I’ve yet to determine why exactly I gravitate to portable gadgets, but I can remember being obsessed with everything high-tech and pocketable since I was a kid. It started with obvious devices like the Game Boy which all of my friends had, but eventually included personal organizers: devices that tended to appeal more to corporate suits than 12 year olds.
Before tablets, before smartphones, before PDAs, before basic cellphones, and even before everyone had pagers clipped to their belts, the personal organizer was arguably the first device you carried everywhere to help keep your busy life in order. It had zero communication abilities, but it could store everything from phone numbers, to expense reports, to meetings and appointments, and even grocery lists if you were diligent about keeping tabs on your pantry. At the age of 12 I had to worry about keeping tabs on exactly none of those things—but that didn’t deter me.
Throughout the late ‘80s there were lots of digital devices that could be used to store information you couldn’t be bothered to remember. Many were enhanced calculators with extra features shoehorned in, but I also remember owning several of Casio’s Data Bank watches which could store personal details for a handful of your friends and family. The personal organizer, or electronic diary as they were once known, actually traces its roots back to Satyan Pitroda, an Indian engineer and inventor who holds a 1976 patent for a device with a combined clock-calendar that used a keyboard to enter appointments and meetings, with alert messages letting users know where and when they should be throughout the day.
The actual technology available to consumers in 1976 meant Pitroda’s electronic diary never materialized, but more capable alternatives finally started showing up sometime around 1989, led by the Sharp Wizard. Looking like a shrunken laptop, the Wizard packed a lot of functionality into a tiny clamshell device, and in addition to an alphanumeric keypad, the original version allowed for additional features and applications to be added on the fly using swappable expansion cards. By 1994, the Sharp Wizard included basic telecommunications capabilities, including the ability to send and receive a fax, as well as a stylus driven touchscreen. They were professional looking devices and came with professional-level price tags—well beyond what an unemployed kid could afford.
But Sharp wasn’t the only company making these types of devices. Competitors like Rolodex and Casio started making them too, and simpler versions that sacrificed PC connectivity or the ability to send a fax for a price tag well below $100. Sharp followed suit, and its Wizard line was soon joined by more affordable alternatives. Thinking back, I’ve realized why I was so interested in personal organizers. They were an acceptable proxy to a laptop: the ultimate gadget as far as the 12-year-old version of me was concerned, but also a gadget that was completely unattainable to someone whose only income came from birthday and holiday gifts.
It explains why I absolutely had to have a personal organizer that opened like a laptop to reveal a screen on the top and a full QWERTY keyboard on the bottom, despite it being far too small to actually use for touch typing. Even though, aside from a few phone numbers and birthdays, I didn’t have much data to actually store on my ZQ-3000, I still carried it everywhere I was allowed to—which was everywhere but school. Its screen was monochromatic, low-res, and impossible to read at night, editing text was a huge pain without a touch screen, it had a paltry 32KB of storage, and the device lacked even a single basic game, but carrying around the ZQ-3000 still made me feel like I was part of the next generation of personal computing, freed from beige desktop towers or having to lug around a five-pound laptop that was always in need of charging. (It was years before I had to swap out the batteries on my organizer.)
Electronic Organizers thrived well into the ‘90s as their compact size far outweighed their limited capabilities compared to other portable computers of the time. But in 1996 they faced a device they simply couldn’t compete with. That’s when Palm released the original PalmPilot, a new approach to the organizer that felt more like a digital assistant with its giant touch screen interface and the ability to translate quick scribbles with a pen into editable text.
PDAs rapidly evolved from there, eventually adding wireless telecommunications capabilities and other features that electronic organizers simply couldn’t match. When the PDAs merged with cellphones with devices like the Palm Treo, electronic organizers officially became extinct.
However, like the dinosaurs, the electronic organizers of yesteryear aren’t entirely forgotten. As demonstrated with devices like the Samsung Galaxy Fold, the new Motorola Razr, and even the Microsoft Surface Duo and Neo, there’s still a demand for gadgets that take a folding approach so they’re easier to stash in a pocket. These devices run circles around what my old Sharp organizer was capable of, but I can’t help but see the similarities in their designs decades later.