Did Apple Drop The Ball on The First Smartphone?

Apple and innovation are now synonymous with one another. But did Apple miss an opportunity two decades ago to become a true innovator in the mobile space?

That’s what many are endeavoring to surmise from the revelations late last week by a man who worked closely with Apple during, before, and after the formative iDevice years.

Meet Paul Jacobs. Paul is not only the CEO of Qualcomm, he’s also the tech trendsetter who pitched a certain homerun of an idea to Apple in the early 90’s. But Apple didn’t score. In fact, Apple didn’t even swing.

Dropping the whole story on PBS with Charlie Rose, Paul Jacobs says he gave Steve Jobs and company the idea for what could have become the first smartphone by modern standards. The Qualcomm boss said he presented to Apple the possibility of delivering Qualcomm’s radio technology to the Newton PDA.

When Apple declined, Jacobs re-routed his ingenuity train to the tracks running straight into Palm, where the idea was embraced. And that began negotiations to put Palm’s operating system in a Qualcomm-powered smartphone.

It would be years before Apple would finally venture into the smartphone arena. And those in need of a history lesson may not realize that the iPhone was not Apple’s inaugural smartphone enterprise.

In a late 2011 post-mortem retrospective on Steve Jobs’ “failures” in life, AP Technology writer Peter Svensson proposed that the world has forgotten about some of Jobs’ biggest missteps. 2005’s iTunes phone – a precursor to 2007’s first generation iPhone – is one primary example.

“It’s easy to forget that the iPhone wasn’t Apple’s first venture into the cellphone business,” Svensson recalled. “It formed a partnership with Motorola Inc. to launch the ROKR in late 2005. As a phone, it was decent if unexciting, but as a music player, it fell far short of the iPod. It could only hold 100 songs, and transferring them from the computer was a slow process. It was also criticized for not allowing users to download music over the cellular network, a limitation that also applied to the first iPhone. Some even called the ROKR ‘the iPhone.’”

The iTunes Phone was forgotten in a flash. Similarly, few people today remember the Qualcomm PDQ. But the device is considered by many to be the first true smartphone, since it fused a mobile, app-centric operating system with cellular hardware.

Jacobs made this revelation just days before replacing Microsoft chief Steve Ballmer as the keynote speaker for CES 2013, which kicks off this week in Las Vegas. It goes without saying that Jacobs is getting some major tech props in the wake of posturing himself as the guy who almost talked Apple into the first smartphone.

At the end of the day, the admission by Jacobs might actually say more about Steve Jobs and Apple than Qualcomm or the smartphone industry at large. For some, it’s an indication that Apple hasn’t been as farsighted and borderline prescient as the company would like for us to think. In fact, the “dropped ball” on the Qualcomm smartphone opportunity, critics say, is a convincing contradiction of the image of Steve Jobs as an innovator who didn’t wait for the masses to demand change. He supposedly focused on the products and technologies that he perceived to be in need of reworking, reinventing, and reintroduction. The repeated determination to never wait for the “right time” is, without question, one of the hallmarks of Steve Jobs’ career and one of the most educational cornerstones of his legacy. So does the admission by Jacobs change your view of Apple and its status as the preeminent innovation hub of modern times?

It’s a big question that no shortage of industry professionals and mobile tech junkies will be debating this week as CES 2013 gets underway.

Your two cents, please.