A Letter from our CEO on Socket Mobile's 30th Anniversary

November 10, 2022 by Kevin Mills | BLOG

It's been 30 years, yet feels like 30 minutes. Socket Mobile's long and winding road has been filled with lots of fun, thrills, spills, and some "near-death" experiences… a true roller coaster.

So, why are we still going strong when so many others have disappeared? The answer lies within the following four areas: we have always been focused on mobile workers, we are technology agnostic, we are adaptable, and we love what we do.

Socket Mobile's focus has always been on mobile or remote working. However, that meaning has changed dramatically over the past 30 years.

In the early nineties, remote work meant that a pager was the only reliable way to receive a message when out of the office. (Mobile phones didn't yet exist back then.) That system didn't support reply messages, which meant you needed another way to send a message back. Notebook computers, which had gone from 18 lbs. suitcases to 5 lbs luggables, were now considered "mobile," so Socket Communications* created a Wireless Messaging Service to solve the two-way communication issue. We had customers like Apple, GTE Wireless, and Dell and with the strength of those customers, we went public. It all worked and was successfully used by thousands, but the audience was too small to support the business. To our dismay, we discovered that notebooks were not mobile devices but rather transportable devices.

Our wireless messaging solution was adopted by the then "state of the art" mobile workers using handheld devices, like the HP LX, Apple Newton, Sharp Zaurus…. a long list of proprietary devices and operating systems. We focused on the Newton and worked on a program called "Nurses with Newton" until Steve Jobs returned to Apple and killed it. Along with our potential audience.

It was clear, however, that there was a strong demand for mobile devices, and companies like Palm were all the rage with their small organizer. Palm was a closed system, so there was no opportunity for a company like Socket Communications to play in, so we had our first "near-death" experience. Microsoft asked us to consult on a new mobile operating system called Windows CE.

Out of this project, Socket Communications proposed the new Compact Flash Standard so that a wireless messaging card could be added to these devices, and wireless messages could be received over the new paging system. Very similar to Blackberry. We signed an agreement with Motorola to license the core technology and worked with HP and HTC to get everything working. The system was announced by Motorola's CEO Chris Galvin and Bill Gates at Comdex, and everything looked rosy until Motorola decided to exit the scanning business and killed the project!

As a result of this project, we invented the Compact Flash standard, which was now supported by a new crop of Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) led by HP, Dell, Philips, and Acer. Yet again, we had an audience of mobile workers who needed accessory products. Our tagline line in 1999 was "Business Mobility Now!" Based on the new Compact Flash (CF) expansion slot, we started to add communications and productivity accessories. This started with our Lower Power Ethernet card, Serial cards, and CF barcode scanners. We delivered the first CF Bluetooth cards and demonstrated the first Bluetooth connection between computers at CeBIT in Feb 1999.

Our Bluetooth card was demoed on stage at the launch of Microsoft's Pocket PC 2000 at Grand Central station in NYC. We were back with a new audience of mobile workers who needed accessories. From 2000 to 2006, we added CF cards like Modem and Wireless Lan and became the largest provider of CF I/O cards, reaching upward to 200K units per year. We also added Secure Digital (SD) I/O cards, another new I/O standard we proposed, as SD superseded the CF cards in a number of products. Life was good, exciting, and fun. 😊

Then the iPhone launched in 2006, killing the PDA business overnight. The iPhone did not support any peripherals, and we were back in serious trouble!

We entered discussions with Dell to acquire their Dell Axim PDA business. Once the lawyers got involved, it was clear the deal wouldn't happen, so we developed our own PDA. Our PDA, SoMo 650, for the many customers who were using our peripherals with PDAs to support their mobile workers. We did well and grew the business until 2010, but it was clear then that the audience was shrinking, the technical barriers were increasing, and again we were back in trouble.

In 2010, Apple launched the iPad, which did not support any peripherals except a keyboard. We decided to make our cordless Bluetooth scanner emulate a keyboard so people could scan barcodes. Based on initial interest, we decided to get our scanners Apple certified and provide developers with an SDK. This was in 2012, but again, we found ourselves in financial difficulty.

Starting in late 2012, lots of newly funded mPOS  App providers like Square, Shopify, Vend, and Lightspeed started to integrate our SDK into their mPOS apps. They were all small companies at the time, with some with as few as three employees. But once their Apps started to sell and gain market acceptance, they drove sales of our scanner. Again, we had a mobile audience, and our focus remained on the mobile worker. We designed our 7Ci barcode scanner to be used "while walking or standing" and our mPOS success was driven by first mover advantage and the requirement for the worker to be "mobile" around a stationary mPOS device.

Today, mobile is everywhere, and this is why our audience continues to grow.

As you can see, we are a technology company. We are not tied to a specific technology, always happy to provide the tools that make the worker more productive. Over the years, we have delivered a number of new-to-world products, such as the world's first Ethernet PCMCIA card in 1992, the world's first GPS PCMCIA product in conjunction with Trimble Navigation in 1993, and we developed a Paging product in 1994 in conjunction with Oi Denki. In 1997 we proposed the CF I/O standard, did the first Bluetooth card in 1999, and provided modem, serial cards, barcode scanners, and wireless LAN cards. Socket Mobile is not married to any technology and is willing and able to partner with large companies to provide solutions. This is unusual, as most tech companies stick to one technology and live or die on its success. Socket Mobile is really a technology aggregator, which allows us to transition as technology evolves.

We continue to be adaptable, not just from a technological point of view but also from a business model and organizational standpoint. This has allowed us to change along the way and stay at the forefront of remote work capabilities.

The path to where we are today has been difficult. We have had to make sacrifices, ask people to leave, or reduce salaries. At all times, we did so with honesty, integrity, and with respect to our diligent teams, which we believe held us together through some challenging times.

But best of all, we love what we do. Even though we did not enjoy commercial success in all of our endeavors, they have all been exciting and motivating. Creating new technology that changes how people work and enjoy life is exciting. In addition, the opportunity to work with a lot of highly motivated people is an experience of a lifetime.

The first week I joined Socket, I was asked by the founder's brother how long I intended to stay. I said, "I'll stay until the laughter stops." Thankfully it hasn't, and I'm still here.

As we sit here at our 30th Anniversary, it is strange to say things have never looked better or been more exciting. We have a large audience that is only likely to grow larger as the world goes fully mobile.

We have ways to get our products into the hands of mobile workers in conjunction with our many Application partners so that they can be truly productive. We continue to be exposed to new and exciting technologies, like NFC, which is driving the mobile Driver's License initiative and changing the way mobile wallets are used in everyday lives. More than anything else, what we do is still fun and exciting, which motivates us to keep moving forward.

When I was 16 years old, I took up photography as a sideline. I would go into my dark room at about 11pm and work until early morning. I remember my father's note on the door, "Kevin, a late developer." It seems like I might have brought this to Socket Mobile. Things are truly developing well here, and long may it continue.

To your success and to ours,

Kevin Mills
CEO

Kevin Mills

*In 2005, Socket Communications became Socket Mobile.