This post has been written by Shaun McGill, a long time friend of Clove who has reviewed many a device for us over the years and has been a fantastic writer to work with. As well as writing for various publications, Shaun runs his own Lost In Mobile blog, which offers great insight and discussion into the smartphone world. Thank you, Shaun.
In 1991, Psion released the Psion 3 PDA. It was the first consumer orientated mobile device that could do more than just offer a list of contacts and an alarm feature. Indeed, it offered a calendar with multiple views, word processor, spreadsheet with charts, world times and much more. You could program it yourself using the onboard OPL programming language and the hardware keyboard and large (for the time) screen made it the very first tool that normal people could use to organise their lives. This was before the majority of people had personal computers in their homes, way before the internet became ubiquitous and during a time when the Filofax was still common place in many offices and homes.
David Potter founded Psion in 1980 and the name came from the acronym “Potter Scientific Instruments”, but because PSI was already being used elsewhere, ON was added to make the company name unique. Before mobile computers were even envisioned by Psion, the company developed games for the ZX Spectrum including the legendary titles, Flight Simulation, Chequered Flag and the Horace series, but we can trace Psion’s entry into the mobile computer market all the way back to 1984 with the launch of the Psion Organiser. It was aimed squarely at business and those who had a fascination with computers in all of their forms at the time. Neither the Psion 3 or Psion Organiser range set the world alight, but they offered a glimpse at what was possible and to call the Psion 3 ahead of its time would be a massive understatement.
Prior to the release of the Psion 3a, a device which would change the relatively small world of mobile computers, Chris Love formed Clove, a company built to distribute accessories and all things related to Psion. On a personal note, I remember visiting Clove in the early days to purchase a 1MB memory card (for +£100) and a banking app. It was a treasure trove of Psion kit in a small room in an average sized house, but it was unique. No-one else at the time was selling Psion accessories in the way that Clove was and for those of us who had a fascination with these devices, it was ‘the’ place to go. I was also struck by how fast Chris talked. He always appeared to be a man in a hurry to get things done and the words flew out of his mouth faster than a racing commentator. If anything, he talks even faster today than he did back then and this is likely because the market he is working in today is moving faster than ever before.
The Psion 3a was launched in 1993 and it marked a huge improvement over the 3 series. With a 480×160 pixel screen, a 7.68MHz processor and an I/O port for printing and PC synchronisation, it was a revelation to those who had found the wonders of mobile computing with the original 3 model. It was also the beginning of success for Clove as a much wider audience realised just what these little computers could do. For many years, people would carry these devices to meetings and keep their entire lives within them. If you wanted to add memory, games, cases or any other accessory to your Psion, Clove was the place to go and so Psion and Clove continued to flourish.
The 3a was improved further in 1995 with up to 2MB of RAM made available and then in 1997, the Psion 5 was launched. It marked a huge leap forward in the world of PDAs with a 640×240 pixel touch screen, a keyboard design that has never been bettered in the mobile world and full CompactFlash support. It was like a mini-laptop and to this day they are still seen in the wild. Indeed, they still command high prices on the likes of eBay and retain a small, but loyal following. It also marked the start of something that Clove would have to get used to over the next 15 years; change. No market has changed more often or more dramatically than the mobile market and Clove has had to move with the times and make major shifts to its product range and way of working time and time again.
Despite releasing the near perfect Psion 5MX in 1999 and the Psion 7 in 2000, a device that showed the potential of Netbooks long before the rest of the world had thought about them, Psion’s dalliance with consumer mobile computing was coming to an end. A lack of investment in marketing in the US and other key markets meant that the Psion PDAs would remain somewhat niche in a market that was about to explode along with the dot.com boom. For all of their greatness, they were to be dwarfed by the success of Palm PDAs which were arguably less powerful, less practical and not able to help you work day after day like a Psion could. Just like VHS beating Betamax, the lesser product won and only over time would Palm OS grow into a solution that deserved the success it achieved.
However, Clove’s focus was aimed elsewhere and so began a shift towards Hewlett Packard devices and the Pocket PC powered mobile computers that Microsoft was keen to force into the growing world of mobile computing. Clove stocked the early Jornada models, CompactFlash cards and the extremely popular Compaq iPAQs. The Psion devices were still stocked and the Psion Revo proved to be a popular choice for those who would not have traditionally purchased the larger Psion 5 series. And Clove did not stop there. A look back to the Clove website in January 2002 reveals this nugget-
“The new Nokia 7650 is not only a phone – it´s also an integrated digital imaging device. Point, use the colour display as a viewfinder, snap a picture, and share the moment. Save the picture in the photo album – there´s memory for dozens of pictures – or send it to a friend.”
The world was starting to realise that mobile computing could be useful to the masses and in 2003 Clove was selling devices like the i-Mate KJam, Sony Clie NZ90 and Toshiba e740. The battle between Palm and Pocket PC was raging and the number of devices reaching the market was starting to grow exponentially. As all of this was happening, the huge growth in mobile phones was fuelling people’s communication habits and so we were headed towards a time when the two would become one to create smartphones.
Nokia was building Communicator devices that achieved some success, but ultimately they were far too large to appeal to the general public and companies like ETEN and the rest were still building PDA devices in 2006 with no mobile functionality built in. Clove was a big player in the world of standalone PDAs and their success mainly came from the Pocket PC side, but times changed again and the birth of the smartphone was to mark the next major shift.
A look back to 2006 shows Clove stocking the I-Mate SPL, ETEN Glofiish X500 and the HTC P3300, devices that were effectively PDAs with phone technology built in. It was a natural progression for the market and Clove followed in a timely fashion as they always have. The Palm Treo smartphones brought the idea of smartphones to the wider world and were hugely successful in the US and this marked a time of huge change and a variety of devices the like of which we have never seen since. To give you an example, Clove stocked devices from the following manufacturers in January 2007- Acer, ETEN, Fujitsu, HP iPAQ, HTC, i-mate, Intermec, Mio, Nokia, Palm, Psion, Sony Ericsson, Symbol. If you bring this forward to today, the number of big players has shrunk enormously.
There is little doubt that the launch of the original iPhone would change mobile computing forever and, just like the demise of Psion, presented many challenges for Clove. Apple’s rigorous need for control and ownership of the entire process meant that other companies would have to change their approach to compete and all of a sudden, the PDAs from 2006 and prior looked more than dated. The market responded, however, and smartphones took on completely new forms. Windows Mobile was still the operating system of choice for Microsoft and in 2009 devices like the Xperia X1, HP Data Messenger and Touch Diamond2 were offering an alternative to the world of Apple. Nokia was selling the N79, 5800 XpressMusic and so Clove continued to distribute and serve the needs of those who understood what they wanted.
Android has of course changed everything for millions of mobile users over the past two years and now powers the majority of phones and tablets that Clove sells today. The number of Android devices being released every month is astonishing and Clove sells the majority. With a knack of getting the devices early and understanding, in great depth, how they work Clove continues to be the destination of choice for the discerning mobile buyer. Just like in previous years, however, Clove covers all of the bases and you can buy Windows Phone devices, BlackBerry smartphones and more specialist products like the JCB Toughphone.
To continue to be successful in any industry is an impressive achievement, but to do so in the mobile industry and for a company that is in relative terms quite small, is astonishing. The ability to move with the times, spot the changing trends early and to be consistent is how Clove has reached the 20 year milestone. In 1992, Psion would release a new device every 2 years. In 2002, the first Pocket PC devices and communicators were born and in 2012 we have so much choice that it’s difficult to know what to buy next.
If there is one thing that has remained consistent in 20 years of flux, it is that Clove has always offered a personal level of customer service that just works. The loyalty from buyers is extremely strong and this has formed the bedrock of success over the past two decades. The only question now is what the company will be selling in 2022 and 2032. It is scary to think that we will look at today’s devices in ten years time and wonder how we survived with such antiquity.