Planet Computers are hoping writers and bloggers will get flirty with its QWERTY-toting device
The year is 1993 and Apple has just launched the Newton, bringing a QWERTY keyboard, stylus and the phrase “personal digital assistant” to the English language, all at the same time.
Those younger than 25 may not remember – being totally honest, I can just about remember my dad having one – but the idea was to have a device that could sort through emails, help make some notes and generally assist in the organisation of one’s working life.
History or egg sucking lesson over, the smartphone pretty much picked up where the PDA left off, with Steve Jobs famously saying at the iPhone launch 14 years later that the finger was the only stylus every man woman or child would ever need.
However, with the iPhone, the demise of the smartphone keyboard also began to the point where now the only major brand that features devices with QWERTY keyboards is BlackBerry.
That’s evolution though, it’s the way it goes and only BlackBerry itself believes in such a technology now which is very much tied in with its identity.
So, into this sea of glass, metal and touchscreen, comes a manufacturer with a very different device.
Planet Computers, a British manufacturer aiming to make it easier for people to get work done on the move, has brought out a clam shell smartphone with a full QWERTY keyboard – the Gemini PDA.
Since its launch in March this year more than 6,000 of the devices have been sold, a quarter of which come from the UK as the company and product have transformed from an idea and crowdfunding opportunity on Indiegogo to a product being sold online.
Teaming up with the original designer of the Psion PDAs, Planet Computers CEO Dr Janko Mrsic-Flogel launched the Gemini PDA at Mobile World Congress in 2017.
Fast forward a year and more than $2 million worth of investments from the crowdfunding site and the device was landing on the desks and into the hands of the most enthusiastic followers around the globe.
Mrsic-Flogel said: “A total of 25 per cent of our sales are coming from the UK, 25 per cent from Japan, 20 per cent from the US and about more than 10 per cent in Germany.”
In two years Planet Computers has raised just short of £2.4 million on Indiegogo. After originally launching at CES in 2017 and showing off one of the first prototypes in Barcelona at Mobile World Congress the same year, the Gemini PDA is available to buy now and is currently available through Clove and Planet Computers itself.
With eyes on other retailers, Mrsic-Flogel is also keen to carve out channels and deals with distributors too, adding: “We are more focused on our online store than Indiegogo because it is generating more which wasn’t the case three months ago before we launched the store.
“Although the store has sold probably less than 1,000 devices, we have also sold lots of accessories like the camera add-on, the sleeve, the pouch and the chargers. People are buying online quite a lot so it seems people are coming to the site and buying additional peripherals for the device.
“Now we have a product, we are going to create channels for it. We will have arranged pricing for different areas – Europe, US and Japan – which will have to fall in line with the distributor’s pricing in each country.
“Up to now on Indiegogo we have essentially been a liability financially because its just backing and there is no guarantee of a product. So you can look at it like a loan which has rolled into a perk.
“Crowdfunding is at £2.4 million and I think the rest of the revenue is getting to a million, although crowdfunding is not really accounted for as revenue, it is money into the company.
“The rest of the sales are through Indiegogo but we are just starting the distribution process and we are expecting some major orders over the next months from Japan, Russia, India, and other external markets.
Then we will hope for good orders from the UK hopefully in time for Christmas, if not in Q1 of next year.”
Such ambition has seen the device capture the imagination of a generation that used PDAs and, like Janko, missed using them. Discounting BlackBerry, the physical keyboard hasn’t made an appearance on the major devices in around half a decade.
A once key feature has, one by one, been dropped by the likes of Nokia and Samsung and is also widely seen as a contributing factor to the demise of Blackberry, a brand now being sold by TCL Communications.
Now the original excitement is quietening down, you may argue that nostalgia won’t shift many devices. However, as Mrsic-Flogel points out, there is a target market for this device, with Planet attempting to inspire writers and bloggers among other ideal customers.
The physical keyboard and subsequent shortcuts, Android or Linux operating systems and a software package that mirrors and improves on that found on the Psion devices are all features Mrsic-Flogel has missed.
“So I think the idea originally was that several of us – certainly myself and the designer Martin Riddiford – felt this form factor needs to come back,” stated Mrsic-Flogel.
“But we needed to ask ourselves – why does it need to come back? There is pocketability of the keyboard that is the key thing. The fact is that with a laptop you need to carry something, in a cover or a bag, a rucksack or a handbag.
“You need to carry it with a separate piece of luggage. With the Gemini, the keyboard is small enough that it fits in the pocket, so that pocketability is actually the key.
“There are some ultra small laptops but they don’t achieve that, so you can think of it as a very small pocket PC that you can carry around.”
That’s a premise that a lot can understand. The days of chunky laptops and limited power may well be over in theory, but even the thinnest of ultrabooks, MacBooks, iPads and other tablets weighs down on your shoulders as the days and the weeks wear on.
However with “pocketabilty” comes a reduction in performance. After all there is a reason we consistently carry around laptops every day. But Mrsic-Flogel is keenly aware of the potential of the device and the target audience for it.
“One key thing is that you can write with the Gemini and it gives you a sort of easier way of writing emails, messaging and blogging, so you can do these writing tasks.
“Editing documents and writing a new message for example. Maybe you can do it on an on-screen keyboard. We can argue whether it is faster on our device or not, but editing some text without a keyboard is a complete nightmare.
“If you need to edit, look and so on without a keyboard it’s very very hard. Selecting a little bit of text or selecting something, making proper edits is very hard.
“The second thing is spreadsheets – if you are doing small calculations and for business people and people looking at spreadsheets and traverse spreadsheets.
“In both cases one of key things is that we have properly expressed cursor keys because without that editing documents and spreadsheets is not fun. So they are full size keys – up, down, left, right arrows.
Even on the iPad cover keyboards, you will see that on them, the left and the right keys are fully expressed but the up and down are half height.
“We often say this is for the creative person, someone who wants to create on the move because now you can really write more and create content as well as consume. It’s got a really good screen so it’s really nice to watch and it fits on a table you get on a train or plane. It fits everywhere.
“We think it’s really important to have that feeling that you can use this device anywhere. It gives you that potential, so you can watch movies, listen to music but also write documents.”
Now the product is making money, as well as taking the device to distributors, Mrsic-Flogel has ambitions of ranging in the networks to get in as many pockets as possible.
“We have missed some of the planned Christmas ranging but there’s a possibility we will be in a good position with some of the channels in Q1 of 2019.
“But if something goes wrong with other products we might be able to slip into the catalogues for Q4 this year – it really depends on if somebody does deliver.
“Q1 is where we want to see the products in the shops. It would be great to see it in Christmas but it depends if we can get in that position. Even an online placement would be great with some of the major retailers.”
However it’s not just retail that interests the company, which is based in London. Mrsic-Flogel says that, with the device finding its feet with encouraging sales, part of the company focus is on striking up relationships with high street and online retailers as well as distributors and networks.
He said: “We are at the early stages of that process. We’ve established our own online store so that is our main form of online sales worldwide, but in the UK more specifically, we have been working with Clove on the online side.”
“Essentially we have also started looking at online outlets like Amazon and Clove, but obviously now we are looking to place the product more into the retail side and the telecoms side.
“We are starting to talk to the retailers and distributors for the consumer electronics retail and also the same for the mobile market – the telecom operators – because we would love to see the device on a contract.”
With worldwide sales surpassing 6,000 units, Mrsic-Flogel is keen to get the ball rolling while keeping one eye on a second, improved device. Knowing that, although he’s happy with it, there are ways in which the device can be better.
“Obviously we want to now start selling” says Mrsic-Flogel. “But also in the development road map we are looking at what we can do and people are asking for different features.
“We are working on what a secondary device would look like in our catalogues, the features that people are asking for –a backlit keyboard, external screen, finger print sensor, a better camera, integrated and high quality camera.
“Currently that’s where our attention is, thinking about it, but we do want to start selling now.”