Few remember the Cybiko. In the year 2000, a Russian company unveiled a very strange looking device, adorned with a comically small keyboard and a retro antenna. They called it a handheld computer, and marketed it towards teens with some of the most insane advertising I’d personally ever seen.
The device was an interesting one, and to describe just how far ahead of its time it really was, it will be useful to draw comparisons against smartphones of today. Like a smartphone, it supported instant messaging, had a collection of downloadable apps that received updates, allowed those apps to communicate with one another (for multiplayer), had a SDK to allow others to develop apps in what they called “CyBasic”, and even received operating system updates! Bearing in mind this was released in 2001, when the most popular phone was likely Nokia 3310 vintage. It even did some interesting stuff around mesh networking that never really worked, due to the relative unpopularity of the Cybiko and the short range of the wireless.
Where this device differs from your average phone though, was its lack of GSM support. Hilariously though, if you purchased a wireless adaptor that would plug into your PC, your Cybiko then could browse the internet via WAP. I wonder how many other devices that didn’t have GSM supported WAP?
The device was loaded with lots of forward thinking functionality. It had an expansion slot into which one could plug extra devices. One such device was an MP3 player, which took compact flash cards, and then allowed apps on the Cybiko to interact with it.
I think its downfall was its extreme focus on releasing hundreds of games for free, rather than releasing a few good quality games and charging for them. It was competing against the already 2 year old Gameboy Color with its monochrome low resolution (and fairly terrible) display. It also had fairly terrible audio too. Whereas the Gameboy was laser focused on playing games, and as such had the controls to match, the Cybiko came with a stylus. The stylus was not for a touch screen however, it was for pressing the ridiculously small keys. As usual, content is king, and the Cybiko game catalogue just didn’t have the content to really ‘sell’ it as a platform.
They did release a follow up product called the Cybiko Xtreme, which featured a much improved operating system, a higher contrast display, generally faster hardware, a much slimmer profile, and a significantly better keyboard, but it was too little too late. The Xtreme failed to address the main problems Cybiko had - the poor quality game catalogue and the low penetration of the device rendering the interesting wireless functionality useless. The Classic unit could be found in retailers for as little as £10, towards the end of its life, along with whatever remained of the Xtreme stock for £30. A far cry from the original asking price for both.
I owned and loved both as a kid, and fondly remember them. Rest in peace, Cybiko!