MWC Bill Clinton was still US President when the last pocket computer that you could touch type on came out. Back then, almost everyone accessed the internet at home on a dialup modem, not broadband, and no phone yet sported a colour screen or a camera. It was a different era.
But after 17 years, a Psion 5-style machine is back, in the form of the Gemini computer. We had a play with the world’s only prototype on Monday at this year's Mobile World Conference in Barcelona, and spoke to the driving force behind the Gemini: Planet Computing CEO Dr Janko Mrsic-Flogel.
The revival of the much-loved design doesn’t owe anything to nostalgia, according to Mrsic-Flogel. Quite simply, he told us, it’s because there still isn’t anything like it. Psion’s computers were no more obtrusive than a specs case, fitting nicely into a jacket pocket, but people wrote books and even PhD theses on them.
“It organises your life. Tablets disorganise your life,” he says. But it’s also for creative people. And it’s massively relevant again because social media means lots and lots of people are typing. Only they’re typing into sub optical – we mean suboptimal – phone keyboards, with the autocorrect always ready to ambush you.
Attempts to revive the Psion-style computer – including a relatively recent effort by Psion founder Sir David Potter himself – came to naught.
Size comparison: Huawei Mate 9 (left) and Gemini (right)
Two great innovations make Gemini a successor to the Psion: the keyboard and the hinge. We could only see one of these today, the hinge, as the new 21st-century keyboard wasn’t on the only demo unit. The unit did show us how the hinge performs and an idea of its shape, size and weight.
Mrsic-Flogel says he first approached industrial designer Martin Riddiford with the idea of reviving the classic Psion Series 5 form factor in December 2014. Riddiford had designed all of Psion’s keyboards. And almost as celebrated as the keyboard were the clever hinge designs of the Series 3, Series 5 and Revo, that allowed the machine to be used on a flat surface without tipping backwards. This is something that eluded competitors like HP, who entered the market after the Series 3 became a smash hit.
Riddiford didn’t need to brush away any mental cobwebs, Mrsic-Flogel discovered, because “he’d never stopped thinking about it.” He readily agreed to design a contemporary keyboard and hinged case.
The hinge design prevents the Gemini from tipping backward on a flat surface
What a CAD ... Engineering render of the new design
The team recruited an operations manager with 15 years of experience handling supply chains in China, Robin Parker, as chief operating office. And it was in stealth mode until this morning, when the patents were filed.
Given the absence of any competition in the pocket QWERTY-keyboard computer business, Planet could have opted for old technology. But he plumped for bang-up-to-date specs. Inside, most likely, he says, will be an ARM-compatible MediaTek system-on-chip, packing two 2.5GHz Cortex-A72, and four 2GHz and four 1.55GHz A53 cores. It’ll come with a 5.7" 2800 x 1440 pixel, 18:9 aspect ratio scratch-resistant display, allowing the computer to run side-by-side square windows, if the designers choose to do so. Few people had clocked that there were 18:9 displays until LG’s G6 launch yesterday. An increasing amount of content is being filmed in 18:9.
Then there's the 4GB of RAM, microSD slot (we aren't told the max capacity), 64GB of internal flash, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, microphone, a headphone jack, and so on, all in a 17.13cm by 8cm by 1.35cm clamshell.
One variant will support 4G with a nanoSIM slot. It will have two USB Type-C ports, and should be able to blast video output over them. The old Psion Series 5 had a “dictaphone” button; in the 21st Century version, Gemini, the button can invoke a voice-activated AI assistant.
The removable battery is “double sized,” at 8,000mAh. There will be a 5Mp camera for Skype calls. And a notification light.
Very low-power E Ink displays were thought about, Mrsic-Flogel told us, but the refresh rate still isn’t sufficient for a computer that would be much more interactive than an ebook reader like the Kindle. He also thought about an external information display, for example an OLED strip, that would provide more information, but this won’t appear on the first Gemini. (The team may keep the Gemini name if it catches on.)
We also wondered whether BlackBerry might license the touchpad QWERTY it used in Passport, Priv and new KEYone phones, but it’s early days. BlackBerry isn’t in the hardware business any longer, so it’s not as unlikely as it might appear. That’s one to explore, Mrsic-Flogel thought.
Janko Mrsic-Flogel with the Gemini prototype ... Note: this cannibalises the keyboard from a Psion Series 5MX. The new keyboard design will have a larger numbers row
The device will dual boot Linux and Android. The team hasn’t decided on which flavour of Linux to use on the device, but it expects most people to want to run Android. Nonetheless, a port of Linux will be sold and actively supported for the machine.
To back the project at Indiegogo head over here. And for more specs and information try Planet’s website here. The team has, so far, raised $39,384 from 104 online backers, and is 20 per cent of the way to its goal of bagging $200,000 within the next month.
The final retail price for the Wi-Fi and 4G device is expected to be about $600, and the first shipments are due to start in November this year. ®