What is this Psion Organiser II?
Arguably the first pocket computer that wasn't just a glorified programming calculator. It was made in the UK and sold in mainstream high street shops and department stores. Plenty of programs ('apps') were available and - crucially - it was marketed as a 'lifestyle accessory' rather than a computing tool thanks to its built-in diary, alarm clock, calculator and information database. In spirit, I'd say the Organiser II was the first smartphone - though of course it did not have a mobile phone built in! (A plug-in pager was developed though...)
It was launched in 1986, at which time it was truly a cutting-edge device. It dominated its market for a good few years. However, by the turn of the nineties sleeker and shinier competing machines from the likes of Casio and Sharp were starting to enter the UK market, and from then on the Organiser II's days were numbered. It was effectively replaced in the shops by the slimmer and more capable (but more boring) Psion Series 3 in late 1991, which was a more traditional clamshell device with a QWERTY keyboard. The story wasn't quite over though - the Organiser II's durability and versatility meant that it had a remarkable afterlife in industry, and production trickled on until at least 1994. In all, over 700,000 Organiser IIs were sold.
My Organiser II is an XP model with 32 kilobytes of RAM, made in late 1987. At the time, this would have been the top-of-the-range model, available from your nearest Dixons for £139.50 - about £385 at 2019 prices!
So how does this 'getting online' thing work then...
Here's a simple(ish) explanation.
Back in the late '80s, in the days before Bluetooth and WiFi, the only way to move your information between the Organiser and a 'proper' PC (which back then would have had a 25-pin serial port) was via a special device called the Psion Comms Link. The Comms Link was essentially a 25-pin serial cable (plus a bit of software) that plugged into the top of the Organiser.
Fast forward 30+ years to 2019 and the brave new 5G world. 25-pin serial ports have long since vanished from PCs. However, it is still possible to buy a small chip (called an RS232/TTL converter) which essentially adds a 9-pin serial port to a Raspberry Pi. A little modification later, and the 9-pin connector can be substituted for a 25-pin alternative. So essentially my Pi now has a 25-pin serial port...
Boring cable-talk over. What this all means is that I can plug the Comms Link cable into the Raspberry Pi as though it's a 1986 PC. The COMMS software built into the Comms Link includes a terminal emulator, meaning that when everything is wired up I can command a Pi console session using the Organiser's screen and keyboard.
Of course, the Pi is a modern device with WiFi and all that jazz. So it should be possible to do things like reading emails via the Psion.
Has anyone else tried anything similar?
Similar 'retro computer as a serial terminal' projects exist, involving TRS-80s, Apple IIs and even the little Psion Series 5 from the late nineties. I have not seen any Pi-Organiser projects though, unless I've missed something.
Having said that, the idea of the Organiser as a portable 'connected machine' goes back over 30 years! I have read articles from old editions of IPSO FACTO - the newsletter of the long-deceased Psion user group - in which authors described reading email on an Organiser II via a Comms Link, a battery-powered modem, and BT's Telecom Gold service - a pioneering 1980s 'dial-up' email system. All you needed for true on-the-go email communication was a phone box and an acoustic coupler, to hook up your modem.
Email in your pocket way back in 1987 - wow!