08/08/2012 05:28 pm ET Updated Oct 08, 2012

Before Smartphones, There Was Simon

I was fascinated by Ira Sager's excellent piece for Bloomberg Businessweek about IBM's Simon, the personal communications device that predated smartphones by about twenty years. Sager makes the important point that it isn't just cool devices or whizbang technologies that change user behaviors. It's something bigger -- what Sager calls "a rich ecosystem" in which a disruptively new technology makes sense and has value -- that ends up supporting a device and its users, and vice versa.

I remember the Simon days very well, not only because I got my first cellphone in 1992 (a gift from my boss! So exciting! So clunky!) but also because the air was thick with innovation in the device world back then. I worked for modem maker U.S. Robotics in the early nineties, and the feeling among the tech manufacturers I knew was that new-product markets were there for the taking -- that in many cases it made good business sense to invest in new and wildly line-extending products in the same way one might throw spaghetti at the wall.

At USR for instance, we had something called the SoftModem plus a bunch of other pocket-sized devices, and then in 1995 the company acquired Palm Computing shortly before the first Pilot came off the production line. USR bought companies across the spectrum (hardware to software, or vice versa) and started an in-house product group to build a super-cool conference room phone at one point. The atmosphere for innovation was as rich as anyone could have hoped for. I'm not sure huge markets existed for most of the products we launched during those days -- apart from the company's flagship and ever-faster modems and data center products. Still, we tried dozens of things. It was hard to keep up with all the projects.

The most popular book in our shop wasn't Asimov's I, Robot (the book whose title inspired the company name) but Soul of a New Machine, Tracy Kidder's gripping story of tech invention (and possibly the start of the Nerd as Superhero construct?). We all read that book because by our lights, we were living that life too. We certainly had the late nights in the lab and the McGyvered early demos and the jurisdictional tugs-of-war and all the drama one expects in a new product launch. A lot of the stuff didn't stick, but we learned a ton and had a blast getting the stuff out the door, anyway.

I can't bash IBM for blasting through gazillions in R & D and marketing dollars with the ill-fated Simon, given the excitement around devices in general and mobile communications in particular in those days. It does seem terribly IBM-like though to produce a $900 personal-communications device twenty years ago and expect the world to beat a path. The same tippy internal gyroscope that would allow such an extended period of group out-of-touchedness with the market no doubt helped usher IBM into the screaming fall from tech dominance that characterized the company in the nineties. Sad to say, the rise and fall of Simon screams "We are smarter than our customers." It was about the time of Simon that we started to say in our company, "Smaller organizations innovate more effectively."

For all these years I've carried around in my head the image of Sarah (not her name), my classmate in grad school at Northwestern and an IBM middle manager. We were close to graduation in the spring of 1992, and antsy to get our new initials and get on with our careers. Sarah picked up her voicemail between classes one day, and came to tell me about one of the messages. "My manager left me a voicemail to tell me that I ranked seventeenth out of his forty-two team members," she said. "Hurray for me!"

The big-company, lockstep Forced Ranking process was so absurd and insulting on its face that we had to laugh. When we get to be managers who leave voicemail messages to tell people how they stack up in ridiculous people-stacking exercises, Susan and I said to each other, please take drastic measures! If you see me leaving a voicemail message like that, you'll know my brain is gone. I've become a pod person.

Was IBM's Simon, including its dramatically unsuccessful life cycle, an IBM cultural cry for help? Looking at the project all these years later, you could easily think so.