I’ve just watched a small retrospective on the HTC Advantage, running on Windows Mobile, precursor to Windows Phone, released just a year before the iPhone.

From 2023, it looks like a Phone/PDA hybrid. Watching the retrospective, the enthusiastic explanations of the presenter, along with the stylus-powered demonstration, it was hard not to get lost in the fervor. Nevertheless, I was genuinely impressed by everything that could be achieved on this device, including tasks at which modern smartphones greatly struggle.

Of course, almost everything you can do with it is first thought of as productivity tools, things for very important businessmen that are doing very serious and important work, wearing very stern and important suits – like spreadsheets and graphs.

What’s truly incredible is how much control is given to the user. It’s truly an empowering experience in the same way as the one I’ve had revisiting a Palm III XE. Every limitation that you feel is technical. Software was trying its best to transcend technical limitations and help the user as much as possible. If I had to explain this, it would be that those devices were constantly in the adoption phase, there was no chance for them to slip into enshittification. Unlike iOS and Android, there just wasn’t enough adoption. Change was constant.

A good friend of mine had an HP Pre 3 back in the day. Initially made by Palm, which was then bought (and destroyed) by HP, the Pre 3 was the last evolution of the Pre/WebOS in the mobile space. An impeccable form factor and wonderful physical keyboard, supplemented by an efficient operating system, this phone was, of course, a failure. Yet to this day, my friend still mourns the downfall of the potential bright future, and it also seems to be the case of everyone that has had one between their hands. Pitted against Android, iOS, and, I guess, Windows Phone, incompetently marketed, the Pre line of phones had no chance of survival.

Physical keyboards were going to be a thing of the past! A brand-new world of apps would be ushered in! The futures that could have been were dead and buried. Many tried for different visions and all failed. Even the mighty Microsoft didn’t have the ecosystem to fight anymore.

Sometimes I wonder what the world would be like if Apple hadn’t launched the iPhone and funneled innovation towards the paradigm we are using today in the mobile space. What if that fierce experimentation of the 2000s had continued while technical innovations like good capacitive tactile displays, improved battery life, and fast mobile data plans arrived.

How would technology have evolved? Were we predestined to for mobile phones to become the arid desert of experimentation that we see today? Was the subvention of OS development by tracking and advertisement truly ineluctable? I am not a historian, but I recall that the idea that innovation happens because society needs it has at least some traction. Gutenberg wasn’t a necessity to the printing press. Apple and Google weren’t necessities to the worldwide adoption of call-capable portable computers. However, what shape would they have taken had this original sin of infantilizing the user not been done that quickly?

When I see ideas of the past, striving to bring, in some ways, empowerment, to allow new things to be done, I can’t help but feel some child-like wonder before the bittersweet feeling of imagining what could have been.