Throwback gadget: Danger Hiptop

Years ago I read an article which talked about the collective memory of London’s financial district being about eight years or so. Financiers with beautifully crafted models in Excel would be doomed to make the same mistake as their predecessors.
Marketers make the same mistakes, not being able to draw on the lines of universal human behaviour when it meets technology. Today’s obsession with the ‘dark social’ of OTT messaging platforms is very reminiscent of the culture that grew up around the Danger Hiptop. The  Hiptop drove a use of instant messaging platforms (Yahoo!, Aol and MSN) in a similar way to today’s use of Kik, Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp by young people.


Danger was started back in 1999, by veterans from Apple, Philips and WebTV.

Back then mobile data was very primitive, email was slow and the only people I knew who used mobile phones on a regular basis were press photographers, sending images back from early digital SLRs using a laptop connected up to their phone. At this time it was still sometimes easier to bike images over. 3G wireless was on the horizon, but there wasn’t a clear use case.

Apple was not the force it is now, but recovering from a near death experience. The iMac, blue and white G3 tower units and ‘Wall Street’ laptops reignited belief in core customers. Mac OSX Server 1.0 was released in March that year and pointed to the potential that future Macs would have.

WebTV at the time was a company that felt like it was at the apex of things. Before the internet took off, companies like Oracle and BT had tried providing interactive TV services including CD ROM type experiences and e-commerce in a walled garden environment. This was based on having a thin client connected to a TV as monitor. WebTV took that idea and built upon the internet of the mid-1990s. It wasn’t appreciated how commoditised the PC market would become over time. They were acquired by Microsoft in 1997,  later that year they would also buy Hotmail.

At the time, Philips was a force to be reckoned with in consumer electronics and product design. The company had a diverse portfolio of products and a reputation for unrewarded innovation including the compact cassette, interactive CD media and audio compact discs. Philips was the company that the Japanese wanted to beat and Samsung still made third-rate televisions.

Some of them were veterans of a failed start-up called General Magic that had spun out of Apple. A technology super-team of engineers and developers came up with a wireless communicator device that failed in the market place.  It’s name became a byword for a failed start-up years later.  Talent was no predictor of success. General Magic was the silicon valley equivalent of Manchester United getting relegated and going bankrupt in a single season. So it is understandable that they may have been leery of making yet another wireless device.

The device

The Hiptop was unapologetically a data first device. It was a thick device with a sliding screen which revealed a full keyboard and four-way directional button to move the cursor. On later devices this became a trackball. The screen was a then giant 240 x 160 pixels in size. It became available in colour during the device’s second iteration, later devices had a screen that was 854 pixels wide.

I was large enough provide a half decent browsing experience, read and write messages and email. It was held in landscape arrangement and the chunky frame worked well in a two handed hold not that different from a games console controller, with thumb based typing which worked better than the BlackBerry keyboard for me.  Early devices allowed you to move around the screen with four-way rocker switch. Later devices had a trackball. This keyboard rather than touchscreen orientation made sense for two reasons:

  • Touchscreen were much less responsive than they are now
  • It enabled quick fire communication in comparison to today’s virtual smartphone keyboard

Once the device went colour it also started to have LEDs that lit up for ringing and notifications, providing the kind of visual cues enjoyed by Palm and BlackBerry owners.

The Hiptop had a small (even by Symbian standards) amount of apps, but these were held in an app store. At the time, Symbian had signed apps as a precaution against malware, but you would usually download the apps from the maker’s website or the likes of or TUCOWS and then side load on to the device from a Mac or PC.

The Hiptop didn’t need the mediation of a computer, in this respect it mirrored the smartphones of today.

Product life

When Danger was launched in 2002, carriers had much more sway over consumers. The user experience of devices was largely governed by carriers who usually made a mess of it. They decided what the default applications on a device and even the colour scheme of the default appearance theme.

Danger’s slow rise to popularity was because it had a limited amount of channels per market. In the UK it was only available via T-Mobile (now EE).

In the US, the Hiptop became a cult item primarily because IM had grown in the US in a similar way to SMS usage in Europe.

Many carriers viewed Hiptop as a competitor to BlackBerry and refused to carry it in case it would cannibalise sales.

Danger was acquired in 2008 and that is pretty much when the death of the Hiptop set in as Microsoft acquired the team to build something different. An incident with the Danger data centres losing consumers data and taking two months to restore full service from a month-old back-up didn’t help things. It was a forewarning of how dependent on cloud services that users would become.

Danger held much user data and functionality in the cloud, at the time it made sense as it kept the hardware cheaper. Danger devices came with a maximum of 2GB internal memory.

Even if Microsoft hadn’t acquired Danger it would have been challenged by the rise of both Android and iOS. Social platforms like Facebook would have offered both an opportunity and a challenge to existing messenger relationships. Finally the commoditisation of hardware would have made it harder for the Hiptop to differentiate on value for its millennial target market.