#ThrowbackThursday: When the Touch Computer Took Over (Part 1)

The events that led up to Zebra’s millionth-shipped TC5X and other noteworthy industry milestones

A closeup shot of a worker using the Zebra TC5x touch mobile computer.
by Rob Puric
March 28, 2019

If you were using technology in the early 1990s, there’s a good chance that you are familiar with the acronym PDA. No, I’m not talking about a “public display of affection.” Rather, the key-based “personal digital assistant” that one could use to share and retrieve information while on the move. I remember that, for many, being issued a PDA by an employer was viewed as a rite of passage in their career; a luxury of sorts. Many organizations were selective in their issuance of such devices, especially when they first came to market. They wanted to be sure such a significant investment (at the time) would pay off.

However, the value of this mobile computing technology was proven almost immediately for manufacturers, warehouse operators, field service organizations and others with highly mobile workforces. The need for real-time information was not exclusive to management-level team members. In fact, the case to give technicians, production line workers, warehouse pickers and other front-line workers a PDA-like device was perhaps the easiest to make. They didn’t have the luxury of sitting at an internet-connected desktop to access manuals, retrieve order information, update shipping logs or complete reports. Organizations needed a way to deliver the information to them, wherever they were. That’s exactly what the mobile computer was built to do, and it was a far-better option that old-school, paper-based information transfer for many reasons.

But the PDA was viewed as a consumer-grade device. Businesses needed an enterprise version. Enter Symbol Technologies and the enterprise digital assistant (or EDA): “a mobile device that looks like a smartphone or personal digital assistant (PDA) but has superior connectivity options and a more rugged build,” as Techopedia describes it.

The Early Days of the “EDA”

By the late 1990s, Symbol had solidified its position as a leader in the design and development of enterprise-grade barcode scanners and other wireless technologies. (Motorola Solutions actually acquired Symbol for $3.9 billion in 2006 to gain a better market position in the handheld computing market.)

That is because Symbol understood early on that, to successfully migrate manufacturing, warehouse, field workers and even healthcare workers to a technology-centric workflow, they needed to deliver a mobile computer with fast barcode scanning capabilities, a powerful computing core and a reliable wireless connection to complete their many different data-based tasks without disruption. After spending a significant amount of time on the ground with EDA users and understanding the potential line-of-business applications for EDAs, however, Symbol quickly recognized that a key-based device was not the future for many of its customers. While many warehouse applications utilized a “scan and enter” data entry flow – and still do today – most field and retail-based mobile applications rarely called for key-based data input. In fact, the keys could actually hinder efficiency. (The exception then and now would be in the transportation and distribution sectors, where drivers may need keys to input an address for navigation purposes.)

So, Symbol set out to improve the user experience for its customers. The result? The creation of the first touch computer and the start of a mobile computing evolution.

A collection of early EDA touch computers

The First Touch Computer Put Mobile Computer Innovation on the Fast-Track

The first touch-based EDA, the Symbol Palm Terminal (SPT) 1500, was released in 1998. This pocket-sized Palm OS touch computer was equipped with the “smallest, lightest, and brightest” scan engine available at the time – even touted as “the best looking Palm device” at launch – and geared toward in-aisle retail point of sale (POS) applications. It’s rugged counterpart, the SPT 1700, followed the next year to similarly rave reviews.

From there, the focus shifted to the development of Portable Pen Terminal, or the PPT, in the early 2000s with the introduction of the Symbol PPT2700. These handheld mobile computers ran the Windows Pocket PC OS and were wildly well-received within the industrial enterprise sector. Not surprising considering that the Windows Pocket PC was quickly becoming the popular choice for home and office systems overall and older millennials were starting to attach to smartphones. Plus, pen-based mobile computers such as the Symbol PPT4100 offered mobile workers with long-form data entry requirements such as field reporting yet another tool to quickly complete such tasks. And they paved the way for digital signatures.

Though transportation and logistics organizations embraced mobile computing devices for many workflows by the early 2000s, they were still burdened with capturing signatures to acknowledge receipt of work orders or shipped goods using old-school pen and paper. At the same time, retailers needed a way to capture shopper signatures for credit card transactions at the mobile POS so that they wouldn’t have to redirect them to a traditional register or require alternative payment methods. The PPT gave them a way to digitalize their signature capture and record-keeping processes.

The growth of Windows®-based touch computers remained steady for many years. In 2005, Symbol brought its first Microsoft® Windows EDA, the MC50, to market and introduced its first rugged Windows EDA, the MC70, in 2006.  

But, around 2011, mobile computing market leaders such as Zebra and Symbol started to notice that Android™, an up-and-coming operating system (OS) for consumer devices, was increasingly capturing the attention of enterprise leaders.

Editor’s Note: What happened next? Check out our next #ThrowbackThursday post for part 2.

The Symbol MC35 touch EDA was brought to market in 2007.
Rob Puric
Rob Puric serves as the Senior Director of Global Field Mobility within the Enterprise Mobile Computing group at Zebra Technologies. A career technologist, Mr. Puric has played a central role in the planning, execution and growth of multi-billion-dollar mobile computing portfolios for Symbol Technologies, Motorola and, now, Zebra. He is also a Six Sigma trained and certified Black Belt and a former Aerodynamic Flight Test Engineer.
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