OBSOLETE TECHNOLOGY: IrDA

Sometimes a technology is so obsolete that it’s hard to remember it ever existed. That’s the case for IrDA, which was once commonly found in laptops, printers, and primitive mobile equipment.

Here’s one you haven’t seen in a while

This LaserJet 2100 was found in tens of thousands of offices in the early 2000s. It was a solidly built, if utterly boring, network printer. This was back in the days that everyone printed everything. People printed emails forgoshsake. This was a workhorse in one office I was in back almost 20 years ago and if you were kicking around back in those days you probably had one nearby.

You see that big, black, inexplicable, 90s looking shape near the bottom right? It was the IrDA port. Even if you had one of these printers, I guarantee you never used it.

IrDA tried to be Bluetooth before Bluetooth was Bluetooth

Here was the basic idea of IrDA. You had a mobile… thing. A laptop, a PDA, whatever. You wanted to use it to communicate. Remember in the late 1990s there was no Wi-Fi. There was no AirPrint. Plug-and-play was in its infancy. If you wanted to print something you had to connect to a wired network, do all sorts of mucking about with settings, install drivers, and then maybe if you were lucky it worked.

If you had one of these:

…matters got worse. Believe it or not, this was high-tech around the turn of the millennium. It kept your calendar, contacts, and notes, played games and even played music. But it couldn’t connect to the internet and it couldn’t print. If you wanted to print something you connected it with a cable to a computer, synced it up, then printed it.

Yes the early 2000s were a drag. You’ve just forgotten.

IrDA tried to fix that. IrDA transmitters and receivers were basically the sorts of things you found in remote controls. They were cheap to build into electronics. If you pointed your IrDA-equipped device super-carefully at another IrDA-equipped device, and ran special software, you had a reasonably decent chance of communicating within a minute or two.

Believe it or not that sounded like a good deal. However, it wasn’t easy to do. People wanted easy, and this… wasn’t it. Luckily by the late-2000s, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, along with smartphones, rescued us from this absurdity. IrDA went away, mostly forgotten a generation after it came on the scene.

The slow death of IrDA

Believe it or not, IrDA was built into devices long after it was forgotten. It was cheap to put in, and it allowed manufacturers like HP to say their printers worked with mobile devices.

By about 2005, though, the writing was on the wall. IrDA was history. But, it was cool, for a very short time. I want to share one more image with you.

Possibly the only cool thing you could do with IrDA

Back in the early days of mobile devices, I had this foldable keyboard. It actually gave a full laptop keyboard experience to many PDAs, turning them into mini-laptops. (Remember that laptops themselves weren’t super great back then.) The keyboard folded like this:

and ended up being about the same size as the PDA itself. A very cool trick at the time. Of course today, Bluetooth keyboards are common, and phone keyboards are very easy to use. But thanks to IrDA and its one useful accessory, it was still possible to be productive in the days when you needed a bag full of gear just to get around.