Thursday, May 23, 2024

PalmPilot: 10 Years that Changed the Way We Work

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Ten years ago, workers largely were tied to their desks, hemmed in by
cubicle walls. When they were sent outside company confines, they lugged
papers and folders and bulky laptops from airport to airport.

Then in March of 1996 something happened that changed the way people

Palm Computing launched the Pilot 1000, a mobile device that worked as a
companion to a PC, enabling users to synchronize information and take it
with them, helping to break the chains that tied them to their offices.

in at only 5.7 ounces, the Pilot wasn’t the first handheld device to hit
the market. But it was the first one to catch fire, becoming not only a
market leader but a cultural phenomenon. The pocket-sized devices have
organized information and lives in the boardroom, the emergency room and
countless hotel rooms. It’s even made it to the top of Mt. Everest and
flown in the Space Shuttle.

And now the PalmPilot, and the age of the mobile worker that it helped to
create, has turned 10 years old — a nostalgic milestone for those who
love their cool tools and for those who just like to keep their work
lives better organized.

By allowing people to travel with their schedules, addresses, phone
numbers and to-do lists, that first Pilot grabbed the attention of the
Silicon Valley elite. Since then, Palm has sold more than 34 million
devices to busy mothers managing the family schedule, students keeping

track of assignments… and, of course, to the now mobile worker.

”They changed the world… It changed the way we work,” says Richard
LeVine, senior manager of Accenture, a Chicago-based global management
consulting and outsourcing company. ”In 1996, I went to work in Silicon
Valley and a friend came in for a job interview. I said, ‘What is that
cool thing you have?’ He said, ‘Oh, it’s a Pilot.’ I went right out and
got one… It was revolutionary.”

LeVine, like many longtime PalmPilot users, upgraded over the years from
one version of the PalmPilot to the next. Today, though he uses an

Audiovox SMT5600, he has a cabinet full of old Pilot handhelds that for

years organized his life.

”PalmPilot was the beginning of the handheld revolution,” he adds.
”Palm drove a huge part of the technical population into this space and
then we dragged consumers along with us. It changed the way people
thought. People carried this to a meeting instead of a laptop or a pad of
paper… Having access to this information in my pocket was

In the last decade, that original pocket-sized organizer, which sold for
$299, has added email, a wireless connection and multi-media
capabilities, like images and music. And Palm even has morphed it into a
new incarnation of itself — the popular Treo smartphone, which combines
cell phone capabilities with email and organizational applications.

But it was that original handheld device that started it all.

”I had one of the very first ones,” says MJ Shoer, president of Jenaly
Technology Group Inc., a Portsmouth, N.H.-based outsourced IT firm. ”I
was sick of carrying a huge daytimer that had all my contacts, my
calendar, my reference information that I needed to have with me. It was
a pain in the neck to carry around. When I saw there was something

electronic out there and it wasn’t big and bulky like the Apple Newton, I

thought, ‘Hey, I gotta get this’. This was pocketable. I could synch it

up to my computer so I didn’t have to have separate copies of stuff. It

was easy to carry around. It was awesome. It was a natural evolution.”

As new versions of the Pilot were released, both Shoer and LeVine

continually upgraded, adding to their growing collections of handhelds.

Shoer says he had eight over the years.

And both say each one freed them up to move about with critical business,

personal and technical information in their pockets.

”There’s more mobility and more co-mingling of information today because
of the PalmPilot,” says Joe Wilcox, an analyst with JupiterResearch, an
industry analyst firm. ”If people can carry their stuff around — both
work and personal — it fundamentally changes how they work and how the
work role is defined. If you go back 10 years, most workers were defined
by location. With the proliferation of mobile devices, whether PDAs,
cellphones or laptops, the workforce has grown in mobility and people’s
roles have changed.”

Read on to find out what made the PalmPilot the ‘must-have’ tool and where it’s headed in the future…

Simple by Design

Rob Haitani, Palm Architect at what now is Palm, Inc., says what
originally worked for them was actually looking beyond the technology and
focusing on what people needed to carry around with them. Too much
technology — no matter how cool — simply carried too much weight. And
another bulky gadget wasn’t what consumers were looking to lug around.

”We thought products like the Newton didn’t succeed because it was
technology for technology’s sake,” says Haitani. ”It was too large and
too slow. It had very poor battery life and it was too expensive. It was
like $700 for this large brick. They kept adding new features and we
thought they were going in the wrong direction.”

Company founder Jeff Hawkins figured that people needed to find phone
numbers and see their schedule, according to Haitani, who was the twenty
-fifth employee hired at Palm. If they could deliver that with a long-
lasting battery in a light-weight form, the underlying technology
wouldn’t matter. So Haitani says they stripped it down, built in hot
synch, and went with the basics.

And it quickly caught on.

Palm reports that in the first 18 months the Pilot was available, the

company sold 1 million Pilot organizers. That’s a faster adoption rate

than that for the IBM PC, the Apple Macintosh and even the microwave


”What Palm got right was simplicity,” says Wilcox. ”It was easy to use
and it did just enough… The other thing that Palm got right was that it
took a platform approach, the way Microsoft had done on the desktop with
Windows. It made third-party development easy and attractive. While Palm
kept the core simple, there were plenty of things to buy for people who
wanted more.”

Guiding the Pilot into the Future

While the Pilot, which Palm executives now refer to as ‘the handheld’,

still is being sold, it’s clear that Palm is focused on the Treo.

Research and design efforts, as well as marketing muscle, are solidly

behind this popular smartphone.

The Treo got a lot of publicity and market attention recently when the

company diverted from the Palm platform and used the Windows Mobile

Platform for the Treo 700W.

”I think their willingness to put the Windows smartphone operating

system on the Treo is brilliant,” says LeVine. ”A lot of firms would go

down in flames before they adopt a disruption because they would find

that offensive to their purity… They’re showing some vision right now

in being willing to adopt other operating systems. This is all normal for

a firm that reaches ascendancy and then has to deal with disruption. What

they’ve done is deal with it. They got themselves onto some phones. They

got the Windows technology into their devices where it made sense.

They’ve made smart decisions all along and I can’t see them losing their

grip on the market now.”

Palm’s Haitani says part of the handheld’s legacy will be that it’s a

part of the Treo. And though he says the handheld won’t be going away

anytime in the near future, there will come a time when it will have

morphed into other devices and will no longer be needed.

”The Treo and the handheld aren’t the same product line but they are the

same evolution,” he notes. ”Our future growth is focused on the Treo at

this point. The whole pie is mobile computing… Handheld devices and

PalmPilots will all evolve into these smartphone types of products.”

The form factor may change but communication and organizational needs

will remain the constants, says Haitani.

”In the future, they may not even be a phone,” he says, adding that as

smartphone prices come down, they’ll eventually be considered entry-level

devices, pushing the handheld further out of the market. ”The point is

we’re saying people want to communicate and send information, and

whatever technology that takes we will follow that path.

Ultimately, the PalmPilot’s future lies in the digital DNA it passed on

to the Treo and all the other smartphones that will come along from Palm.

”Palm was the beginning of this era,” says LeVine. ”I bought it. I

liked it. I used it. It was invaluable to me for a decade… I moved away

from it and stepped into the next generation. They had a great product

and people, like me, who were very early adopters are moving to become

early adopters of other great products. We see the promise of the next


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