Before there was the Palm, the Blackberry, the Samsung Galaxy s3 or the iPhone 4s there was the Simon Personal Communicator. On November 2, 1992,
International Business Machines, more commonly known as IBM, debuted the first “smartphone” prototype under the code name “Angler”. The prototype was the
combination of a cell phone and PDA. It gave the user the ability to make and receive phone calls and emails and receive facsimiles and pages.
BellSouth Cellular decided to take on the task of bringing the “Angler” prototype to market, renaming it the Simon Personal Communicator. Due to software
setbacks BellSouth was not able to bring the device to market until 1994. The Simon Personal Communicator’s prices more than rivaled today’s smartphone
prices. The device was priced at $1,099 without a contract and $899 with a two-year service contract. Although the term “smartphone” was not coined until
1997, Simon’s pricing and capabilities undoubtedly place it into the realm of the smartphone.
Paul Mugge, current Executive Director of the Center for Innovation Management Studies (CIMS) at North Carolina State University and former “IBMer”, played
a huge role in bringing the Simon Personal Communicator to life. In the late 80’s, while working as director of the Florida Research Lab, Mugge was charged
with the duty of reigniting the development of new products at IBM. To do so, he put together a small team of engineers that included Frank J. Canova Jr.,
original concept creator of the Simon device and Jerry Merckel, who pitched the idea to Mugge.
Needless to say, the concept got the go-ahead but as advanced as the device was, it did have it’s setbacks. There was not sufficient Internet connection or
bandwidth to support such an advanced device. Simon also had severely short battery life issues. Even after reworks in the software, the most feasible
solution was to provide a second battery for the Simon Personal Communicator. Couple battery issues with the release of the less expensive and more popular
“flip-phones”, the Simon’s sales stalled at around 50,000 units. Even after a lackluster performance, IBM had plans to produce a follow-up device to the
Simon Personal Communicator called the Neon. However, the Neon never made it to market.
In Merckel’s pitch to Mugge he called the device “the phone of the future”. And boy, was he right. To say that the Simon Personal Communicator was ahead of
its time is an understatement. In fact the Simon was so far ahead of its time that there wasn’t enough of a technological ecosystem in place to support it.
Pioneers and innovators sometimes face roadblocks but in reaching those roadblocks they create paths for the great minds that will come behind them. Paul
Mugge and his team definitely left a well-lit avenue to the “smartphones” that many of us can’t seem to live without today.
The Simon Personal Communicator as featured in the major motion picture, “The Net” and the original
Bloomberg BusinessWeek article
featuring Paul Mugge and the Simon Personal Communicator.