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The History of Psion

Initially reprinted from my own article in 1998, with kind permission, in Palmtop magazine, with some additions and corrections where appropriate. Then I extended it in 2004/5, to fill in the events since 1998. Read on...

"Imagine how much more convenient and simple your life could be with a full-feature microcomputer-including screen, keyboard, mass storage and software-in your pocket."

Accompanied by dry ice and lasers, and delivered in a booming voice, the sentence above wouldn't seem out of place in 1998, perhaps applied to the Series 5. It's actually a direct quote from the original Psion Organiser advertisement way back in 1984. The vision of David Potter and the other Psion founders seems not to have faltered in the intervening 14 years. Yes, there have been several blind alleys and wrong turnings, but the company's progress has generally been true to the original concept.

How it all started

Dr David Potter was (and is) an academic at heart. After a scholarship to read Natural Sciences at Cambridge in 1963, he progressed to a doctorate in Mathematical physics David Potter(including chaos theory) at Imperial College London. After nine years of teaching during the seventies in both London University and the University of California, he became determined to raise money to start his own software business, involving himself in various money-making projects. These included driving trucks and selling encyclopedias to American Air Force officers in Germany. At one point he even resorted to selling ice creams in Hyde Park! The fashion at the time was for companies with scientific-sounding names, so he crafted a moniker out of Potter's Scientific Instruments, adding 'ON' to birth 'PSION' to the world at an office in Baker Street, London, in 1980. Several early employees were ex-students of his from university days, some of whom are still with the company today.

Sinclair software

Psion's first foray into the public eye was in 1982, as a software house writing games for the (then) brand-new Sinclair ZX81. The ZX81 was the first seriously successful computer to be bought by home users and, as ever, games were many people's first priority. Psion's 'FLIGHT simulation' modelled all the essential parameters of flight of a small, 2-engined, propellor-driven plane. It had an instrument panel and even a very basic representation of the outside world, both updated in real-time. Interestingly, Flight Simulation had a quirk whereby there were 361 degrees in a circle, i.e. keep turning and you'll eventually hit a rather unique 360 degrees, followed by 0 degrees!


Astoundingly, Psion also created a Chess game for the ZX81 that took a mere 1k of memory - that's 1000 bytes (tell that to the programmers of today...) A space invaders clone, called 'Space Raiders', was also a big hit with the public, leading Sinclair to commission Psion to write some more games for their new colour machine, the ZX Spectrum. Each machine came bundled with the 'Horizons' tape, including Psion's classic 'Horace Goes Skiing'.

Psion's chess engine for the Spectrum also found acclaim in 1983, playing a remarkably strong game, and paved the way for later development as a game on the PC and Series 3.

Chess on the Spectrum emulator

Then DOS and QL

As a background to games programming, 1983 also saw Psion hard at work developing an integrated package of business applications, ostensibly designed for the IBM compatible market and running under DOS. By a strange coincidence, they found themselves bound again to Sinclair, who announced that they were looking for a company to provide business software for their upcoming QL (Quantum Leap) computer, Psion's suite was the obvious choice and was quickly accepted.

In retrospect, the association with the reputedly shambolic QL project was not a commercial or critical success, but reviewers noted the quality of the Psion applications and documentation as highlights of the QL package. In all, four applications were provided for Sinclair: ARCHIVE was a flat file database, EASEL a business graphics utility similar to the graph section of modern-day SHEET, QUILL was a 'grown-up' word processor and ABACUS a fully-featured (though text mode throughout) spreadsheet. Each application could share data via intermediate files. Any Psion 3 or 5 user will immediately recognise in the above programs the basics of the modern day ROM software, and it's fascinating to see Psion's innovation at work a full five years before integrated packages became commonplace on desktop PCs. Under the names 'PC-FOUR' and 'Xchange', their suite finally made it onto the PC and other desktop machines in 1985, again to critical acclaim.

The QL suite

Also fascinating is that all development work for the QL was done on a VAX minicomputer. These cabinet-sized machines were very popular in the '80s and ran a superb multitasking operating system called VMS. The experience of working with a well-structured and bomb-proof system obviously rubbed off on Psion's software designers, whose flagship SIBO and EPOC operating systems bear many striking resemblances to VMS under the surface.

Something portable...

Perhaps slightly under the influence at a Greek Taverna in London, David Potter and his partners were bemoaning the lack of portability of the home computers of the day - when you removed the power you lost all the information inside. What was needed was something that was not only portable but could also retain data without mains power. One napkin-sized sketch later, a completely new concept had been born.

The brainwave that was the Psion Organiser may seem limited by today's standards but was revolutionary when it was launched at £99 in 1984. A 14cm by 9cm brick-like unit with an alphabetic keyboard and sliding cover, it boasted 2K of RAM, 4K of applications in ROM and a free 8K datapak which had to be specially reformatted using ultraviolet light when the time came to erase it. It claimed a battery life of six months on a single 9 Volt PP3 battery - impressive by any standards.

The Organiser advert

This original Organiser was really just a clock and a flat-file database into which you could put information you wanted to remember, placing it on a par with the £5 credit-card organisers available today. Extra packs were available, including a programming language (POPL) and mathematical and financial functions. The most striking thing about the Organiser, when compared to modern day palmtops, is its incredible robustness. With almost no moving parts, many of the units are still working 15 years later, and the only worry you might have when dropping the solid Organiser was whether the thing you were dropping it onto might be damaged. It wasn't short on style either. During my research for this article I showed an Organiser to a friend and was asked "That's nice, is it new?", quite an achievement for a 15-yearold product.

Urban myths

Several urban myths have grown up around the initial production of the Organiser. My favourite is where Psion's engineers were working through the night to finish the prototype and David Potter had to jog down to the local McDonalds every few hours to collect sustenance for them. On returning from one such trip, he found them huddled dumbfounded round a working unit which had just established that 2-2=4! The plus and the minus had been reversed, but it was only the prototype and the bug was quickly quashed.

The LZMark two

By the very fact that it broke new ground, the brilliance of the Organiser idea opened users' eyes to the possibilities of the concept and left many wanting more. Enter the launch of the Organiser II in 1986 with more memory, more screen pixels and more style. The basic sliding-cover brick design was retained, complete with the familiar segmented-letters Psion logo for the very first time. Over the next decade, over half a million of this improved model were to be sold, a huge testament to the viability of the concept. A number of variants were introduced over the next three years. The CM, XP and LZ, with memory sizes from 8K to 64K, all gave more scope for both Psion to increase the amount of applications bundled and for users to store a greater variety of information.

Whereas the Organiser had been a useful toy, the Organiser II became the world's first Personal Digital Assistant (PDA), with many users succumbing to the temptation to throw away their filofaxes, calculators and even watches, in favour of the all-in-one Psion. A diary and alarm clock featured in all models, plus a world time utility in the LZ. The screen resolution had steadily increased, from one line on the Organiser, to two on the CM and XP to four lines on the LZ, finally making such add-ons as a spreadsheet and a third-party word processor (AutoScribe) more practical. In addition to the two 'Datapak' slots, each unit had a socket on the top for accessories such as a mains adaptor (especially recommended when writing to the datapaks, which required a hefty 21 volts to work), serial cable, bar code reader and telephone dialler. This extra expansion capability (and the legendary toughness) sent companies out in their droves to buy the Organiser II. Psion improved the concept in the HC and Workabout in later years, but have continued selling all three product lines for those companies that really want to buy them.

One rarer Organiser II variant is the LA, which was an XP beefed up with more RAM. The machine was mainly sold in the USA and interestingly the LA stood for Los Angeles.

The great laptop disaster

1989 marked possibly the most significant turning point in the evolution of Psion's technology. Although not destined for huge sales, the A4-sized MC 400 was ground-breaking and years ahead of its time in many ways. Even today, in 1998, these machines are very saleable on the second-hand market and are either owned or remembered with affection by many Psion users.

Firstly, there was the new EPOC operating system, fully multi-tasking with a usable graphical user interface (remember, Microsoft had still not got Windows up and running at this time). An innovative touch pad provided control of the cursor (and other screen elements) - indeed it's relatively recently (almost ten years later) that PC notebook computers have caught onto the idea in a big way.

Officially, EPOC was so-named as simply being short for 'Epoch', i.e. a new era in handheld computing. Or there's 'Electronic Piece of Cheese'. Take your pick!

The MC's full-travel keyboard and reflective Supertwist-LCD display were outstanding, outshining many 1998 laptops for sheer usability. 256K of RAM and no less than four SSD slots provided (for the time) acres of solid state disk space, albeit at a price, since Psion's proprietary SSDs were sold at a very hefty premium. The format proved extremely robust over the next decade and these disks are still useable in today's Series 3mx. The cleverness of both EPOC and the hardware meant that the SSDs were 'hot-swappable', i.e. you could remove them without breaking the computer's stride, a feature which still looks advanced today. Two docking bays at the back of the machine allowed the user to (in theory) add accessories such as modem, fax, barcode and card readers in wireless fashion within the overall form factor of the machine. Most impressive of all on the option list was a voice-compression module which made the claim of squeezing sound recordings down to an unbelievable 64K per eight minutes!

Even the power arrangements were well appointed, especially when compared to PC laptops of the same period. Two battery units were available, one with a rechargeable pack and one with room for eight AA batteries. Both gave the unit exceptional battery-life, measured in many tens of hours.

MC series ad
(Full brochure here, courtesy of Simon Pooley)

Ahead of its time

Although the built-in software (text editor, diary, calculator and database) seems spartan by Series 5 standards, it was very well conceived for the time, with Psion envisaging the MC's use as a portable workspace for business people and journalists. The only problem was that Psion's marketing department priced the MC400 accordingly, initially at £845. Although only a fraction of the price of PC notebooks of the same era, this starting price missed the mark on both fronts. The person in the street felt that £845 was too much for a glorified jotter and diary, while the corporate buyers (for whom price wasn't a big issue) were swayed by the British press, who expressed reservations about the MC's lack of PC compatibility.

(There was also a half-screened MC200, but these proved to be even less popular!)

Going bust?

Perhaps unwisely, Psion took a swipe at the PC market as well, with the MC 600, a slightly tweaked MC 400 with 640K RAM, a 1MB internal disk and 256K of flash (containing MS-DOS 3.22). At roughly double the price of the already expensive MC 400, this hybrid machine was doomed right from the start, especially considering the poor state of PC software at the time (blocky 640x240 CGA graphics and a largely text-based interface). Between the two MC variants, if rumours are to be believed, Psion very nearly went out of business. A nice anecdote in this history, but a very serious situation at the time.

There were technical difficulties with the MC 400 too, despite (or perhaps because of) the overall level of innovation. The voice compression software and hardware failed to arrive at all and it wasn't until the Series 3a turned up in 1993 that anything remotely resembling Psion's 1989 claims became possible. Professional developers were hampered by a year's delay in the provision of a Software Development Kit (SDK) and users became frustrated that the hobbyist version of OPL provided was very restrictive and didn't allow construction of programs with the same look and feel as the internal applications. Moreover the latter weren't perfect either, and it was not until version two of EPOC appeared as a free upgrade late in 1990 that confidence in the platform was at least partially restored.

Pressing on with EPOC

Behind the scenes, of course, EPOC was being developed on all fronts. An industrial-strength word processor (designed to resemble Microsoft Word on the PC) was announced, firstly as part of the ROM on the brand new pocket-sized Series 3, and a few months later as a system upgrade for MC400 users (taking their machines up to 'MC-Word' level). Most importantly of all, the OPL language was being developed, with new graphics and dialog keywords designed so that for the first time a small home-made program could make use of most of the software resources in the ROM and thus appear as polished as Psion's 'C'-written applications.

The Series 3 phenomenon

Series 3September 1991 saw the official release of what was to become the biggest selling range in Psion's history. The small clam-shell Series 3 was launched to rave reviews, although (as with several subsequent launches) consumers had a fairly long wait before significant numbers of reliable machines reached the shops. The price was right (£199 for the 128K, £249 for the 256K version), the form factor was right, and EPOC itself had now fully matured, with the inclusion of the brand new WORD and a complete rewrite of the old MC Diary application to come up with the AGENDA that we know and love. The Series 3 became the pocket computer that well over 100,000 people grew to love and depend on, eventually winding up with the official nickname of 'Classic'. As with the MC range, it took a year for a proper C SDK to be released, but at least here every owner had the new OPL/G ('G' for Graphics) to play with, opening the floodgates for what was to become a veritable deluge of freeware and shareware programs for this and future EPOC paimtops.

The blocky Series 3 System screen

The runaway success of the '3' was instrumental in a complete rethink of the pricing strategy for the MC range, and by September 1992 the MC-Word was retailing at £395, a price it held right until its eventual withdrawal from the shops.

3 ... 3a ... 3c ... 3mx

The name of the Series 3's successor was branded a misnomer by the press, many of whom felt that the extra screen area (four times as much), processor power (doubled) and upgraded software (SHEET now built in, digital sound and enhancements in all areas) warranted far more than a tacking of the letter 'a' onto the name. Whatever the label, the Series 3a became a massive hit (even at a 1993 launch price of £329 for the 512K version), clocking up huge sales over the next three years. Whereas certain applications (especially games) had been hard to implement properly on the small, blocky Series 3 screen, the overall 3a package was so well tuned that over 1500 third party programs were written for it, more than for any other similar computer before or since.

Series 3/SSDSAdhering to the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" adage, the next five years saw a succession of detailed improvements within the overall theme. 1MB and 2MB memory models, the Series 3c variant with its infrared beaming, faster serial port and jotter software and now the speedy 3mx, all fall squarely within the same form factor and vision. In all, over 1.5 million Series 3-type machines have been sold worldwide, a number which is still increasing.

Series 3 lore

It's interesting to note that conspiracy theories abounded in 1996 when the Series 3c was launched. Amongst the other improvements a backlight was notable by its absence. Psion's official line was along the lines of "You don't really want a backlight, it would eat batteries and make the screen less distinct", a tack which only pacified users for a few days until they realised that S3c's bound for the USA did include a backlight. "Ah", said Psion, "We had to do that because Americans wouldn't buy a model without a backlight". Most European users promptly turned round and said "Then neither shall we!" and communications quickly became rather heated. There was only one way that Psion were going to win this one, and after a few months they introduced the backlit model to users on this side of the Atlantic.

And then straight to FIVE...

Nothing's ever quiet for long in the computer world, though, with July 1997 seeing Psion launching the 'next generation' Series 5 at £499 for the 8MB model. No-one knows for sure what happened to the Series 4. One theory suggests that the tiny Siena (a half-size model designed mainly for organiser use, launched at the same time as the Series 3c) was really the '4' in disguise. Other people have pointed out that the spoken word "Four" carries unpleasant associations in Chinese and Japanese languages.

The Series 5 featured a slide-out keyboard with desktop-style keycaps, plus a touch-screen, external recording buttons and enhanced software throughout. The brand new operating system was dubbed EPOC/32 and, in a little piece of revisionist history, the Series 3 OS was renamed from EPOC to EPOC/16 and then again to SIBO, in an attempt to avoid confusion between two very different operating systems. The Wrox book 'Professional Symbian Programming' features a good overview of how EPOC was conceived and implemented, for anyone wanting to study this period in more detail.

The Series 5 was received with enthusiasm and won many press awards, despite niggling problems with screen contrast and reliability. There were also a few bugs and omissions in the 1.00 ROM and the Series 5 even made it onto the TV program Watchdog. Shortly afterwards, 1.01 was released as part of an upgrade program and most folks seemed very happy again.

Symbian formed

Summer 1998 saw Psion take a visionary step. Having already split itself into various operating arms, including Psion Computers, Psion Enterprise and Psion Software, the latter was merged with similar teams from Nokia and Ericsson to create Symbian. The brief was to develop EPOC into a world-beating operating system to be used on everything from small phones to multimedia communicators. Much of their ambition has now (2004) been realised, although with a few hiccups and readjustments along the way (though that's another story for another day).

By the way, although Symbian seems to have worked well for them as a name over the years, staff at the the time were taking great pains to spell it out to journalists. Just in case! Only try dropping the 'm' in if there are no children around...


5mx1999 was a very busy year for Psion. June saw project 'Snowdrop', the launch of a faster successor, Psion simply adding 'mx' to the name. The 5mx was twice as fast (36MHz) and had twice the memory (16MB), and there were significant improvements to its software, including a new Contacts application to match both Microsoft Outlook and similar applications on other handhelds. There were also tweaks to Word, Sheet, Email and others, creating what many people now regard as the 'classic' Psion software suite.

Colour at last!

Series 7

Good as the Series 5mx was, anyone with their ear to the ground also noticed that Psion Enterprise had been showing a larger, colour-screened unit, the netBook, at CeBIT. The netBook certainly wasn't a true palmtop, but the attractions of a double-size colour screen, even larger keyboard and the full Series 5mx EPOC software suite led to a lot of interest. So much so that Psion Computers did a deal with the Enterprise division. The latter would manufacture a special, cut-down (OS in ROM, slower processor, only 32MB of RAM) version of the netBook, to be called the Series 7.

The Series 7 was welcomed by many, although its lack of screen contrast outdoors was a big problem compared to the Psion generations that had gone before it, all of which had better clarity outdoors than in the office.

Come the Revolution

Revo publicity shot

Fast forward a few months to Christmas 1999, and Psion have gathered the nation's computing press in London to launch a totally new 'revolutionary' model. It's revealed as the Revo, a smaller EPOC palmtop but still with an ingenious fold-out keyboard. A few of the applications (Sketch, Program, Record) have gone, but more importantly there's no expansion slot and (wait for it) no backlight, prompting numerous questions from the press. Rather embarrassingly for Psion, having chosen Stephen Fry as their guest compere, his first question to Psion's representatives was "So will this one work any better with my Apple Mac?". "Err... no."

Released in September 2000, the Revo Plus was a stop-gap model intended to make the Revo marque more appealing to professionals. The original model's 8MB of RAM was doubled to 16MB, enough to become practical when using the (supplied) Opera web browser and serious third party applications such as Street Planner, the killer app of its time.

Like all Psion models, though, the Revo range had its own unique hardware flaw (the Series 5's was its unreliable folding screen cable, of course). This time round it was the use of budget NiMh rechargeable batteries with a Heath Robinson combination of sensors and software. The end result was a lot of battery unreliability, some of it misleading - the software simply needed a kick up the backside. Add to this the low capacity of the cells, which meant that a fully-charged Revo Plus, unused, would only keep its data for a week or so. The Revo had its fans, impressed by the size and weight, but most serious Psion users stuck to the AA-powered Series 5 range.

The Fall

It's ironic that Psion's visionary investment in Symbian was also one of the main causes of its own fall and eventual withdrawal from the palmtop market. It's true that this was changing, with the emergence of communicators such as the Nokia 9210 and the ever-increasing PDA functionality of mobile phones. The much fabled 'Odin' communicator project with the notoriously fickle Motorola was perhaps the last straw, with Motorola simply pulling the plug early in 2001 after Psion had put in a lot of the money and effort. A rumoured Bluetooth Revo project was also shelved at the same time.

With their backs to the wall, no new product in the wings for the new millennium, and slowly decreasing sales of their existing palmtops, the Psion board decided to call it a day mid-2001 and preserve their capital. Which was, I'm sure, great for shareholders, but bad news for the hundreds of thousands of Psion users throughout the world, whose favourite handheld computer was now officially dead-ended.

The Teklogix effect

In an attempt to get back to their roots, Psion next allied themselves with Teklogix, a North American firm specialising in industrial hardware and software, similar to the focus of Psion's own Organiser II and Workabout units. The problem was, of course, that Teklogix were heavily into Microsoft's Windows CE, leaving the netBook (and netpad) the only handhelds in the Psion-Teklogix world that ran a different operating system. A year later, the netBook was formally dropped and replaced by the netBook Pro, running Windows It's still a great little sub-notebook (if expensive), but it doesn't run EPOC and so it doesn't really belong in this history.

It didn't make much sense having all those shares in Symbian either, and in mid-2004 Psion convinced the other Symbian partners to buy them out.

Living on, or dead in the water?

What of the future? Psion's name will live on through Teklogix's industrial products, of course. And its name is still revered in the circles of those who use their Psion SIBO and EPOC palmtops to this day, keeping them going for as long as repair facilities exist.

The strongest light that's worth following is Symbian itself, for remember that it was based around Psion Software. Many of the things that made a Psion palmtop so great are still alive and well in Symbian OS products; the proper multi-tasking, elegant interfaces and filing systems, OPL, etc. With Nokia's Series 60 taking Symbian to mass-market smartphones, with UIQ consistently selling breaking new technology ground and with the Nokia 9500 'ultimate' communicator now firmly established as (potentially) the best thing since sliced bread, there's plenty to look forward to from some of the same designers and programmers that brought us the Series 3 and Series 5.

(C) 1998, 2004, 2005, Steve Litchfield

Special thanks to John Boyce and Mike O'Regan, both of whom helped in the research for this article. Note also that all prices given were official recommended retail prices, quoted in UK Sterling, including Value Added Tax.

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