It’s often said that Japan was slow to smartphones, with tens of millions of flip phone users long unconvinced of the benefits of iPhone and Android. It’s less often pointed out that those flip phones were miraculous in their own way, seamlessly integrated into Japanese society with features that people in the West could only dream of. And it’s even less often mentioned that Japan has had slick, advanced pocket computers since the ‘90s.
If I’d been using an advanced flip phone and a Sharp Zaurus for a decade, I might have been less convinced by the iPhone’s charms too. Sharp was one of the preeminent makers of early PDAs, with its Zaurus range (pronounced “zow-rus” in Japanese, though still intended to connote the strength of a dinosaur) achieving a reasonable level of popularity around the globe. The models that made it to the US in the ‘90s, however, usually featured monochrome displays and keyboards — the MI series that you see an example of here remained Japan-exclusive.
This is the Zaurus MI-C1 Personal Mobile Tool. It was released in November 1999 and cost 92,400 yen (about $900 today); the slot-in digital camera card went for 25,200 yen ($240). (I paid 3,000 yen ($29) for the pair last week.) It runs Sharp’s own ZaurusOS, has a 32-bit RISC processor, 8MB of RAM and storage, and a large color TFT screen.
The screen was the main selling point of the MI series; 1996’s MI-10 was the first PDA with a color screen, and the MI-C1’s 640 x 480 panel was said to be anti-reflective for better ease of use outdoors. It does look pretty great outside in the sun, but the lack of backlight means it’s very hard to use inside.
The MI-C1 was expensive considering its plastic build, but I’m surprised at how nice it looks and feels today. It’s easily pocketable at 136 x 80 x15.5mm, and is reasonably light at 180g. The battery gives you up to 16 hours of use, according to Sharp, though comparing that to modern devices with screens you can actually see in the dark isn’t quite fair.
What could you do in those sixteen hours? A lot of what you can do with a smartphone today. If you tethered the MI-C1 to a phone, or hooked it up to its own dedicated modem, you got access to a web browser (HTML 3.2-compliant!), email, and news services. You could dock it with a PC and sync data from Outlook and Excel. There was all the built-in PDA software you’d expect, like a notes app with handwriting recognition, a dictionary, an address book (and a separate app to emulate business cards), a planner, and so on. The MI-C1 even has a version of the exact same train timetable app I use on iOS and Android today.
The CE-AG06 digital camera card was also pretty cool. It only took pictures in 640 x 480 VGA resolution, but you had full manual focus control by twisting the lens, and the camera itself could pivot 180 degrees for some ‘90s selfie action. It also plugged right into the M1-C1’s CompactFlash slot, meaning you could get the photos off it the same way you would have with most other cameras at the time.
The MI-C1 is a really impressive device for what it is, and it does make me wonder why, if Sharp saw the potential of high-end touchscreen pocket computing this early, it didn’t make serious moves into the smartphone market before the ship had already sailed. Perhaps it didn’t want to cannibalize its flip phone and PDA businesses, being a serious player in both markets around the turn of the millennium. Or maybe the issue was software; Sharp turned to Linux and then Windows Mobile for its later Zaurus models, and it’s hard to see the company returning with a proprietary operating system that would have garnered the same level of support as iOS or Android.
The Zaurus line ended production in 2008, but Sharp returned the next year with the NetWalker series, a spiritual successor to the Zaurus with keyboard and touch models running Ubuntu. That didn’t last too long, and now Sharp makes Android phones, mostly for the Japanese market and occasionally with standout features like the bezelless Aquos Crystal or the bizarre bipedal RoboHon.
Oh, and it still makes flip phones too.