and iPhone versions of the OS will diverge more radically. Personally, I hope to see it iPad become more Mac-like, rather than seeing the Mac become more iPad-like. I’d love to see iPadOS evolve to the point that Apple would release an iPad Pro keyboard with a trackpad. Crucially, the iPadOS will be compatible with devices going back to the five-year-old iPad Air 2.

Huawei Mate 30 Pro goes official without Google apps

Obviously, the most notable aspect of the Chinese-made handset is the distinct lack of official access to Google apps and services. This is the first flagship to be released by Huawei since being blacklisted by the US government, therefore it is the first new release to explicitly come without access to common Google Play Services. Side-loading these services is likely to be possible but it is unclear just how this will be possible for most non-techie buyers. The Huawei Mate 30 Pro does come EMUI 10, which is based upon the recently released Android 10. Although, as expected, this build does not come with any Google apps. It will be interesting to see how well this handset will perform outside of China. I have my sincerest doubts.