Tech-Back Tuesday: Remembering the PalmPilot

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palm It all started with a block of wood.

To convince himself that a compact personal digital assistant made sense for everyday use, inventor Jeff Hawkins cut a piece of lumber to the dimensions he envisioned for the device — and carried it around in his pocket for weeks.

So goes the famous, seemingly apocryphal origin story of how Jeff Hawkins developed the Pilot, a gadget that spent nearly a decade revolutionizing the world before disappearing almost overnight from the public consciousness.

I have a rather special history with the Pilot, and no doubt it holds a special place in the hearts of many a reader. So let’s “tech” a look back at this amazing device and the equally amazing downfall of the company behind it.

Public Display of Affection

In March, 1996, U.S. Robotics, a company best known for making modems, introduced the Pilot 1000 and Pilot 5000. Unlike previous PDAs (most famously, Apple’s Newton), this one didn’t try to recognize your handwriting. Rather, it forced you to learn Graffiti, a script-like character set that made for fast and near-flawless stylus-based input.

The Pilot could also sync with your PC by way of a HotSync cradle, which — and this is how far back it goes — connected via a serial port. Suddenly you could carry your address book, calendar, notes and other personal data, adding to and editing it as you went, then update your desktop records with the push of a button.

The 128K Pilot 1000 sold for $299, with the Pilot 5000 — offering a whopping four times the storage with 512K — costing $369. Those prices may seem high today, especially relative to what you currently pay for a powerful smartphone, but at the time they seemed uniquely affordable. An Apple Newton MessagePad ran about $700.

GoType KeyboardIt wasn’t long before the Pilot caught on in a big way, in part because of the “open” nature of the device. Programmers started writing software for it, and companies large and small began to crank out accessories: cases, screen protectors, even keyboards. Meanwhile, user forums were popping up all over the place, and that’s when I started noticing common themes and questions: “What kind of case should I buy?” “Is there any way to print from a Pilot?”

No, It’s Not About Beer. Or Dance.

This was in 1997, and around the summer of that year, the proverbial light bulb went off in my head: This thing needs a newsletter. A few months later, Tap was born, a two-color, 24-page fanzine for the snowballing Pilot community.

Needless to say, I loved the Pilot, even after silly legal conflicts forced the company to rename it the PalmPilot, then just “Palm.” Over the years, Palm (which eventually split from U.S. Robotics to become its own company) would refine the device, releasing such models as the Palm IIIx and oh-so-sexy Palm V. It was easy to use, capable, affordable and even a little expandable.

Handspring Visors

The Handspring Visor.

Eventually, competition arrived. Handspring and Sony were among the companies to release Palm-compatible devices, while Microsoft got into the act with Pocket PC, an operating system that would appear on PDAs from the likes of Acer, Casio, HP and Toshiba.

To my thinking, there was no comparison: Palm’s operating system offered a vastly superior user experience, while Pocket PC was an ugly, unintuitive mess. But because it had Microsoft behind it, Pocket PC made inroads into business, and vendors released some pretty nice Pocket PC hardware. Over the years, the platform began to chip away at Palm’s market share — a problem exacerbated by management issues within the company.

The Beginning of the End

If you recall last month’s love letter to the Commodore Amiga, you can easily draw parallels between what happened at Commodore and what happened at Palm. Short version; the company imploded, derailed by massive growth, a lack of vision and mishandled market forces. (If you want the full history, I highly recommend David Pogue’s fascinating behind-the-scenes book: “Piloting Palm: The Inside Story of Palm, Handspring, and the Birth of the Billion-Dollar Handheld Industry”).

How to Do Everything with Your Palm DeviceAlong the way, Tap Magazine became Handheld Computing, expanding its focus from Palm to all manner of handheld devices and eventually making its way to newsstands. I was also fortunate enough to co-author (with no less than eHow Tech Editor Dave Johnson) six editions of “How to Do Everything with Your Palm” as well as several other books on PDAs.

During the 2000s, PDAs gave way to smartphones, with Palm’s Treo and Centro lines enjoying modest success, until 2007, when Apple introduced the iPhone. In 2009, Palm took one final stab with its Pre (yet another in a long, long line of poorly named products), but at that point there was no stopping the iPhone juggernaut.

In 2010, HP acquired Palm, but there was little left to salvage. Today, the name is, unfortunately, synonymous with failure, a shining example of a company that simply failed to keep up with the market it helped create. Commodore did likewise, and BlackBerry is experiencing similar death throes at this very moment.

Ah, but remember the glory days of the PalmPilot 5000, the Palm Vx, the Treo 650 and other amazing devices that bore the Palm name. They were the Model Ts of the PDA age, the products that paved the way for the BlackBerry and iPhone and all the apps that came with them. Maybe the end wasn’t pretty, but in the early days, man, there was no better companion to have in your pocket.

Photo credits: Handspring, LandWare, Osborne/McGraw-Hill, Palm

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