Microsoft kills the Sidekick. The first smart phone is dead

There is no official word on the death of the Sidekick from Microsoft or Tmobile, but it certainly looks bleak for the iconic device.

This week, Microsoft announced that they had lost all Sidekick user data including pictures, contacts, calendars and other information from the Danger's servers.  Since the devices sync with the servers, the devices also lost the data. The Sidekick data services had amazingly been out over a week.

From what they say, after a week of investigation, there is no way to retrieve the user data.  Customers will have to start over.  The word on the street is that it was a Hitachi SAN upgrade failure.

But customers will be happy to know that Tmobile is offering a free month of data (not a free month of service, just the $20 unlimited data plan) for all of their information.  I really hope a lot of Sidekick users used the Intellisync software that pushes data to the desktop and would have backed their data up.

T-Mobile has halted the sale of new Sidekicks. All models are now showing "temporarily out of stock" on the company's website.


Additionally, a warning has been added to the post on T-Mobile's forum which reads: "Sidekick customers, during this service disruption, please DO NOT remove your battery, reset your Sidekick, or allow it to lose power." 

Is the Sidekick dead?

This incident effectively marks the end of the line for one of the most important devices in gadget history.   Microsoft may or may not launch the Pink line of smartphones which are based on the same Sharp hardware and will supposedly replace the Sidekick in the near future.  Perhaps this switchover was part of the reason for the outage?

But really, the Sidekick was already dead, Microsoft was just the latest to put a nail in its coffin.

The Sidekick came out of the efforts of a few ex-Apple Engineers, Andy Rubin, Joe Britt, and Matt Hershenson, who started Danger in 2000.  They created an entirely new platform and with the help of Tmobile, revolutionized the way phones worked. Rubin later formed Android, which was then bought by Google.  Google, in turn, made Rubin the Director of Mobile Platforms.


My first smartphone was a Tmobile Sidekick.  In fact, I'd venture to say that the Sidekick was the first real smartphone ever made.  It was 2003 when I got my Color Sidekick (the Black and White one debuted a year earlier).  The only other smart devices back then were:

  • Early Blackberries that barely did anything beyond email
  • Treos which were good organizers but painful on the Internet
  • Windows Mobile phones that were almost unusable and required a stylus to make a call
  • Some crazy WAP phones without much direction from Nokia.

None of them made any sense.  But the first minute I got my Sidekick, I knew I had something very special.

I had been testing a Tmobile Windows CE device at the time and kept having to take it back to the shop.  Eventually the guru at the shop said to me, "Give up on that thing and get a Sidekick.  Everyone who tries one falls in love."

I was hooked instantly.  The first thing everyone noticed about the Sidekick is the way the screen flipped up to reveal the best keyboard made on any phone (to this day, I am still faster on Sidekick keyboards than I am on any other devices except - maybe - a full computer keyboard).  The original OS had some great functionality, but a few things set it apart from anything that had been done before.

AIM - this was the first phone that did Instant Messaging well (and had push messages!).  To this day, no other phone including the iPhone is as effective at AIM as the Sidekick was.  They later added support for Yahoo and MSN IMs.

SMS - with the great QWERTY keyboard, this was an effective means of communications.  No guessing or autofill, you could turn out a message in a few seconds without a second thought.

Calendar and Contact syncing - one of the truly revolutionary (and controversial) aspects of the Sidekick was that it forced users to upload their contact and calendar information to Tmobile's servers where they could also view/use it in a webpage.  This is how Paris Hilton's pictures/contacts famously got spread.  The good thing about this is that if your Sidekick was lost or stolen, you could just get another one, enter your account information and all your data would come down to your new Sidekick.  This worked when upgrading to a new model as well.

Email - although originally it was just POP (later Danger introduced IMAP) you could put three accounts in one mailbox and it worked really nicely - at the time.   There are now better mail message systems but the Sidekick's was fast and efficient.   There was a webpage for managing emails too.

Web Browsing - In 2003, the Sidekick had passable web browsing capabilities.  It wasn't anything like the iPhone's browser, but it worked in a pinch and was optimized for the small screen size and slow Internet connection.  This was four years before the iPhone was announced.

The system worked amazingly well over GPRS.  In subsequent models, the Sidekick got EDGE data, a Camera and an MP3 Player.   While these were great features, they wouldn't be enough to prepare the platform for the next generation of smartphones which would replace them - especially the iPhone.

Another thing that came along was the Apps Catalog.  This was the Apple App store before one existed.  You could buy apps over the air and they'd be billed to your Tmobile account.  Apps were built in J2ME and were delivered as .jar files.  The whole system was incredibly simple and easy to use. The Sidekick's well placed buttons and scroll wheel were awesome for gaming.  Dare I say, much better than the iPhone's touch controls.

The Sidekick system was also fantastic and very popular with people with hearing disabilities.  There were even apps like a TTY that were geared specifically for deaf people.

By this time, all of the Danger founders had left (Rubin left to found Android) and you could tell that not much in the way of innovation was happening.  This platform which had a huge lead on the rest of the industry was just basically turning out  devices new celebrity color schemes without any more functionality.

Another major problem with the Sidekick was that it was marketed to the young, Hip Hop crowd.  Most businesses professionals wouldn't take it seriously.  On several occasions, I'd have a work Blackberry and a personal Sidekick and I'd never use the Blackberry. The Sidekick was just way better.  But, getting other colleagues to even consider it was a non-starter because of its image.

This is where Apple's marketing killed the Sidekick.  Apple has marketed the iPhone to a broader demographic.

In  2007, I gave up my Sidekick 3 for an iPhone.  I lost a lot of functionality in that transaction which I will never get back.  My messaging capability in AIM, SMS, and email was much faster in 2006 than it is today in 2009.  Sure the iPhone is better in many ways. 

In February 2008, Microsoft bought Danger for $500 million dollars and planned to fold the company into its consumer smartphone business even though Danger used an entirely different Java-based OS to Microsoft's Windows mobile based platform.

I'm frankly not sure what has been going on with the Sidekick since then, but I can still pick up my old Sidekick 3 (which is now a toy for my son) and type out an email, a few SMSes and a couple of instant massages before my iPhone even starts up any of the 10,000 Instant Messager apps available.


You are playing with history there, kid.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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