The Tapwave Zodiac: The 2000s' Amibitous and Forgotten PDA

Alexander Laine | April 16th 2019

Tapwave Zodiac

The Tapwave Zodiac wasn't a bad PDA, but it wasn't great either.

In 2001, several executives from Palm (the creators of the eponymous Palm Pilot) left the company to found a new corporation, Tapwave. Tapwave’s mission was to create a multimedia mobile device that would combine the functionality of a modern PDA with the graphical prowess of a modern games systems. Tapwave saw Nintendo’s Game Boy Advance as childish and embarrassing to use for adults, and therefore there was a significant untapped market for adult, professional users to game on a handheld device.

The thinking wasn’t really a bad one, as mobile gaming was beginning to expand in the early part of the decade. PDAs with more advanced graphical capabilities were emerging, early smartphones from Palm and Blackberry were being released, and around the same time as Tapwave conceived the Zodiac project Nokia announced their N-Gage mobile handheld console, which promised a similar experience to the Tapwave Zodiac.

The Zodiac ran Palm OS on RISC architecture, running off of a Motorola i.MX1 ARM9 processor with 10MB of DynamicRAM. The Zodiac launched with 32MB or 128MB models. Initial releases connected to the internet through a modem adapter or infrared BluRay connections; later releases incorporated built-in Wi-Fi. The machine is charmingly a product of its time, with a tiny screen accommodating its 480x320 16-bit VGA graphics and a bevelled, bulky design reminiscent of also-ran PDAs of the era.

The Zodiac launched in 2003 with three games marketed toward adults and older teens as their launch titles: Duke Nukem Mobile, and ports of Doom II and Tony Hawk Pro Skater 4. Not a bad starting lineup, save one problem: the ports of Doom II and Tony Hawk were available on the GBA already, and Duke Nukem had likewise seen a handheld release on the GBA. Despite some’s perception of the GBA as childish, it had already made significant inroads into the adult gamer market.

To compound these issues, Nokia’s N-Gage had launched the previous year and had essentially beaten Tapwave to the market they’d craved. In 2004, Nintendo further embarrassed Tapwave with the release of their wildly successful DS, and 2005 saw Sony’s PSP on the horizon.

By summer of 2005, Tapwave tapped out. With less than a quarter million units sold, Tapwave ceased support for the product and sold all remaining stock to an unknown East Asian conglomerate.

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