Psion: the last computer

Secrets of the Sony we never had


Special Feature The Series 5 pocket computer from Psion was launched 10 years ago this week. It was a remarkable achievement: entirely new silicon, a new operating system, middleware stack and applications were developed from scratch in just over two years.

This was the last time anyone undertook such a daunting task: it may be the last time anyone ever tries, either. Companies or projects that are formed to achieve simply one of these four goals typically end in failure: to achieve all four successfully, and put them in a product that was successful, too, was a triumph of creativity and management.

We now live in a world where our general-purpose computers are created from generic, off-the-shelf components. New technology systems take the form of mass market appliances, such as the TomTom navigation system, or the iPod music player. The “Protea” project, as it was called, now seems destined to be remembered as the last time anyone will create, from the ground-up, a new general-purpose computer.

As we discovered, however, this story is about much more than the life of a product. It’s about the fate of a once-inventive and fearless computer company. Twice, Psion launched products into the teeth of a recession, products that defied accepted technical limitations and market wisdom to become success stories.

But just as it had with PDAs, the Psion Group also made plans to develop GPS navigation systems, hard-disk based music players, digital radios, and even set-top boxes — long before these markets existed.

Today, the people who drew up those plans at Psion now underpin successful businesses in the very fields Psion rejected. In four years, Psion’s former hardware chief turned a tiny Dutch software company into the leader in SatNav systems: TomTom this year will generate $2bn in turnover, using a core of former Psion staff, and led by the computer division’s former managing director Harold Goddijn, and its star sales chief, Corinne Vigreux.

And the Psion engineer who eight years ago scouted component factories in England with a dream of making a hard disk-based MP3 player, today heads the engineering for Apple’s iPod division. The only one of these consumer electronics products to make it to market was a DAB Radio. While smaller than satnav and portable music, the digital radio market is expected to be worth $1bn next year.

So Psion had the chance to become something few imagine was ever possible: a home-grown consumer electronics giant with a global brand: a British Sony, or a British General Electrics.

Today, seven years from its bloody retreat from the consumer business, Psion is a larger business than it was in its apparent heyday, and is growing at a clip. But little of this is based on technology developed by itself: most of it was acquired with the purchase of Teklogix during the telecoms boom. Psion’s lasting legacy has been to provide the core component for a 125 million smartphone market. Few people today would bet against this component — a sophisticated and resilient operating system developed in two years by a small team led by Colly Myers — to be the most used piece of system software in the world. That’s no mean achievement and, of course, it’s Psion’s “genetic legacy”, as Potter proudly calls it.

Meanwhile, former Psion staff ponder a list of “couldas” that never had a chance of being “shouldas”: projects that never reached the market, that were success stories for other people.

Engineers often make such retrospective claims — but on closer examination, the company lacks the skill, design, or marketing experience to turn a bright idea into a successful product. However, in Psion’s case, these claims have much merit, as the company had these skills in abundance. Mark Gretton, at TomTom, and David Tupman at Apple, each oversees the engineering for a hugely successful consumer product. In each case, success was achieved on a budget, compared to some of the more recent big budget consumer electronics projects — think PlayStation 3. Psion even turned down pleas to acquire its eventual nemesis in the PDA business, Palm (a story not recorded in Palm’s biography).

Many of the stories here are being told for the first time — and as they unravel, we can ask why Britain had a consumer electronics giant that never was.

Why not?

I’ve tried to answer the question in three parts. A look at the Protea project — which produced the Series 5 and gives an insight into Psion’s skills. Then we pick up the story after the launch of the computer, up to Psion’s exit from the consumer electronics business after 18 years, in 2001. Finally the key figures tell the story in their own words.

It’s the longest story we’ve ever run at The Register — we’ll be making a PDF version (and of course, an Epoc Word format version) available shortly.

Navigation

The Protea Story

After Protea: Psion from 1997 to 2001

In their own words: Mark Gretton; Martin Riddiford; Nick Healey; David Tupman; Sir David Potter;

Next page: The Protea Story

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