It sounds like a ludicrous idea. A mobile device capable of only email, released just a year after the game-changing first generation iPhone. It seems silly now, but when the Peek debuted in 2008, it delivered something smartphones couldn’t. At 1/6th price of the iPhone, the Peek provided an affordable way to get email on the go. For a few years, it was one of the most useful gadgets I brought with me when visiting the United States from Canada.
Steve Jobs revealed the original iPhone in early January of 2007. As a mobile device it was revolutionary, turning smartphones into more than just communication tools, but also media consumption devices with full access to websites and video streaming services like YouTube. Peek, the company, was founded in the same year by former employees of Virgin Mobile and revealed its own mobile device in 2008. The iPhone was heralded for all it could do; the Peek for what it couldn’t.
The Peek lacked a camera, a web browser, a video player, a photo viewer, and even basic phone functionality. It was an email-only device reminiscent of the Blackberry (that was in the process of slowly being killed off by smartphones), but with even less capabilities. You couldn’t call anyone on the Peek, nor could you check your calendar, but you could use it with just one hand thanks to a thumb-activated scroll wheel on the side. After just over a year with the iPhone, users began to realise that smartphones had become a time-consuming distraction. (It would only get worse.) The Peek promised to let users focus on one thing: clearing their inbox, sans endless social media notifications and a constant onslaught of texts.
The other big advantage the Peek offered over a smartphone was that it was much cheaper. The original iPhone also ushered in new era of ultra-expensive mobile devices with a price tag that started at $US500 (A$688). It flaunted a fancy, large glass touchscreen that was very likely to shatter should you drop the device. The Peek, instead, had just a basic colour LCD screen. Though you could touch it as much as you wanted, it would completely ignore your finger taps. The device was exclusively operated through its scroll wheel, buttons, and a clicky QWERTY keypad. As a result it sold for just $US80 (A$110). Even adjusting for inflation that would put the original price tag at just over $US100 (A$137) if sold today.
When the Peek was released 13 years ago, it was generally well received. Time magazine even named it one of the “50 Best Inventions of the Year,” calling it “a smart, handy tool.” For me, the Peek’s most appealing quality wasn’t the cost or simplicity. I was actually a happy user of the original iPhone (even if I had to jump through hoops to make it work in Canada) but at the time, where I lived, data rates where incredibly pricy for measly amounts of mobile data. If you dared to even think of trying to use your smartphone when visiting another country, it would cost you a fortune. That meant my iPhone was all but useless when I was in the United States covering trade shows like CES on a budget. It remained tucked away in a pocket, emerging only occasionally to take advantage of a rare wifi hotspot. When in the land of the free and home of the brave, the Peek was my handy travel buddy. (It did not work in Canada though.)
Not only was the Peek hardware very affordable, the company also charged just $US20 (A$27) per month for unlimited email access. It might not have been the deal of the century for Americans as far as mobile data plans went in 2008, but for a Canadian visiting the United States several times a year, having full access to my email without having to worry about being charged a premium for going over roaming data limits, the Peek was the perfect solution. Even basic texting was very expensive whenever I crossed the border, so my fellow Canadians and I, with Peeks in hand, would handle all of our CES communications and last minute planning through long email chains. It was a little clunky, but it worked and didn’t break the bank.
So why didn’t we see a Peek 12 debut this year alongside the iPhone 13 fanfare? The original Peek was followed by the Peek Pronto in 2009 which offered upgraded email features like support for Microsoft Exchange and the ability to open more types of attachments. Like the original, it enjoyed favourable coverage. But later the same year, Peek also released the TwitterPeek, the world’s first Twitter-only mobile device, which immediately earned a place on our own “The 50 Worst Gadgets of the Decade” ranking as “the most useless gadget ever.” It turns out people hated Twitter in 2009 too and the thought of paying a monthly fee for it was just as unappealing as it is today.
A year later in 2010, the Peek 9 made its debut. It felt like the antithesis of the company’s first mobile device. It had maps, weather, RSS, and access to Twitter, Facebook, and email through a monthly service plan that was as cheap as $US10 ($14) if users were willing to lock in for two years. As the Peek’s capabilities grew, the cost of mobile data plans for smartphones was shrinking, and as they became cheaper to own and use, the appeal of the Peek gradually waned. The company disconnected its older hardware from its network in 2010, replacing active users’ devices with the newer Peek 9, whether they liked it or not. By early 2012, the company completely transitioned away from its mobile devices in favour of offering only cloud solution services. Every last Peek was deactivated.
As Android and other smartphone platforms arrived to compete with the iPhone, consumers were given more choice, and it forced carriers to offer more competitive mobile plans as a result. The situation was no different here in Canada, and while I envy what my American co-workers pay to use their smartphones today, it now costs me next to nothing to use my iPhone when crossing the border. So as much as I miss it, I’m also glad I can leave my Peek at the bottom of my abandoned (but not forgotten) gadgets drawer.