I loved reading “The future that everyone forgot” by Chris de Salvo on his time working on phones at Danger, Inc.
The Danger devices were well ahead of their time: they supported features like cloud backup, web apps, Unicode, tons of input styles (including a D-pad for gaming), multitasking and inter-app communication. The other phones out at the time were all, well, not very memorable.
The essay was a full-on blast-from-the-past for me, because when I first started working on mobile, I started by creating things for devices like the Sidekick/Hiptop, which Danger produced.
Nearly eleven years ago, when I started work at Sony, I worked on building systems to bring music to mobiles. One was a platform to transcode and make content ready across the various mobile platforms and carriers. The other was a mobile music store that allowed people to buy music and pictures for their phones.
Because there were so many different handsets and operating systems and languages and storage and music file format constraints – as well as differences in carrier settings on each phone, we had to create tools to efficiently deliver content on the fly.
We engineered a transcoder for the many types of audio formats and lengths, all a collection of strange letters: QCELP, AMR, MP3, &c.
The Danger device stood out in my mind above all the others, because you could tell a lot of care and thought had gone into building it. They had spent a lot of time making sure that even ringtones would sound good and be ahead of quality on other devices. The playback on the device allowed one to perfectly loop each ringtone without clicks or hiccups in between each loop. Knowing this, we spent a lot of time on our team to cut musically perfect loops just for the Sidekick. And, oh, did it ever sound good!
We also engineered a custom renderer for the many types of markup these phones would accept: WAP, XHTML, proprietary DSLs like Vodafone’s, and so on. Where the phone and the browser could handle it (and where we could securely build in payments on mobile web), we had a mobile web presence. But on phones that didn’t have this capability (or where we wanted to further lock down the payment flow), we built a custom browser that would take our XHTML markup and our custom tags and show that content in a native container instead.
The bonus was that, this way, we had placement in the app store and an icon on the home screen too. We’d be able to mark up the content any way we wanted and push layout and links and branding changes without having to release a new native version of the apps. (It’s a lot like how the iTunes Music Store and App Store are engineered – custom markup rendered in a native container).
It seems we are bound to reinvent the past.
Side story: One of Danger’s founders was Andy Rubin, who was previously at Apple and then Apple-spinoff General Magic – and after Danger, went to work on Android which eventually went to Google. I love how these dots connect, as Jobs says “you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.”