Palm: I’m ready to wallow now

Note: I’m not going to detail the various different names under which Palm has operated over the years, such as PalmSource, PalmOne, and so on. For the sake of clarity, I’m just referring to all of them as ‘Palm’.

In order to understand Palm, its origins, its history, and its philosophy, you really have to take a close look at just four products: the GRiDPad, the Zoomer, the Pilot 1000, and lastly, the Palm V. Not entirely coincidentally, these four products were all the brainchildren of Jeff Hawkins – founder of Palm.

Let me just throw all the cards on the table so hard they slice it in two: there is no single person who has had a greater and more everlasting impact on the mobile computing industry than Jeff Hawkins. His achievements include the first consumer tablet computer, one of the first PDAs, the first successful PDA, and the first successful smartphone. Not entirely coincidentally, as you read through this chapter, you’ll see that his philosophy on product design bears a striking resemblance to that of another industry heavyweight.

Much of the information in this chapter (specifically that related to Hawkins) comes from the following sources:

All of these are very interesting and quite entertaining. Definitely worth a watch and read.


Jeff Hawkins already had a rather diverse education and employment history before he joined GRiD. After growing up with an adventurous inventor as a father, he earned a B.S. in electrical engineering at Cornell University. With that degree in hand, he was employed by Intel in 1979, where he took on several different roles over the years – among others, he worked on single-board computers and training and teaching others about microprocessor design (including the ambitious but ill-fated Intel 432).

He left Intel behind in 1982 to go work at GRiD, a startup at the time. GRiD had literally just invented the modern laptop, and Hawkins was responsible for putting together the training material for this device. In other words, from relatively early on in his career, he was involved in mobile computing. He also developed GRiDTask, a high-level RAD programming language.

However, his real passion was neuroscience. Before he joined GRiD, Hawkins had already tried to get into MIT with a research proposal concerning a big problem in neuroscience – namely, that despite everything we know about the brain, we don’t really have any idea how it actually works. Hawkins wanted to work on this problem, but MIT basically told him it was a waste of time. He didn’t drop the idea, though, and during his time at GRiD he kept working on the problem in the evenings.

After trying Stanford, which turned him down because they didn’t have any activity in the field he wanted to study, Hawkins ended up at Berkeley, where he was allowed to do an independent study. He took two years off at GRiD, but during those years, he didn’t make the progress he wanted – he started to doubt himself, so he decided to go back to work at GRiD “for a few years”, and maybe he could pick it up later. This was 1988.

It’s during this second stint at GRiD that Hawkins first gave the world a taste of what was to come. During his two years away from GRiD, and as part of his study into neuroscience, he also came into contact with neural networks, a field which spawned a number of companies trying to apply neural networks commercially. One of these companies was Nestor, which had developed a handwriting recognition system based on neural networks. They asked a million dollars for the system – something which surprised Hawkins.

I thought, “What? A million dollars for this thing that I don’t think is even very useful? I can do that.” So I went home that night and created my own handwriting mechanism software. I said, “If they can sell it for a million dollars, I can do it better.” So I did it without using neural networks, using some of the math I was doing for the brain stuff.

He wrote it in one evening, or so the legend goes. This is when the idea for the GRiDPad was born; he took his handwriting recognition engine to GRiD, and told them he wanted to build a tablet, with a stylus and everything. He would be responsible for the entire project – hardware, software, the whole thing. GRiD was a bit nervous about it, according to Hawkins, but they agreed.

And so, in 1989, the GRiDPad saw the light of day. It was the first tablet computer with pen input in a self-contained unit (the Linus Write-Top was released a few years earlier, and was very similar, but consisted of two separate units connected via a cable), and used Hawkins’ handwriting recognition system, then dubbed PalmPrint.

Hardware-wise, it weighed a hefty 2 kilograms, and ran on a Intel 80C86 at 10Mhz. It sported 1MB of RAM, two RAM card expansion slots, and a serial port. The display was a 10″ LCD with 32 grayscales, 80×24 text or 640×400 pixels, and the stylus was attached to the device. It ran MS-DOS 3.3, and was aimed squarely at vertical markets. The United States military and Chrysler supposedly bought quite a few of them, and GRiD claimed that 10000 were sold in 1990 – which is not bad for one of the first products in its category, and cost $2370 a pop.

Regular consumers couldn’t actually buy a GRiDPad – only businesses who needed dozens or more of them were eligible to buy them. Still, those that did use GRiDPads were fascinated by the device, and some of them told Hawkins – why don’t you make a smaller version of this? Something I could carry in my pocket, which holds all my personal stuff, and is a lot cheaper?



Hawkins knew what to do. GRiD wanted him to do it, but he was apprehensive about doing the product at GRiD, because it was an enterprise company, and in his mind, he envisioned the as-of-yet unnamed product as something for ordinary consumers. Hawkins mentioned his product idea to a lot of people, and some of them suggested he start his own company. He was scared about this at first, but after investors started coming to him, basically begging he’d go through with it, he did so. Tandy had acquired GRiD in 1988, and also decided to invest in Hawkins’ new company.

And so, in January 1992, Palm was born.

Still, it wasn’t until March 1996 that the Palm Pilot 1000 – the first Palm Pilot – was launched. What did Palm do in between? Well, Palm contributed to a product that looked a lot like a Palm Pilot in many ways, but was actually a complete and utter disaster. It was a design-by-committee hodgepodge of parts from different companies, neither of which seemed to have a very good idea of what Hawkins was trying to achieve.

This product was the Zoomer. Try to keep up, but the Zoomer consisted of Casio hardware, the GEOS operating system, Palm’s PIM applications and handwriting recognition, and Tandy marketing. According to Hawkins, they couldn’t agree on anything, and nothing got done. Worse yet, in comes Apple, out of nowhere, with the Newton. Apple hyped the Newton and the PDA concept into the stratosphere, and they managed to ship before the Zoomer could. “Everything is falling apart! No matter what happened, we would have failed. The Zoomer was a terrible product,” Hawkins reminisces about those days.

The Zoomer was slow, clunky, and unpleasant to use. There’s a great video on YouTube that shows wait cursors, the clunky handwriting recognition (with a dialog box!), slow redraw, and so on. To be honest, I didn’t think it was as bad as Hawkins describes it in later, more current interviews, but it’s still clear this is miles behind what we came to know from Palm OS.

Hardware-wise, the Zoomer ran on a NEC V20 processor – which was a bit of an oddball to begin with. It sported 1 MB of RAM, a 4MB ROM, a miniature RS-323 port, infrared receiver, and a PCMCIA slot (type 2). It had a 320×256 monochrome LCD, and had a promised battery life of 100 hours on 3 AA batteries. It cost a rather whopping $700.

The Zoomer became a market failure, but in a surprising turn of events, Apple’s involvement in the PDA market was a blessing in disguise for Palm, because the Newton was just as terrible as the Zoomer. Apple hyped the Newton to an insane degree, and Sculley claimed it would reinvent personal computing – this meant Apple got all the press and attention, but when the Newton turned out to be a dud, it also got all the flack.

Palm remained largely under the radar, which gave the company the chance to realign its goals. Nobody wanted to invest in the PDA category anymore, no company wanted to devote resources to it, which turned out to be another blessing in disguise: it meant Palm had to do everything on its own – software and hardware.

While the Zoomer was a failure, it taught Palm and Hawkins a number of very valuable lessons, and because of those lessons, it was still a very important product in Palm’s – and therefore the mobile industry’s – history. First and foremost, Hawkins realised that in order for a consumer product to work, you had to do both the software and the hardware (as Alan Kay already noted).

Secondly, the failure of the Zoomer prompted Palm to do something no other company in the industry had yet done: instead of guessing what consumers wanted, why don’t we just ask them? After talking to consumers, Palm came to a rather crucial realisation. Hawkins summed the survey responses up as follows:

I don’t want a complex thing. I was just trying to figure out a way to get my life organized. Today I use paper, and I’m always trying to coordinate with my assistant. And we can never keep calendars. We’re always printing things out. I’m just trying to get my life organized. All I really care about is calendars and address book and trying to coordinate with my secretary. All this other stuff? I don’t need all this other stuff. Just solve my basic organizational problem.

Palm realised that they didn’t need to revolutionise computing. They weren’t competing with computers, but with paper. They also learned that synchronisation should be a core part of the product – keeping things organised – and that it should be simple and straightforward.

With the blessing of Palm’s board, and the realisations from the survey in hand, Hawkins set to work. In one evening, he created a wooden model of what would become the Palm Pilot and its cradle.

Palm Pilot

After the failure of the Newton and the Zoomer, the PDA market – which had never gotten off the ground to begin with – was pretty much dead. GO had gone bust, and EO and General Magic were about to follow. Palm had no PDA products, and Apple was peddling the Newton which nobody bought (it was one of the first product lines Steve Jobs axed when he returned to the company). It was a failed market category, and nobody was interested in investing in it.

So, Palm had Hawkins’ model for the Pilot, and they knew pretty well what they wanted to build. Hawkins defined four core criteria the Palm Pilot had to fulfil:

  1. It had to be pocketable. You had to be able to carry it around without being bothered by it.
  2. It had to be the ideal price point: $299.
  3. Synchronisation with the desktop had to be built-in (as opposed to an aftermarket add-on as it had been treated as up until then).
  4. It had to be fast, without any wait cursors. Remember: it had to compete with paper, and paper is instant.

And Palm only had $3 million to do it, which is a laughably low budget for a complicated product like this. This lack of funds initially forced them to make some interesting decisions, like opting for a small, local, two-person low-budget design shop for the industrial design. Luckily, though, US Robotics was fascinated by the idea for the Palm Pilot, and decided to flat-out buy Palm, which provided Hawkins and his team with the required funds (3Com then bought US Robotics in 1997).

And so, with US Robotics’ funds, Palm managed to complete the device’s development, and meet the four targets it had set for the device. On 29 January, 1996, a press release was sent into the world, titled “U.S. Robotics launches breakthrough pocket-size connected organizer for PC users“, detailing the breakthrough new device.

The Palm computing division of U.S. Robotics today announced Pilot, a line of handheld electronic connected organizers designed to work as companion products to a desktop or laptop computer.

Created by U.S. Robotics to be the first connected organizer, the Pilot family of products is designed to meet the needs of PC users who want to manage their activities both remotely and on their desktops.

The Pilot 1000 – the first model – used a Motorola Dragonball processor, a low-power processor based on the design of the 68000 family of processors, with a speed of 16 Mhz. It had 128 KB RAM built-in (512 KB for the Pilot 5000 model) and 512 KB of ROM for the operating system and applications, but this could be upgraded to a maximum of 12MB of RAM and 4MB of ROM via slots behind a plastic cover on the back of the device (in fact, the Pilot 1000/5000 could be upgraded to Palm OS 2.0 this way).

The display was a 160×160 grayscale LCD (no backlight), with the characteristic Graffiti input panel underneath. The input panel was flanked on both sides by permanent tappable shortcuts to home, calculator, search, as well a button to open the current application’s drop-down menubar. Underneath the display sit two scroll buttons (up/down), buttons to access the most important PIM applications, and a power button. The casing was plastic, and the device weighed 160 g.

It came with a cradle, which was connected to the PC via a serial cable. Place the Pilot in the cradle, press the HotSync button, and the synchronisation software would do its thing. It was compatible with all major PIM suites at the time, and more support was added as time went on and the product proved to be a hit. The desktop-side synchronisation software initially only supported Windows 95 and Windows 3.11 through Win32s, while version 2.0 added support for Windows NT. Mac OS 9 and Mac OS X support was added in later versions. Linux was never officially supported, but third party solutions existed.

The Palm Pilot 1000 and 5000 ran Palm OS 1.0, but we’ll get to the operating system later.

After the Pilot 1000 and 5000, Palm launched the upgraded versions, the PalmPilot Personal and Professional, in 1997. A year later, in 1998, they followed up with the Palm III. The Palm Pilot was a success – by 1 December 1999, Palm had sold over 5 million PDAs – and this attracted others to the PDA market. Most notably: Microsoft.

Hawkins had one last trick up his sleeve to deal with the Redmond behemoth.

Palm V

The success of Palm’s products got the attention of Microsoft, and the company pretty much announced it was going to crush Palm. According to Hawkins, Microsoft had a sales conference, where, at some point, a big target appeared on the projecter screen, with the Palm logo dead in the centre of it: “we are going to crush and kill these guys”, was the central message. Hawkins recalls that he got condolence letters after that, stating things like “Sorry Jeff. Too bad.”

Remember that in the late ’90s, Microsoft was at the very pinnacle of its power, and pretty much had the entire computer industry on a leash. BeOS a possible threat? Microsoft forced OEMs into not selling it preinstalled. Microsoft wanted to enter the PDA market? Let’s tell our OEMs to make a bunch of PDAs running our Windows PocketPC operating system, and we’ll surely crush Palm and own the market before Hawkins can say “what the…”.

Even though everyone assumed Microsoft would win, Hawkins devised a rather crazy-sounding and, at the time, controversial idea. This idea was based on how Hawkins viewed Microsoft: according to him, Microsoft simply didn’t understand why Palm was successful. Sure, they could throw lots of money around, and wield unimaginable amounts of influence, but at the of the day, they don’t build the entire product. Microsoft can only do the software, but for the hardware, they have to rely on others – and those others “just aren’t very creative”.

Microsoft was stuffing Windows PocketPC full of features. Palm OS was eclipsed by all the things you could do with it, and all the functionality that was packed into these PocketPCs. There was increasing pressure within Palm to try and match Microsoft feature-for-feature, but Hawkins realised that as a small company, Palm would never be able to do so. It would be a battle lost before it even began.

And I said, “No, we’re not going to add any features. Nothing. We’re going to make a beautiful product. They can’t make a beautiful product because they don’t make products. They just make software.” And if I tried to catch up to them on features, the reviews are going to be: “Palm tries to catch Microsoft features. Doesn’t do it.” If I don’t do any new software and I just make a beautiful piece of hardware, the reviews are going to be: “Palm does beautiful piece of hardware. Microsoft hardware looks ugly!” We had this big battle internally where I basically said: “We’re not going to chase after Microsoft on features.”

No new features.

A decade later, Apple’s Bertrand Serlet stood on a stage during WWDC 2009, to announce Mac OS X 10.6. He proudly proclaimed that it had “no new features“. According to Serlet, a move that was “unprecedented” in the PC industry. The audience clapped enthusiastically. The press ate it up.

But I digress.

In any case, this was the premise behind the Palm V: no new features, focussing entirely on the industrial design instead. Palm worked together with industrial design firm IDEO, and out of this collaboration the iconic and revolutionary Palm V was born. The Palm V was a huge leap forward compared to the Pilots that had come before, and it introduced an iconic shape that many will, to this very day, associate with Palm.

The Palm V was built out of anodised aluminium, and was only half as thick as its predecessors – a mere 10 mm. It was also smaller and lighter, but retained the same screen dimensions. Several other aspects were revolutionary too – it was the first Palm powered by a lithium ion battery instead of AAA batteries. The battery was non-removable, a ‘feature’ which sent ripples across the smartphone industry when Apple did the same for the iPhone eight years later. For aesthetic reasons, the device had no screws – the case was glued in place.

There’s an interesting story to this, actually. The manufacturer was very apprehensive about using only glue, and was afraid that the glue would melt if users, say, left the device on the dashboard of a car in the sun. The manufacturer wanted to delay the release of the Palm V by four months to redesign the product to use screws instead. Hawkins had to personally go down to the manufacturer and convince them the glue would work – Hawkins’ father was a prolific inventor, and Hawkins grew up with loads of different materials all around him in the house, including loads of different types of glues. In other words, Hawkins knew his way around product materials, including glue.

The Pilots that had come before were strictly utilitarian, focussed on businessmen and women instead of general consumers. The Palm V changed all this. Its shape would define the company’s products for years to come. It had smooth curved sides with a slightly wider bottom than top section, making it all not only look distinct and beautiful, but also very comfortable to hold. Whether you looked at other PDAs, smartphones, or mobile phones of its era – there was nothing else like it. Everybody else was building plastic monstrosities.

I personally never owned a Palm V (sadly), but two PDAs in my collection still sport the same general design – a Tungsten E2 and a Palm T|X.

The Palm V was a smashing success. For the first time, a mobile computing device was designed to be beautiful, and “it turned out to be very successful. We turned it into a personal artefact, or a personal piece of jewellery or something and [Microsoft] couldn’t compete with that,” according to Hawkins. Palm was riding high at this point, and the Palm V succeeded in keeping Microsoft at bay. Of all the PDAs sold between January 1999 an July 2002 (in the US), 68% were Palm devices, while Handspring and Sony (both Palm OS licensees), brought Palm OS’ PDA market share up to 90%. The remaining 10% was Microsoft, through Casio, Compaq, and HP (source).

In other words, Microsoft had failed to “crush and kill” the company.

Defining Palm

The four products discussed in detail – the GRiDPad, Zoomer, Pilot, and Palm V – have all played a crucial role in defining Palm’s success and brand. The GRiDPad made Hawkins realise what people really wanted out of a mobile computer. The Zoomer taught him how not to do it. The Pilot proved there was a market for a simple, easy-to-use, mobile computer. Finally, the Palm V made it clear that a focus on beautiful hardware formed the final piece of the puzzle in appealing to a wide audience.

During its heydays, Palm enjoyed the kind of dominance Android currently enjoys. However, unlike most Android device makers, Palm enjoyed Apple-like margins – in 2000, almost 40%. Palm proved that there was a huge, profitable market for easy-to-use, beautifully designed mobile computing devices – long before iOS and Android came along.

With the hardware handled, let’s move to software. Let’s talk Palm OS.


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