Not iPod, iPAQ

There was a time when the iPAQ was ubiquitous part of the handheld market. But before that, the forgotten Compaq-borne brand surfaced in many bizarre contexts.

Hey all, Ernie here with a fresh one from Yuri Litvinenko, who wrote a great one for us last month about a shelved version of Windows Mobile. This time, he’s talking iPAQ.

Today in Tedium: If you were buying a personal digital assistant in the 2000s, chances were high you were at least considering getting an iPAQ. During the brand’s peak in 2004, Hewlett-Packard shipped 2.4 million iPAQ handhelds, according to Gartner, and for good reason: they were of good quality, came in various configurations, and had a continually maturing operating system. Unless you disliked Pocket PC and Windows Mobile with passion (in other words, you were a Palm fan), there wasn’t any reason not to choose them. While it spent the most time under HP’s control, the brand originated within Compaq. And while HP once made its own handhelds since 1991, it dropped their development in favor of iPAQ. The most intriguing this is, the series could have ended up being a late-1990s curio, not a flagship of Microsoft’s entire software platform. How did it avert that? Today’s Tedium talks iPAQ. — Yuri @ Tedium

Today’s GIF comes from an introductory video for the iPAQ personal digital assistant on an included CD-ROM.

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“We are going to the new generation of I/O. 12-megabit universal serial bus, two ports… We’re leaving the old Apple I/O behind.”

— Steve Jobs, introducing the first iMac in 1998. Winning acclaim for its stylish translucent case, it drew some criticism for Apple’s decision to drop serial and parallel connections existing peripherals relied on. However, the controversial move was concurrent with the popularization of USB and heavily contributed to it. A few years later, Intel and Microsoft followed suit by discouraging PC manufacturers from using COM, LPT, and PS/2 ports, coining the term “legacy-free PC.”

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PAQ’ed with features, but not legacy ports. (FozzTexx/Wikimedia Commons)

How a forgotten business PC kicked off a brand that lived many weird lives

In the chaotic landscape of 1980s personal computing, no one expected different models to be compatible with each other. However, it was reasonable to ask for at least some ability to integrate to the existing infrastructure, especially if the computer was meant for business environments. The original IBM PC, as a result, adopted an RS-232 serial protocol which predated the computer by thirty years. Moreover, the serial port, as well as other ones, used off-the-shelf connectors designed as early as in 1952.

But people who were buying PCs in the 1990s did not need to connect to the Cold War-era mainframes. All they needed is to set up a printer or a modem, and antiquated interfaces did not help to make it as easy as it was expected. Vendors, as a result, were happy to at least try breaking the tradition.

That leads us to Compaq. The company, struggling in a battle with Packard Bell and other cheap PC manufacturers, tries to gain a foothold on a lucrative business market. In 1998, it bought Digital Equipment Corporation, becoming the second-largest computer company. However, sales were underwhelming, and layoffs, shakeups, and spin-offs marked the following year.

The situation pushed Compaq to come up with a new business product and do it fast. Reportedly designed in just four months, iPAQ was supposed to be what iMac was for home users — an Internet-enabled computer free of legacy components. For $499, it was cheap, yet stylish, with a compact vertical case setting it apart from beige towers and desktops. Unlike Apple’s offering, though, iPAQ was also available in a legacy configuration, and the optical drive could be swapped for the floppy one.

Analytics hoped for iPAQ to succeed in the business market it was made for. Compaq, however, seemed to have bigger plans for the brand. On its web site, the company touted iPAQ as “a family of innovative, personal devices,” and the lineup soon ended with a number of unconventional consumer devices. The late 1990s, though, were a turbulent time to innovate on a consumer electronics market, with entire classes of devices appearing and dissolving within a few years. As a result, Compaq ended up with a bunch of gadgets which did not make much sense — either in that particular period of time or in general.

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So close to being an iPod, yet so far away.

Five unusual devices Compaq released under the iPAQ brand

  1. A $999 music center. Compressed audio formats and CD ripping revolutionized the way people stored and listen to music. During MP3’s infancy, however, the tech and music industries were formulating some insane attempts to monetize it. One of these concepts suggested people would pay a grand just to rip CDs and store music away from the computer. Even after the price was lowered to $399, iPAQ MC-1 did not make sense; soon, one could buy a game console for half the price that could do the same thing.
  2. An Internet appliance. Some people don’t want a computer—but still want to get online. That was the idea behind Internet appliances, cheap computers running an OS with nothing but a browser and an email client. These devices, the best known of which was WebTV, were either sold or leased by Internet carriers in an attempt to cash in on people’s interest in the Web. However, they were not as easy to use as promised, neither they were particularly cheap. Compaq IA-1, as well as many other appliances, ended up being hacked to tie them off vendor restrictions.
  3. A line of portable projectors. As mobile technology improved, manufacturers came up with concepts of “office on the go” which required various accessories to be attached to phones and PDAs. iPAQ microprojectors were on the higher end of the trend, with prices starting at $2,299—all for the ability to play some PowerPoint slides from your handheld. Compact projectors still exist, and, thankfully, they are far more affordable today. In a real-life situation, though, you would probably end up streaming the presentation to a TV.
  4. Early MP3 players. The iPAQ PA-1 and PA-2 weren’t bad per se, but, like many other early digital music players, they went largely unnoticed. Compared to the groundbreaking Diamond Rio PMP300, the most popular one before the iPod, Compaq’s player offered a USB connection and the expandability with MMC cards. However, it took 15 minutes to upload just 64 MB worth of music to the player—not a great result even back then.
  5. Co-branded BlackBerry pagers. Before they became business smartphones both Nokia and Microsoft had to reckon with, Research In Motion’s BlackBerry devices were, essentially, purpose-built two-way pagers. Distributed by Compaq, two original BlackBerry models were stripped of RIM branding. They did not stop being called BlackBerrys, though, resulting in a dual branding as weird as iPod+HP was.
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An iPAQ with its BackPAQ cradle. This device was PAQ’ed full of ideas. (via Luv.asn.au)

Hidden in the iPAQ’s PDAs? Digital Equipment’s hardware legacy

All these iPAQ devices weren’t particularly successful, to say the least, and in 2002, Compaq ended up being purchased by Hewlett-Packard. Before that, the company released the device which paved the way not only for the thriving series of PDAs, but for Microsoft and their Pocket PC platform.

Introduced in April 2000, Pocket PC was Microsoft’s yet another attempt to compete with the thriving Palm OS. The previous one, blatantly named “Palm PC” (renamed to “Palm-size PC” after a lawsuit), did not fare well, as it was a quick-and-dirty adaptation of a conceptually outdated Windows CE to keyboardless form factor.

Alongside the system, three new consumer PDAs were shown off, made by HP, Casio and Compaq. The former two, however, looked exactly like their Palm PC predecessors. On the other hand, Compaq’s iPAQ Pocket PC sported not only a redesigned case, but a powerful Intel StrongARM processor and the ability to connect expansion jackets.

The bet on technical prowess paid off. During the Windows CE era, it’s HP and Casio who were innovating on the hardware field, with Compaq mostly sticking to Microsoft’s recommendation. But their Pocket PC was so successful, Peter Blackmore, a Compaq’s executive VP for worldwide sales and services, hinted right before the acquisition that HP would stop making its own series of PDAs. “The iPAQ is a clear market leader. You can draw your own conclusions,” he said.

Indeed, once the acquisition was completed, HP dropped their Jornada line. As for Casio, once heralded for Cassiopeia handhelds, it soon stopped making them altogether. What caused the upheaval? To answer that, we should go back to DEC.

iPAQ’s processor, despite technically being made by Intel, was designed within Digital. A product of a collaboration between DEC and ARM, StrongARM architecture was designed specifically for mobile devices, such as Apple MessagePad 2000. (ARM was busy throughout the ’90s.) StrongARM was later sold to Intel as a part of a lawsuit agreement, but not before Digital designed two reference boards, “Assabet” and “Neponset,” for the new processor model. StrongARM also powered “Itsy,” a handheld computer researchers at DEC used to experiment with user interfaces.

Having a head start in the handheld race, Compaq built the iPAQ upon existing reference boards. The company did not forget about Itsy, either. To support further research, it ported Linux to iPAQ and supported the open source community developing the software for it. Taking advantage of the jacket system, it also designed BackPAQ, an ultimate expansion designed solely for research projects. With a camera, several accelerometers, dual PCMCIA slots and extra memory, it turned iPAQ into a mobile platform with capabilities unprecedented for its time.

A quick look at Google Scholar reveals a number of projects involving iPAQ, either alone or in a connected array. From scanning handwritten notes to predicting pedestrian traffic and playing DOOM within a physical playground, they show the variety of approaches to the same essential set of hardware found on every modern phone.

It’s tempting to dissect the origin story of iPAQ in the context of Compaq and DEC, with the former throwing itself at every futile tech trend while the latter was making truly novel hardware. However, it would be dishonest to do so. Sure, Compaq released a bunch of blunders before they struck gold with Pocket PC, but would DEC be interested in making one if it was independent?

Either way, it’s safe to say we won’t see a new iPAQ-branded device anytime soon. In fact, HP stopped using all consumer product names it inherited from Compaq by 2013. The actual Compaq name was licensed to Argentinean group of companies Grupo Newsan, apparently resulting in six nondescript notebooks produced for the local market and nothing else. While one might argue HP doesn’t even have a device which could carry the name, there was just a single device in HP’s recent portfolio that was as bold as the first iPAQs.

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The HP Elite x3, perhaps the closest HP has gotten to the iPAQ approach in years. (via Amazon)

In 2016, the company released Elite x3, a premium Windows 10 Mobile device. After essentially abandoning the phone market, it pushed Microsoft’s Continuum technology to the limit. HP Elite x3 could not only be connected to a display, keyboard and mouse, but synced with a Lap Dock, a notebook-like companion device. For comparison, when Palm tried to do the same a decade before with its Foleo notebook, the media reception was so negative, the company had to cancel it outright.

Predictably, the device fell victim of the platform it was based on. But what if was based on an open one? PDAs enjoyed the popularity not only among researchers or businesspeople, but among tech enthusiasts. The did not even have to install Linux — regarding the freedom they provided to their users, Pocket PC was closer to desktop Windows than actual Windows 10 for phones. And while we do have Raspberry Pi, there is still room for a quality mobile tinkerware.

At this point, I’d settle for a phone with the PCMCIA slot.

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Thanks again to Yuri for another great piece of tech history!

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Yuri Litvinenko

Your time was just wasted by Yuri Litvinenko

Yuri Litvinenko is a trade journalist from Russia. When not covering the dairy industry, he spends time being fascinated by legacy technology, both “retro” and gadgets approaching retro status.

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