Modo Walked the Fine Line Between "Ahead of Its Time" and "Just Stupid"

Illustration for article titled Modo Walked the Fine Line Between "Ahead of Its Time" and "Just Stupid"

The Modo, a wireless handheld introduced in 2000, couldn't give directions. It refused to make calls and had no interest in displaying fresh emails. It was too busy being cool. Alas, I never got to touch it.


As a college student in 2000, I spent many a morning babysitting the daughter of New York Times reporter Penelope Green. When Penelope got a Modo, I was jeeeealous. The egg-sized device spewed information that was fed to it over a pager network by arbiters of urban coolness. Information about local restaurants or shops or events would show up on the screen (although I don't think it was location-based, or even searchable). It was there, take it or leave it. It was like TimeOut magazine, but more exclusive and wireless.

To get into this elite club, you needed to pick up one of these palm-sized devices at tony places like Fred Segal. They cost $99, which was quite a lot in babysitting currency, though there was no monthly or annual fee. Its creators—who hoped to fund the project ultimately with ad revenues—were prescient in encouraging retailers to create fancy cases for the gadgets long before people started to dress their music players like they were chihuahuas.

Illustration for article titled Modo Walked the Fine Line Between "Ahead of Its Time" and "Just Stupid"

As one of the youngest non-diaper wearing people in Penelope's life, I made the case that she should really let me take her Modo for a test drive. Alas, the timing didn't work out. But Christmas was coming! What's more, she hinted that I maybe could maybe keep hers after the story came out. (This was in the pre-Jayson Blair days when newspaper reporters were allowed to keep things. See, newspapers were these printed things that...ugh, never mind.)

The company's founder basically bragged to Penelope about how little the Modo could do. "This is not a personal productivity tool," he said. "We'll never make anything like that.'' Low productivity? Clearly this was a college kid's dream machine. What's more, it was a thing of beauty. Penelope's story said that to use it you had "to engage with it in a physical way, stretching the rubber tongue toggle thing into place or sliding it back out again with your thumb." Hot!

iPods at this point were monochromatic, but these babies came in different colors. The article even suggested buying them in multiples and keeping one in the packaging as an investment, a la a Swatch watch or a Beanie Baby.


Just weeks after the article came out, Modo went belly up. Needless to say, my Christmas sucked. [Vintage Modo stories: Forbes; NY Times;;]

Anna Jane Grossman will be with us for the next few weeks, documenting life in the early aughts, and how it differs from today. The author of Obsolete: An Encyclopedia of Once-Common Things Passing Us By (Abrams Image) and the creator of, she has also written for dozens of publications, including the New York Times,, the Associated Press, Elle and the Huffington Post, as well as Gizmodo. She has a complicated relationship with technology, but she does have an eponymous website: Follow her on Twitter at @AnnaJane.



Michael Scrip

I've read this article twice... and I still don't know what the Modo does...