Looking Back At Sony’s CLIÉ Series: An iPhone For An iPhone-Less World

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When Apple launched the iPhone in 2007, it was nothing short of a revelation. The company eschewed the hitherto traditional design of phones, based largely around small screens and physical buttons, and created an entirely touch-driven interface that was built on a large display and friendly, grid-based UX icons.

Overnight, Apple changed the industry forever; the iPhone became the must-have piece of tech, and Google’s then unreleased Android platform was hastily re-tooled to imitate Apple’s vision. 

The rest is history.

We now live in a world where the vast majority of phones lack physical keypads, and almost all are dominated by their large displays. However, Apple can hardly be credited for inventing such a concept; almost a decade before the iPhone was revealed to the world, there were similar devices that could now be considered somewhat ahead of their time, arriving before technology was truly ready for their unique talents.

Personal Data Assistants (PDAs) were commonplace in the years before smartphones became a viable reality, and Palm’s OS was one of the most popular platforms of its era. One of the companies which supported Palm’s vision with the most vigour was a Japanese firm which is now betting heavily on Google’s Android OS: Sony. 

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Between the years of 2000 and 2005, Sony produced a line of PDAs under its dedicated CLIÉ brand, which quickly came to represent the zenith of the concept. While Palm and its other hardware partners – Samsung, Acer and Lenovo – produced some excellent offerings, Sony created a selection of unique, powerful and downright attractive portable devices during this period, pushing the PDA concept to its limit and coming incredibly close to the kind of product Apple would release to such acclaim just a handful of years later.

The name stood for “Creativity, Lifestyle, Innovation, Emotion”, although “Communication, Link, Information, Entertainment” was also cited by Sony at one point. What was clear was this was a unique proposition in a market full of “me too” handhelds. Unlike rival PDA devices, the CLIÉ range placed a particular emphasis on multimedia tasks; in fact, Sony would refer to them as “Personal Entertainment Organisers” rather than stuff and business-focused “Personal Data Assistants”.

While CLIÉ models would showcase the usual raft of business-like PDA-functions, music, video and photography became focal points for many of the series, and Sony would use its own proprietary tech, such as Memory Sticks and ATRAC3 audio, to reinforce this stance.

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However, the early models were very much in line with other Palm-based devices. The CLIÉ line began with the PEG-S300, which, aside from an appealing design, was almost identical to pretty much any other PDA of the period. As time went on, Sony would become bolder with its designs, creating products which stood out from the crowd and came bundled with high-quality headphones, in-line remote controls and impressive media players to add weight to the idea that a CLIÉ was much more than just a way of jotting down notes or keeping track of meeting times.

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The PEG-NR70 was the first model to truly break from convention. It included a large resistive touch screen, but boasted a clamshell form factor which offered up the requisite real estate for a full physical keyboard. It also included a camera on the hinge which could be rotated and used to take selfies, another element of the CLIÉ range which was arguably well ahead of its time. Compared to other PDAs, the PEG-NR70 looked totally unique and lacked the dull, business-like air of most other rival handhelds. 

Sony aimed for the upper end of the market with these products, with prices often touching the kind of levels we see in the smartphone sector these days, but the company was wise enough to make its range affordable as well. The PEG-SJ20 featured a monochrome screen, was powered by two AAA batteries and retailed for less than £100; far less than the flagship CLIÉ products. Even at this price, the SJ20 had support for Memory Stick expansion and even allowed for a camera and game pad attachment – another area where Sony illustrated just how forward thinking it was.

Keen to experiment further, Sony launched the PEG-UX50, a device that would radically change the format of the PDA. This clamshell offering sported a landscape screen instead of portrait, and this allowed for a large, comfy keyboard. The screen could actually be twisted around, making the UX50 more suitable for media consumption, such as watching movies. It also came with Bluetooth and Wi-Fi functionality, as well as an amazing case design which made it look like it could have come from the set of Blade Runner or 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Sony would bring the curtain down on the CLIÉ range in 2005, with the Japan-only (and insanely expensive) PEG-VZ90 limping to market before the axe fell. The last model of note to be launched in the west was the PEG-TH55, a device that, with a few minor subtle modifications, could easily pass for a modern Xperia handset. 

The PEG-TH55 boasted so many hallmarks we now associate with a modern smartphone: a camera on the back, on-board Wi-Fi and a large 320 x 480 pixel TFT touchscreen (the iPhone shipped with the same resolution display in 2007) which made the physical buttons on the bottom of the device seem like an afterthought. It even features a flip cover like the ones which are so popular on Samsung phones these days, but with a difference – this one was made of clear plastic, allowing you to see notifications on the screen without lifting it up. 

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The CLIÉ range would fall from grace around the same time that Palm OS started to falter in the face of Microsoft’s more adept Windows Mobile, and within the space of a few years Apple would kick-start a whole new era in model tech with its iconic smartphone. One can only guess at how different things could have been if Sony had shifted its focus from “feature phones” like the dead-end that was the Sony Ericsson Walkman phone range and had followed through on the promise of a big-screen pocket-PC, as it had done with the CLIÉ.

All that was required was for cellular capability to be added to the range and Sony could well have stolen a march on its rivals; instead, it was unfashionably late to the Android party with the Xperia X1 and has only just been able to find its feet amid intense competition from the likes of HTC, Samsung and LG.

What mobile device would you like us to look at for our next Past Classics feature? Let us know by leaving a comment below.

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