The history of Danger, a Microsoft acquisition long forgotten

Just a year after Apple introduced the iPhone, the very start of the mobile platform wars, Microsoft announced it had acquired Danger Inc. Six years later today, people barely remember the acquisition much less the brand and technology that came with it.

Chris DeSalvo, who worked at Danger, later on Google Android, and now at Voxer, wrote up a very insightful blog post on the long and winding history of Danger from the 2000s, when their product was a keyfob with an LCD screen. It’s a great read for anyone interested in the history of mobile platforms.

I came across a website whose purpose was to provide a super detailed list of every handheld computing environment going back to the early 1970’s. It did a great job except for one glaring omission: the first mobile platform that I helped develop. The company was called Danger, the platform was called hiptop, and what follows is an account of our early days, and a list of some of the “modern” technologies we shipped years before you could buy an iOS or Android device.

His back-of-the-napkin math showed that for about the same cost as building out and maintaining this doomed nationwide FM data network we could instead do the R&D on a two-way data device hosted on GSM cellular networks. The data service on those networks was called GPRS, bleeding edge stuff at the time. This was awesome!

Tons of inputs—being power users of our desktop computers we wanted lots of inputs and lots of ways to tie them together to do extra stuff. We had a 1D roller controller that was also the main action button (later replaced with a 2D trackball), a 4-way d-pad (for games and such), three buttons on the corners of the face of the device (menu, jump, cancel). There was also a full QWERTY keyboard with a dedicated number row. You could chord the menu button with keyboard keys to perform menu actions (cut/copy/paste, etc), or with the jump button to quickly switch between apps. We’d later add two top-edge shoulder buttons, an “ok” button, and dedicated buttons for answering and hanging up phone calls. Written out like that it sounds like a lot but you quickly got used to them allowed you to do a lot of complicated actions without ever having to look at the screen.

We did a demo once at a trade show where we had someone in the audience give us a quote. Our presenter typed the quote into a hiptop and then put it on the ground and dropped a bowling ball on it. The hiptop was destroyed. He then removed the SIM card, plugged it into another hiptop, signed into the same account and seconds later there was the Notes app with the quote fully restored. Much applause.

Around 2005 there was a skunkworks project within Danger to merge a color Gameboy with a hip top—we called it G1.

We extracted a Gameboy Advance chipset and built it on to the backside of the hiptop’s main board. We then developed a custom chip that would let us mix the video signals of the Gameboy and the hiptop so that on a per-pixel basis we could decide which to show on the screen. We made hiptop software that would let us start and stop the Gameboy, or play/pause a game, etc. The Gameboy inputs came from the hiptop’s d-pad and four corner buttons.

For a company that has pivoted so many times and came up with the wildest ideas at each turn, it’s kind of no surprise their run (figuratively) ended with the Microsoft Kin.

P.S. The top image comes courtesy of the Microsoft Careers site which still has a reference to “Microsoft Danger Mobile”.

30 insightful thoughts

  1. Hi Long,
    This is truly a great information. I have never heard about Danger being a fundamental start for the ios and android. The example about the data restore is amazing and no wonder people from Danger are involved in the development of ios and Google android.
    Recently MS acquired Nokia and I guess they are targeting something big this time. Considering the situation of Nokia and the technology that they have, I really don’t see it getting anywhere. It would be really difficult to compete the likes of Google and Apple.

    Great information about Danger and developers who worked there.

    Thanks
    Susan

  2. In the US, odds are people won’t recognize the Danger or Hiptop names, as both were overshadowed by the T-Mobile Sidekick branding.

    I owned (and loved) a Sidekick II and Sidekick 3. The devices didn’t do a lot by today’s standards, but what they did do, they did intuitively and extremely well, and they did it with style.

    I may like running Android, but I actually miss my Sidekicks.

  3. Reading the history of Danger does give one a strong sense of how we would recognize certain technology with very different names than we do now. It makes me think of plagiarism, for some reason, and, as a dissertation consultant, I give my pupils tips on how to make old ideas sound new and original in their work. Anyway, this was a rather fun read. Cheers.

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