Browsing the tech news I came across Fax on the beach: The story of the audacious, visionary, totally calamitous iPad of the ’90s and had flashbacks from my very first startup back in the early 1990s.
This is a great example of how timing is so key to the success or failure of a startup. Timing, as the EO was 15 years too soon. They got the form factor correct, as the EO 880 is the same size as an original iPad and EO 440 the size of my iPad mini. But that doesn’t include the C sized battery pack, the 4 hour lifetime, the 4 greyscale screen, and the fact that the so called “Communicator” had no email, no messaging, no web.
I know all this firsthand as my startup wrote the software to showcase this device to the world at the giant, 100,000+ attendee (now defunct) Comdex tradeshow in 1992.
Our software used a data-only variant of the cellphone attachment (as seen above) to show off the wireless abilities. This was years before WiFi. Years before 3G, 4G, and 5G. Wireless was a cell-based modem maxing out at 9.6Kbps (1/2,000ths the speed of data of my 4G iPhone).
The following year we showed off email. Sounds trivial but integrating email required me to write everything from the TCP/IP networking layer, the SMTP client, and the email app, all from scratch as Open Source was just starting to be an idea in the early 90’s. As was email. Maybe 5% of American had an AOL “You’ve got mail” inbox not connected to the internet then, and less than 5% had an internet-connected MCI or AT&T mailbox.
Communications in the 90’s was centered on faxing. The EO had a RJ-11 phone jack, built in model, and could send and receive faxes. It’s hard to remember, but back then phones were attached to buildings, not people.
Fast forward to 2010, and Apple sold more iPads in their first available minute than EO sold ever. More than EO and every other company sold handheld PDAs, early smartphones, and tablets in human history prior to 2010.
Which ends this story on too late. While the EO and its competitors were all far too early in their timing, anyone with a new idea for a tablet is too late. Apple an Android have collectively sold tens of millions of tablets. There is no room in the market for a third competitor. Microsoft and its Surface are competing against notebooks, not tablets.
Apple hit the right timing and won the market and mindshare. EO is lost to the history books. Given it twenty years and no one will remember Surface either.