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In my last post I have started to present the devices that used to fill my pockets in the early days of mobile computing.

Today we’re moving into a different direction. If my first smart mobile device was a phone, the one I will present today will be of a different sort.

Psion Revo (Plus)

Psion RevoI have seen this device first in 1999 and I felt a compulsive desire to have one – something like the one experienced these days with the Apple products. After a complicated process (I was at that time in Romania and purchasing over the Internet something from UK with a credit card was not really common occurrence) I managed to get my hands on one of these beauties. I still have it today although not using it anymore. It is still a gorgeous looking device, something Jonathan Ive would have been proud of.

What I Liked About It:

It was breathtakingly beautiful. Had a nice feeling when holding it in hand and it worked insanely fast considering the processor speed. I had the Plus version (16MB – yes Mega! – of memory) which allowed me to store more data. Obviously no place for music or films – but in 1999 the MP3 just started to make it’s way in the mainstream. Later that year Napster would be launched and the whole craze would soon reach cosmic proportions.

It came with a lot of applications in the ROM: spreadsheet, word processor, agenda, contacts, web browser, etc. To really make use of the device you needed to synchronise with a PC using the cable. But it is amazing how much functionality (like the  spreadsheet and word processor applications) was crammed in such little memory.

It had a crisp monochrome display that was very easy to read even in low light (it did not have a backlit illumination mainly to save battery life) and the use of the stylus was comfortable – at that time all devices used resistive touch screens and using the stylus was a given.

I don’t ever remember seen any application crashing on this machine. The operating system, EPOC was specifically built with low memory availability in mind. The programming under this platform was ingeniously done so that memory leaks could be avoided simply by following a number of simple rules. I will come back to this later.

What very few people realise is that EPOC 5 was a true multitasking operating system. Put this in context: at that time Windows only version capable to do this was Windows NT Server, huge, slow and resource hungry. To say Revo was amazing is an understatement.

At a mere 300g it fit very nicely in your pocket and was very comfortable to cary with you in meetings or to keep track of your schedule.

What I Didn’t Like About It:

It had no support for wireless of any kind (WiFi or GSM). That severely limited the sync options to only using the cable and made the use of the computer mandatory. Interestingly enough at that time this didn’t seem to be a real problem as people were not glued to the internet as today.

The battery was notoriously hit-and-miss. It used NiMH batteries (AAA format) but for some reasons some devices were experiencing strange memory effects (mine included) whereby the battery went flat after earlier reporting 50%. At that time there were countless articles about how to solve this and a few applications for monitoring the battery behaviour.

The Important Things I Learned with Revo:

For me Revo was the first device that exposed me to the wonderful world of development for mobile devices. Psion deployed EPOC 5 on Revo, an operating system developed in house, specifically for devices with low memory and battery resources. They made available for free a full SDK for development under Microsoft Visual Studio including simulator, production compiler, etc. What was even more interesting was that the code behind the EPOC framework (the whole class hierarchy) was available with the SDK and one could easily browse or debug through the code. It was accompanied by a mighty documentation of the SDK (several thousand of pages). As mentioned earlier in this post one of the most interesting aspects of EPOC programming was the focus on memory management (where is not?) – but this was solved in a very original way in this case: the class methods used a naming convention to specify if they can leave on error or they cleanup the stack. By observing a number of simple rules when writing the code it was possible to avoid the situations where memory leaked due to improper handling of the data.

The team behind EPOC would be separated later into Psion Software, a company that would later partner with Nokia, SonyEricsson and Motorola to form Symbian. EPOC 5 was the last version of the system using this name. The later version would be called Symbian OS.

Surprisingly, Revo’s are still available to purchase on Amazon. Check this out.

Next time: Psion 5mx