Pocketables Rewind |

This is the first in a series of articles written by Chris King that will focus on devices that were introduced years ago and have heavily influenced what we currently use today. Even though these devices are for all practical purposes considered obsolete, many still have a loyal following on the Internet.

Envoy1

Back in 1994, many people were still becoming acquainted with the new-fangled touchscreen PDA devices on the market.

The leader in this early category was of course the Newton MessagePad, which had only been out for about 18 months or so and was not without its flaws.

Around this time, a company named General Magic created a new type of graphical OS called Magic Cap to complete with the Newton. Some of the early developers were ex-Apple developers, so the similarities are fairly obvious. Based on an actual graphical representation of rooms, Magic Cap was meant to be very simple to use, yet powerful. To find a contact, all you had to do was click on the Rolodex; to send an email, just click on the postcard, type the message, and address it. From there, you could actually walk to the left or right and go down a hallway with various doors that represented different applications, or you could go outside into the town to connect online. It was so radical at the time, yet it was simple to learn. But as advanced as Magic Cap was, it never progressed much further and was eventually abandoned when General Magic closed up shop.

Envoy5

Two of the most "well known" devices that ran Magic Cap were the Motorola Envoy and the original Sony Magic Link PIC1000. As laughable as the specs are today, they were of course very advanced at the time.

The Envoy was a more business-oriented device than the Magic Link PIC1000, which was aimed at consumers. The big draw for the Envoy was its built-in wireless data, which nearly 16 years ago was an incredible technology. Running on the now-defunct ARDIS radio network, it allowed anytime access to emails over the same network that many pagers used at the time. Not very fast, sure, but it got the job done. If wired connectivity was needed, the Envoy had a built-in data fax modem that connected to a special port on the device. Dual Flash RAM card slots, as well as an IR port, rounded out the main specs of the Envoy, which had a durable, hinged design to protect the touchscreen. Here is a quick rundown of the basic specs of the Envoy:

Specs

  • CPU: Motorola Dragon 68349 @ 16MHz
  • RAM: 1MB
  • ROM: 4MB
  • I/O: MagicBus (for PC), RJ-11 (modem), IR, dual PCMCIA Type II slots
  • LCD: 480×320, 4-grey level, non-backlit

Analysis

Envoy2

I bought an Envoy about 12 years ago from the original owner through eBay for a fraction of the original $800 price. Having owned the original Sony Magic Link PIC1000 for a short time as well, I was intrigued by the added dual card slots and wireless radio of the Envoy. I never really used it much, though, and it was eventually used mainly for tinkering. I was more interested in the Newton scene at the time, plus I was also getting into the much more advanced Pocket PC platform that had just been introduced and is still going strong today as Windows Mobile. My Envoy has been sitting unused all these years, and I only just now turned it back on to take the pictures for this article. Everything still works like it did back long ago, only the ARDIS radio network is gone so the wireless radio is useless. I am still able to connect to my ISP via dial-up access to retrieve email, which is like riding a bike: once you learn how, you never forget. Ah, the fun of the early online years . . .

Envoy4 Envoy6

Even though General Magic and Magic Cap had a short lifespan, you can see elements of their design that exist even in new devices today. The physical size is very similar to my Fujitsu LifeBook U810/U820 UMPCs and the large touchscreens are of course all the rage today, as is wireless access. Web browsers were not yet mainstream at the time, but had they been, the Magic Cap OS would have been an excellent platform for them.

Because of companies like General Magic and Motorola pushing the envelope of technology, we have our devices of today.

Magic

I'd like to hear from other users. Were you an Envoy or Magic Cap user? Share your thoughts and comments on this early PDA technology.

Chris King (orbitalcomp) is a long-time handheld tech user, dating back to the original Newton MessagePad and then moving on to dozens of different devices over the years. Currently, he finds himself surrounded by a multitude of touchscreen devices, including a pair of Fujitsu U-series, a Nokia N800, and an iPhone 3G.

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Guest Contributor

Pocketables is a US-based online tech magazine that brings news, insights, opinions, and comprehensive reviews on various mobile computing devices, portable technology, and related topics to a global audience. We focus on devices that fit into pockets of all sizes, from jeans and jackets to backpacks and purses. The gadget experts that comprise our staff produce high quality articles and original features colored with real-life use of products over weeks and months, not first-impression opinions formed within hours or days.