30 years of QNX: QNX dips finger into handheld market

Now here’s something that even longtime QNX employees have forgotten about: QNX Software Systems’ first foray into the world of handheld devices.

Back in the late 1990s, QNX and AMD up teamed to create a preintegrated reference platform for mobile and handheld developers. For its part, QNX provided the QNX In-Hand Toolkit, which included the QNX RTOS, the Photon microGUI windowing system, an HTML 3.2 web browser, an email client, and a personal information manager. On the hardware side, AMD provided the uforCE demonstration system, which sported an √ČlanSC400 processor, 4M of flash memory, 16M of DRAM, a 64-key matrix keyboard, and a 480x320 resistive LCD display.

Here’s a photo of the system, running a QNX web browser:

Click to enlarge.

The QNX developers working to this project were asked to build the same level of functionality found in Windows CE palmtops. They met the goal in only 4 weeks, using applications that QNX had already developed. The work consisted mainly of fitting the applications — browser, email, games, etc. — into the four-color 480x320 display. Everything else was off-the-shelf. Amazingly, the developers were able to fit the entire software stack, including OS, GUI, and browser, into the board's 4M of flash.

Here’s a screen capture of the user interface:

Click to enlarge.

Despite the goal of matching Windows CE functionality, QNX Software Systems wasn’t trying to target PDAs, mobile phones, or other consumer-class devices. Rather, it had its sights set on industrial-strength mobile systems. Allow me to quote from a whitepaper that QNX published back in the day:

Mention “handheld computer” and many people immediately think of consumer devices like WinCE-based PDAs and Palm Pilot organizers. But a host of vertical markets also exist for handheld computers (HHCs). Stores, factories, warehouses, and hospitals are all looking to HHCs to increase productivity, streamline operations, and speed up access to information.

In these environments, the HHC must offer functionality — and a level of reliability — that extends far beyond the scope of a personal organizer. For example, a vertical-market HHC may include components like:
  • transducers to measure physical quantities like temperature, pressure, and heart rhythm
  • barcode scanners (e.g. for parcel tracking at courier companies and stock monitoring at supermarkets)
  • printers for on-the-spot rental car receipts
The OS architecture for such an HHC must ease the integration of custom components, and do so without sacrificing reliability...

It was some years before QNX scored a major win in the handheld market. But when it came, it definitely fell into the reliable category: military radios from Harris.

These radios include the Harris Falcon III AN/PRC-152(C), hailed by the U.S. army as "one of the greatest inventions of 2007." The AN/PRC-152(C) was also the first the first NSA- and SCA-certified software defined radio (SDR).

For the QNX press release on the Harris Falcon radios, click here.

POSTSCRIPT: After writing this post, I remembered that the Harris radios weren't the only notable handheld win for QNX. It was also chosen for high-end universal remotes from Logitech. Like this one:


Linda Campbell said...

Hey Paul - do you remember what we called the software kit that shipped with the AMD microforce board? Times up. We called it QNX-in-hand. Could have been worse had we relied on our fallback naming convention of adding the Q as a prefix...



Paul N. Leroux said...

Actually, I mentioned the kit's name in the post. You *did* read the post, didn't you? ;-)

I hear you about the Q. And just imagine if we used the Ph convention (as in Photon, Phrelay, Phditto, etc). We would have ended up with the PhinHand toolkit!

Anton Smirnov said...

I just came across one of these. It still works, though the screen is very hard to see.

It's a cool little device, too bad QNX never got into the PDA market.

Paul N. Leroux said...

Wow, Anton, there can't be many of these devices left. I'm guessing we still have one in the QNX archives, but I haven't seen it in a long time.

Is the screen hard to see because of its size, or because it has deteriorated over time?

- Paul

Anton Smirnov said...

the screen is very dark - you can see it if you hold the device at the right angle. I think it's a bad connection problem, though - it flickers to normal sometimes

it's a cool device, but I have no use for it, so I have just put it up on eBay

Paul N. Leroux said...

Well, Anton, that's probably better than throwing it away. At least, someone can now experiment with it -- or, more likely, add it to the collection of their hi-tech museum. :-)

AaronB said...

Well, as the person who bought it off Anton on ebay, I can concur that the screen is rather dark, but it's working at least.

It's not going into a museum, I've got something else in mind for it.

Now I have to ask, is there any system documentation on these? I found the uforce 2.0 manual and schematic at AMD, but as for anything else...

Paul N. Leroux said...

Hi Aaron. I know someone who *might* have documentation for the uforce board. Let me check; will post something here if I find out.

Paul N. Leroux said...

Aaron, I checked with my colleague re system documentation, but no luck. Please let me know if you ever find any.


- Paul