The PalmPilot

PalmPilot handheld computer

The PalmPilot elegantly tracked contacts, notes, to-dos and events, all synchronized to your desktop computer using the included cradle. It was a general-purpose computer used for specialized applications, and was small enough to fit in a shirt pocket.

The PalmPilot

The PalmPilot was the first wildly popular handheld computer. Its success helped bridge the previously separate worlds of the electronic organizer, the PC, and later, the mobile phone.

The PalmPilot succeeded by redefining the handheld as an accessory to the personal computer, not its replacement. Winning features included seamless one-button synchronization with the PC, handwriting recognition that really worked, easy-to-use organizer functions, fast responses, pocket size, and an affordable price of $299.

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PalmPilot wooden model

Jeff Hawkins tested the PalmPilot’s design with this model, using a chopstick for a stylus. He took pretend notes in meetings, and counted the steps it took to perform common tasks.

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Model for keyboard-based PalmPilot

Would PalmPilot users really want to enter text with a pen? Palm designers weren’t sure. They tested this keyboard-based design as an alternative.

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PalmPilot advertisement

U.S. Robotics sold about a million PalmPilots in the product’s first 18 months.

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The Story of Palm: Jeff Hawkins

Chapter Menu

1. The Story of Palm
2. Main features

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PalmPilot prototype

This “tethered prototype” let engineers develop software for the PalmPilot before production units were available.

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The Bumpy Road to Success

Some Palm predecessors, like the Psion and HP’s LX series, were modestly successful. But several well-financed and much-hyped attempts at pen-based handhelds, including Apple’s Newton and the EO Personal Communicator, failed in the marketplace, costing investors about a billion dollars. Palm’s own first handheld, the bulky Zoomer, also flopped.

It wasn’t a good time to seek funding for a new attempt. Palm had money to develop the PalmPilot, but not enough to launch it, so the company agreed to be acquired by US Robotics. PalmPilot’s surprise success changed the handheld category forever.

The Story of Palm: Donna Dubinsky: Just Have to Ship the Product

Chapter Menu

1. Just Have to Ship the Product
2. Troubles Raising Money
3. The Pen is not the Point

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Simplified alphabet for “Palm Graffiti”

Graffiti represented a gamble that, to improve accuracy, users would learn a new way to write using simplified letter shapes, with every letter in the same box. Experts could write 40 words a minute!

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The Story of Palm: Ed Colligan: One Button

Chapter Menu

1. One Button
2. Dialing by Name

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Packaging for “PalmConnect”

PalmConnect synchronized data between handhelds and desktop PCs. It gave the Palm founders a crucial insight for the later PalmPilot: that the handheld should complement the PC, not replace it.

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Envisioning a Handheld Computer

After designing the first commercially successful tablet computer at GRiD systems, Jeff Hawkins founded Palm to create the simple, hand-held version he was convinced consumers wanted.

Hawkins’s original passion, however, was neuroscience and machine intelligence. After a 25-year detour designing portable computers, he returned to his first love.

Palm Computing leaders

Palm Computing was founded by mobile computing pioneer Jeff Hawkins (right), who recruited Apple veteran Donna Dubinsky as CEO and Ed Colligan, formerly of Radius, as head of marketing.

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Casio Zoomer

Zoomer was a joint project of Casio, Palm, GeoWorks and Tandy. It had a touch screen, a graphical user interface and support for third party applications. But it suffered from slow speed and high price.

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Palm's leaders, frustrated with the unwieldy Zoomer, for which they were developing software, complained to investor Bruce Dunlevie. He responded that if they were so sure what consumers wanted, “why don’t you…go do it yourselves?” The successful PalmPilot was the result.

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T-shirt with original Palm logo

The founders chose the name “Palm” referring to the palm of a user’s hand, not the tree. So the early tree logo was a visual pun.

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Zoomer advertisement

Zoomer, the result of a joint effort between Casio, Palm, GeoWorks and Tandy, was big, clunky and slow. But it taught Palm valuable lessons about what customers wanted in handheld computers.

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