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Some of the work we did at Danger (medium.com)
339 points by kaptain 889 days ago | hide | past | web | 78 comments | favorite

I tried developing for the Sidekick when it came out. I had one and was very happy with it. The API and the hardware were a delight.

I remember being frustrated that the only means of technical support was a terrible walled garden web forum. There was no email gateway, so one had to keep checking that site for answers. I would have much preferred mailing lists and a public website indexable by search engines.

The bigger frustration was that T-Mobile was the gatekeeper for app distribution. If you wanted to get an app to a phone, it had to be on the store, you had to get T-Mobile's blessing, and they had no plans to support free apps. The carriers were very much still oriented around the ringtone economy and were terrified that you might put something on your phone without getting a cut of a fee.

People complain now about Apple and Google and the processes that impede app distribution, but the iOS and Android ecosystem is way better than what existed when the carriers were in charge.

I remember thinking that the Danger folks were very responsive and very sharp, but it didn't matter because they were in the end beholden to T-Mobile and T-Mobile didn't get it. There's an ecosystem lesson in there for anybody trying to build a new platform.

I wonder what this means:

> the world owes a debt of thanks to Jeff Bush who was the first person we know of to get a full TCP/IP stack working on a cellular data connection

IP is natively supported by GPRS and worked from day 1, and before that regular GSM-data had been used for TCP/IP for a long time.

From 1999 to 2003 I ran a startup where we had a digital signage solution with displays placed around Copenhagen that had a built-in OEM GPRS phone module. They ran a full TCP/IP stack, and were able to update the displays on demand.

If I remember correctly we had it up and running around Q1 2000 which seems to be before this (Not quite sure though, the article doesn't mention specific dates)

IIRC, when we were evaluating GPRS modules for potential use in the hiptop, we would consistently find ourselves testing modules that worked well for a minute or two at a time but would fall over flat if you tried to keep a connection going for any length of time.

If all you needed was a few dozens of seconds of connectivity — such as, I'm guessing, to update a sign — that was probably just dandy. However, that's not how the hiptop worked; it generally aimed to open a connection to the "mothership" soon after boot, and it would hold it open, for hours or even days, network willing.

Well, for certain definitions of "working" it did. I remember not so fondly trying to do emergency work with SSH over GPRS back in the day, with incredible lag and connection freezes every couple of minutes. Perhaps they figured out how to make TCP/IP work _properly_ over such connections.

"As an interesting historical side note: the engineers who developed the Java runtime for hiptop would later join Google and lead the Android kernel engineering team; and develop Dalvik, the Java language runtime for Android."

I'm pretty sure that's less a historical side-note and more an invitation for Sun to subpoena you to testify the next time Google says their version of Java was a clean-room implementation.

Oracle's lawyers already know our work history, in detail. It's not like my résumé isn't trivial to find.

If the clean room was located in Danger HQ it was still a clean-room implementation.

Isn't a clean room implementation supposed to be free of people who have seen the code for the original? I guess I'm a bit confused on this one.

I'm not sure of this, but my impression is that Danger's VM was written by people who didn't look at Sun's source code. And then they didn't look at it again when they wrote Dalvik.

Oh, that would make more sense. Although, thinking about it, I am still a bit clueless how Dalvik itself would violate Sun / Oracle's IP unless it had copied code.

I had the Sidekick/Hiptop 2 back in high school because my mom had T-Mobile through her work. To this day I have not been stopped by more people asking about a device (not even the original iPhone I saved up for as a freshman in college). T-mobile was spotty at best in the DC area so nobody else I knew had it, everywhere I would go people would say things like "It has a browser!?!" or "I thought only Treos and Blackberries had email!?!". It was a sad day when my mom changed companies and we switched to AT&T(aka Cingular). I salute you Danger, I wish there were more small innovative hardware companies like you these days.

Nostolgia ... I remember those days.

Developers try so hard these days to implement push notifications from their apps & services and boast about all the IFTTT stuff.

Carries here in India used to provide email-to-sms as a free service. You would just send an email to +91PhoneNo@xyzprovider.com and that message would be sent to PhoneNo as an SMS (160 chars from subject).

Now a days if you want to send a message, you need to have developer accounts, install Software on the devices to receive the notifications, need to have a data connection on the phone, talk to push notifications clouds and a few other things.

The email-to-SMS trick makes me feel very nostalgic. I still think that was the most brilliant idea for mobile notifications in those days.

Sometime in 2007, I setup a forwarding rule in my GMail account for my long-distance friend's address. When she mailed, I would get it as an SMS on phone and run back home to chat if I was out.

It stopped working after sometime. I'm not sure what happened. I remember reading it was made an enterprise-only service by some telecom operators. If they the service back up and running, I'm sure there are many ideas waiting to be built on top of it.

TMobile still has this service, I use it to send messages to the wife if I forget my phone.

At least in the US, you can still do the email-to-sms trick. In fact, I think that's exactly why so many sites ask who your carrier is (so they know which domain to use). Sending raw SMS, your carrier shouldn't matter.




The predecessor to Microsoft Exchange ActiveSync used this method. It was called AUTD (Always Up To Date) and sent SMS messages either via an SMSMC or through email-to-SMS originating on the Exchange server. What was "fun," as a support engineer in PSS back then, was helping people diagnose and clear out mobile phone numbers that users had set up and then had one of three things happen: sailed way past their in-built SMS allotment, didn't realize that receiving SMS cost money and receiving huge bills, or swapping to another phone without an Exchange client to intercept the SMS and being bombarded with SMS notifications.

The Danger Hiptop was an incredible device. At a time when RIM basically thought the web was a useless feature on a mobile device, Danger built an amazing mobile browser (discussed in the article) that wouldn't be matched until the iPhone. Instead of a handful of limited text-based WAP sites, the Hiptop rendered full desktop sites and did a pretty darn good job of making them usable on a mobile device.

I still miss that General Magic bunny though.

RIM didn't think that the web was a useless feature. The crappy browser on old BlackBerry devices was due to carrier limitations (literally not allowing blackberry to put a full browser on - refusing the buy devices from any major OEMs with proper browsers on them). Apple forced AT&T to let them include a full browser on it.

Pre iPhone and Android carriers really did run the show because they owned the access to the customer.

T-Mobile was trying to differentiate with the Danger stuff, which is why they allowed it to run a better browser. AT&T/Cingular and Verizon were big enough that they wouldn't have allowed it.

> wouldn't be matched until the iPhone

Many pre-iPhone Nokias (and other devices) would disagree with you there

Random question: Does anyone remember a (translucent?) device (toy?) that was about the size of a graphing calculator and had a little antenna sticking out the side, and you could wirelessly send messages to other people nearby (within a couple hundred feet probably) with the same device? This was probably around 2001.

The Cybiko was a handheld device that ran apps/software installed through the Cybiko desktop program. It has small antenna that allowed Cybikos in proximity to communicate. It had games, productivity apps, and communication software. One of my favorite apps was a speed reading app that flashed one word at a time. I read a couple of books in that format as a kid. I convinced many of my friends to get one in school. Teachers never realized we were playing games and chatting in school.

Are you thinking of the Cybiko?


Yup, thanks!

I probably still have one or two in a box in my parents' house somewhere...

Yes, I still have two Cybikos in my desk drawer. Dead batteries but I'm sure it wouldn't be hard to get them working. I bought one for myself and one for my soon-to-be wife back in university in early 2002. We had a couple classes together and the ability to chat wirelessly was awesome. It wasn't nearly as cool as the Danger gizmo but you didn't pay monthly for it either. I had a ton of homebrew apps for it and some of them were actually really good. Nobody knew what the thing was and most professors thought it was a calculator with a stylus (which was really the antenna).

Edit: I remember using it at graduation, too. My wife was in the audience and I was so engrossed in our Cybiko chat that I took a wrong turn on the stage and ended up getting into the procession line twice. That was embarrassing. Glad I didn't try to use the thing while driving :-)

Yes. I cannot remember what it was called but I definitely remember this. Was it blue translucent? I want to say it was made by Casio but my googling is turning up blank.

That would make for a very nice mobile phone app.

That web dashboard that combines mail, notes, calendar and to-dos in one screen is great - I would like that today, and I don't think I can get it.

Haha, your account looks old enough that you should remember the mid 2000s when every other startup or website was a dashparts website that looked just like that?

Personalised homepages? And they all were just a bit broken? iGoogle seemed to kill them all off.

iGoogle seemed to kill them all off

And then was killed off in its turn ...

Netvibes seems to be hanging in there still: http://www.netvibes.com/en/individual

It's true - and then iGoogle got killed off! It's time for the return of the personal dashboard, I reckon.

"That web dashboard that combines mail, notes, calendar and to-dos in one screen is great - I would like that today, and I don't think I can get it."

I have that. Minus the web part. It's all in terminal, in one screen, that I access over SSH. Haven't changed my workflow since ... 1998 ?

You'd be surprised how fast email is when you don't have to mouse around...

I found out about why deaf people used the Danger Hiptop once when I was already working on Android software development. I saw a young woman on the T commuter rail intently typing at almost unbelievable speed on a Hiptop, faster than I had ever seen anyone use any Blackberry or other device.

I knew about many of the Android team having worked for Danger, but I had never seen one "in the field." When she stopped for a moment, I asked her about the device. It was apparent she was deaf, so we used my pocket notebook to communicate. She told me all her deaf friends had Danger Hiptops.

The device catered to the HoH community - the keyboard was great, and there were several "tty to voice" relay apps available where a HoH person could type messages to an operator from the device and an operator would place a voice telephone call for them and relay messages back and forth. For free.

There was even an unofficial ASL gesture for "smartphone" now which mimicked the "flip screen" of the Hiptop since they were so pervasive in the community.

Yup, I think T-Mobile even bundled it with a data-and-messaging-only plan (no minutes) at one point.

My brother who is deaf used this to communicate with all this friends and family. No point in having voice minutes when you can't used them. Integration with relay services made it the most important device you could have to always be able to communicate.

A competent Hiptop user could easily type 60-70 wpm on the keyboard without too much trouble. Clever use of the autotext dictionary could easily fake out 80wpm or more by replacing "txt spk" with actual words and phrases.

This is a really nice story, but I have to react to all the people swooning over this - Nokia (Symbian) had a lot of these functions back in the day, but it was never popular in the US so people often forget about it.

(I know I'm biased here, but FWIW…)

Nokia's Symbian phones always struck me as trying to be "little big computers." The hiptop was different; it wasn't trying to be a stripped-down version of a desktop (or laptop) computer. It really embraced its form factor whole-heartedly.

Rather than aiming to be (something like) a Nokia Symbian clone, the hiptop struck me as coming from the same place the original Palm Pilot did, but with the benefit of several years of industry advancement in terms of its technology base. E.g., beyond what you saw in the Pilot, we managed to get into the base system: real internet networking, true preemptive multitasking (though not address space isolation), and a much "realer" web browser.

Symbian started long before mobile phones with Psion's EPOC. It was used in some very nice little PDAs that had very good keyboards (Psion Series 5), and later, competed against Microsoft's Windows CE, which also competed with the Palm PDAs. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/EPOC_%28operating_system%29

I can't help but wonder how much better off Nintendo would be right now if they had bought Danger when they had the chance to partner with them.

And how much better off Danger would've been!

Kind of amazing that Danger's VC partner knew more about cellular networks than the founders did. I wonder who he was and which firm.

Greg Galanos (founder of http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metrowerks) and his associate Mark B Johnson (Apple alum).

I am sad that the keyboards have disappeared from smartphones :(

Agreed. My favorite phone form factor is still this:


Also, I miss pcmcia cards. Just saying.

My favourite form factor is the "tall slider", like the Blackberry Torch or the one I own, Nokia N86.

But I'll have to give it up and there are virtually no Android devices with a physical keyboard.

I'll really miss one-handed operation (I could perform all the actions with only one hand, including typing an SMS), and not having to watch the screen (touch-typing). But they don't seem to be a necessity for people these days.

I remember getting those in our phone lab (we were testing for them at the time) and thinking "if it wasn't for windows phone, I'd buy this in a hearbeat".. ah windows phone, killing good hardware and companies for years :)

And if anyone's wondering - the revolutionary audio engine the author mentions was the Beatnik Audio Engine (BAE), open sourced as the Mini Beatnik Audio Engine (miniBAE) [1].

[1] http://www.minibae.org/

There's a very interesting quote from that page towards the bottom:

"Jim and I believed in the Jeffersonian ideal that a inventor has a lock on an idea for a limited period of time. There were many ideas in this code that could have been patented, however we chose not to pursue it. We chose the Trade Secret route. Because of that, this code did not end up in the hands of a Patent troll. Now it can be mixed back into the culture, to be recycled and reinvented."

The ability to control the RGB notification LED (and the vibration motor) via the audio engine made for some really nice notification effects (and the ability to differentiate between dozens of different types of notifications at a glance, or even at a feel) was great. There were a lot of HoH people who loved the fact that notifications were differentiable by feel.

trivia lovers will note beatnik was founded by thomas dolby

A few of my friends had a Danger device. My second hand observation (and you have to remember this was many years ago now) was that they were somewhat fragile.

One friend was on his 5th hiptop in 18 months, and another was on his 3rd in about the same amount of time.

If you drop an iPhone on concrete, it survives just fine so long as you don't shatter the glass. As for a wood floor or carpet, my various iPhones have survived several falls this way without any issues.

As for Danger, the devices would break frequently, even minor drops would result in the screen cosmetically undamaged, but something got loose internally and the device would stop working entirely.

I wanted a Sidekick / hiptop, but the perceived fragility was too much to overcome.

If anyone reading this worked at Danger, was my perceived fragility of the phone more anecdotal than real?

I had one and I don't remember it being necessarily delicate, say broken from a drop, but a lot of them shipped with engineering flaws, so returns were normal. I think I had to return mine at least once. Dust would get under the screen as well, but I learned to live with it.

The forums were full of people complaining. Just normal wear and tear would break them. Not sure if they ever really resolved the quality issue before folding. You really felt like a beta tester with the Danger device.

I had a Sidekick B&W in high school, and later a Sidekick Color, and people would ask me about it every single day. I remember having long AIM conversations under my desk in class. I later upgraded to a Sidekick 2, which was nice but had some build quality issues. I must have gone through at least four of them. To T-Mobile's credit, they were very good at replacing them quickly. I remember sitting at dinner one night, flipping it open to answer an IM, and the screen detached and flew across the restaurant. I replied that my screen flew off and that I would have to respond later :)

I resisted buying my own cellphone for a long time as I always worked for companies that provided them for me. Then got a job where they required me to provide my own. My first phone purchase was the first generation SideKick Color, and I loved it! I still have the SideKick II that replaced it (I traded my original one in on it pre-public-release). I still have the external camera that plugged into the SK Color's headphone jack too.

The screen was gimmicky, but oh-so-cool... it got everyone's attention, and allowed me to show people what it could do. Everyone was impressed - until they asked about ringtones. T-Mobile's laser-focus on hip-hop was a real blow there... I'm not into it, nor were any of the people I showed the device to. It really turned people away from it when they realized the target market was teenagers (even though it was an awesome techie's device).

The terminal program was my favorite part (I was a Unix Systems Architect at the time) and it got a great deal of (ssh) use.

I loved reading through the various descriptions of the apps being developed on the developers site (skdr?) and waited so patiently for T-Mobile to give the green light to so many of them (including a super-simple one, the voice-note-recorder), which they never did. I tried to get my own developer status (can't remember the term they used) so I could get a key and load the apps directly onto my device (via usb), but that was shortly after T-Mobile had made the process extremely difficult with huge forms to fill out and some catch-22 requirement that you had to already have a program published to get the dev kit (or something like that). I read a lot of complaints about that.

The best part of the device was the keyboard. It had the best layout and by far the best feel (and spacing) of any phone thumb-keyboard I've used since. Better than the Nokia N800 (NIT, not phone), better than the original Android G1, even better than the N900. It's the only thumb-keyboard I ever used that I could type on without looking at the keyboard, and quickly... far more quickly than anything remotely similar that I've tried.

After they cut the service, I used mine as a dumb-phone for a while until the microphone finally stopped working. That forced me to finally get a replacement (my N900).

One thing that's pretty impressive about the SideKick II... mine is still running (never been rebooted) since before T-mobile cut the service! I've had it plugged in the entire time for fear that if the battery dies, it will lose the games and programs I have installed (it acted sort-of as a thin client and downloaded all apps you had allocated upon powerup).

Pretty darned amazing uptime, considering what it was. :)

I used to create games for the HipTop, and was invited to those "Danger Developer Days". Really nice people to work with.

Very nice story! Imagine that around the same time, in a parallel universe, Nokia was making the 9210 and 7650 smartphones with similar capabilities. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nokia_9210_Communicator

He didn't mention the coolest bit, which was the crazy fliparound screen. Best nervous tic screen ever.

I loved the HipTop. It really was one of the first "smart" phones on the US market. The article's claim "we all started microblogging/lifestreaming" needs a little context as it claims credit that I feel belongs to someone else...

While Danger had a very basic implementation running internally (pretty cool, see [1]), they surely didn't have a clue of the potential/value of lifestreaming/public status updates.

Neither did I. As an initial beta-tester in May/June of 2002 I too had developed a HipTop mobile blogging site for private use (CF/SQL/Email, mostly cat and food shots!) -- demoed it to Om Malik who introduced me to T-Mobile -- but it was really Mike Popovic's HipTopNation [2], the first communal moblog launched on Oct. 4th 2002 and his Oct. 31 Halloween Photo Scavenger Hunt that sparked the popularity and showed the potential.

After HipTopNation quickly gained traction [3] with 1000+ mobloggers, Danger decided to launch a "hiplog" service/site to consumers on Jan 13, 2003 [4]. Joi Ito has a nice timeline [5]

[1] https://web.archive.org/web/20041205233554/http://www.spies....

[2] http://hiptop.bedope.com/index.php?FILTER=zvxr@gevny.qnatre....

[3] https://web.archive.org/web/20050915215559/http://www.guardi...

[4] http://joi.ito.com/weblog/2003/01/13/danger-announce.html

[5] http://archive.today/e4Ie#selection-685.35-685.47

The best part of the hiptop IMO, was the development community. It was ultra tight knit and accepting of newbs. I have many fond memories of side loading apps from skdr.net and eventually reaching the point of uploading my own creations.

I miss the Danger developer community every single day. A finer bunch of people (in general, there were exceptions... :-) I've never known.

Great read! The cloud services on the Sidekick worked so well that T-Mobile would routinely tell customers to hard reset the phone when even a minor issue occurred.

That was all great until a storage area network upgrade failed and destroyed all data for many customers. When those phones stopped synchronizing, T-Mobile recommended a hard reset. That meant the data was gone forever.


I remember that day with sadness, and still miss my sidekick five years later because it did so many things right. I was on BART to visit some friends, lost signal, and did what I normally did when things acted up and reset my phone...only to come back to having lost all my contacts, my emails, everything. It was very frustrating to say the least.

Having spent 3 years from 2008-2011 biking by the Danger building every day on my way to work in Palo Alto (until one day it unceremoniously changed to Microsoft), but only being vaguely aware of the Sidekick this was quite interesting.

The main problem I had with my Sidekick was T-mobile's crummy coverage, even in the middle of silicon valley. I could endure the slow performance, but the coverage was so spotty in 2004 that I stopped hauling the damn thing around.

I had the opposite issue. T-Mobile coverage in my city in Scotland was great at the time (aside: it was also marketed as the T-Mobile Sidekick here, not the Danger Hiptop).

My real issue was that we missed out on a lot of the value added features that US customers got. Our app store was pretty sparse, software updates came many (many) months after US customers, and since so much data was proxied through Danger in the US we had many additional points of failure.

I vaguely remember griping about not being able to get a direct net connection during a period of transatlantic network instability. It was a bit like BIS (Blackberry Internet Service) in this regard.

I also remember the spate of high profile celebrity account hacks at the time. I think the always-on sync feature really was revolutionary but it did highlight the risk of sharing everything, all the time, with a service provider.

That said, the device was really ahead of its time. In the UK, BIS Blackberry devices were very uncommon. Sure, we had things like the Sony P800 [1] but the push service, IM functionality and world-class hardware keyboard of the Hiptop were unparalleled. And it's difficult to underestimate the utility of the RGB LED and the ability to set the notification color depending on device events.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sony_Ericsson_P800

One more random and offtopic question: there was a tv show centering around handheld computers like epson hx20s back in 80s. actors are somehow fighting with bad guys using those devices. Does anyone remember such a show?

I've yet to see a mobile SSH client that's as usable as Terminal Monkey.

I will take to my grave the "true" amount of actual live shipping code that I have written via Terminal Monkey.

Some more history on wikipedia:


I always wanted a Hiptop but they never really seemed to show up in the UK. Great bit of technology history to read over though.

I never saw these devices. Did they make it to Europe?

Awesome read, thanks.

I had a Sidekick Color and a Sidekick II. I also carried a Moto RAZR while I was in high school.

The sidekick was a phenomenal device. Battery lasted all day -- I could text and had unlimited data over GPRS (maybe EDGE?) - and I was one of the only students who could Google and read in class. I browsed forums, looked up answers, even started essays on that keyboard.

You had a persistent AIM -- and the interface was prettier and more fluid than Android (up to the latest release).

What a delight that device was.

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