March 27, 2006 4:00 AM PST

Ten years on, revisiting Palm's first Pilot

A correction was made to this story. Read below for details.

Ten years ago, Palm's Pilot 1000 made mobile computing simple and affordable for millions of people--a revolution, said one early employee, born of frustration, a direct challenge and plywood.

Palm was about two years old in 1994, and designing software for handhelds, said Rob Haitani, employee number 25 and the lead designer of the Pilot 1000's user interface. The high-profile struggles of complicated devices like Apple Computer's Newton were making it hard to convince companies to invest in mobile computers.

"'Do you know the right product to make?'" Haitani recalled board member and early investor Bruce Dunlevie asking co-founder Jeff Hawkins. After Hawkins said yes, Dunlevie dropped the gauntlet: "'Well, then do it.'"

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More than a decade later, it's clear Hawkins did. The Pilot 1000 became the first viable mobile computer, spawning the PDA market and making Palm its champion right up till the time the market was undercut by the advent of the smart phone. You could even call the Pilot 1000 a distant relative of Palm's Treo, the device that seems to be helping the company meet the smart phone challenge: Last Thursday, Palm reported third-quarter earnings that exceeded Wall Street's expectations thanks largely to the new Treo device.

But when Haitani joined Palm in 1993, the company's future was less clear. Its first product, the Zoomer, went nowhere, and software development--such as that of the Graffiti handwriting-recognition program--continued to pay the bills. According to Haitani, Hawkins was frustrated by the hardware being produced by Palm's partners--perhaps not a surprise, given the climate.

"A lot of people (at that time) were trying to cram everything into one device," said Todd Kort, an analyst with Gartner, "like handwriting recognition and wireless capabilities that weren't ready yet."

After Dunlevie delivered his fateful challenge, Hawkins went home and did some whittling, carving a model of the proposed device out of plywood.

"Jeff said, 'It has to fit in your pocket, it has to be fast, and it has to be $299,'" Haitani recalled.

It also had to reach potential customers.

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"We knew we could build it," Hawkins said recently in a podcast produced by Palm in celebration of the anniversary. "But we knew we could also not possibly bring it to market."

The resources provided by U.S. Robotics, which bought Palm in 1995, helped bring the Pilot 1000 to the masses. Palm wasn't totally sure it had a hit until it started to get fresh orders from its channel partners much more quickly than it had anticipated, Haitani said. However, the company had already started designing the second generation, he said.

"The first generation of a product, you focus on the core pillars. And what will make that successful is not what you put in, but what you leave out," Haitani said. Palm, unfortunately, had left out a backlight, which made the screen hard to read at times. It corrected that oversight with a revision to the product: the PalmPilot.

Over the next few years, sales of the PalmPilot skyrocketed, and later varieties, starting with the Palm III, also did well. But after Palm co-founders Hawkins and Donna Dubinsky left the company to form Handspring following the acquisition of U.S. Robotics by 3Com, the two already had their second act in mind: the smart phone.

Haitani joined Handspring in those early days, when the plan was to fund development of this new class of handheld computer with sales of Palm OS-based PDAs called Visors. But manufacturing issues and the collapse of the dot-com market deeply hurt Handspring, which was forced to turn away from the Visor and concentrate solely on the smart phone, called the Treo.

Both Handspring and Palm went public right at the height of the dot-com boom in 2000, and suffered through the same downturn. Unlike Handspring, however, Palm didn't have a ready successor to its PDAs. So in 2003, Palm brought Hawkins and Dubinsky back into the fold by spinning off the Palm OS development group and purchasing Handspring and the Treo.

Dubinsky now serves on Palm's board of directors, but she never took an active role with Palm following the Handspring acquisition. Hawkins is still Palm's chief technology officer, but he also works for Numenta, which is developing a new type of memory patterned after the human brain.

What's next for Palm? As a Palm architect, Haitani is helping develop the products that will carry the company through the next 10 years. He declined to drop any hints as to future direction, but the momentum generated by a certain a balsa wood prototype will continue to push the company through the next decade.

"I'm actually really excited about the next 10 years," Haitani said. "The Treo was, 'Let's take the functionality of the (Pilot) and the phone, and combine them without breaking anything.' The next generation will say, 'Now that we have these capabilities, I'm really carrying a whole high-speed Internet computer around with me.'"

Though Palm faces challenges moving into overseas markets, the company is in good shape as it enters its second decade of mobile computing, Gartner's Kort said. "If Palm hadn't acquired Handspring, Palm would be a dying company today."

 

Correction:Due to incorrect information provided by Palm, this story misstated the material used by Jeff Hawkins to build the first model of the Pilot 1000. It was plywood.

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Jeff Hawkins, Palm Inc., Palm Pilot, mobile computer, mobile computing

6 comments

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PDAs have been around since the late 1970s
Seriously, the late 1970s ... Apple's "invention" of the PDA was no different than auto companies throwing the term "SUV" at a pre-existing vehicle category. Read all about it here:
<a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.snarc.net/pda/pda-treatise.htm" target="_newWindow">http://www.snarc.net/pda/pda-treatise.htm</a>
Posted by technologyrewind (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
Apple should buy Palm!
Apple should buy Palm! Make a mobile version of Mac OS X and
merge into a Treo iPhone ;-)
Posted by libertyforall1776 (650 comments )
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Sorry Palm,The Next Generation is here!
The comment from Palm that the next generation will be a combination of phone ,computer w/high speed internet access is redundant.
I traded in my Palm Treo for a Blackberry 7130e.
The future is here with Blackberry and I can't see myself going backwards to a Palm or Windows based PDA.
Thanks Dave Laird
Posted by daveotterbee (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
Good for you.
Good luck editing a document, watching a movie, access an extensive catalogue of software.

Also I hope you were not using too much the stylus and the touch screen, because there isn't any in the Blackberry.

For now you can only do this with Palm (and to some extent on Windows) devices.
Posted by feranick (212 comments )
Link Flag
BlackBerry is going down
IMHO. Windows Mobile 5 devices like the Treo 700w and the Cingular 8125 are way better than any BlackBerry device. The can do anything a BB can do and way more. There is also ZERO cost to your company if your running Exchange 2003 already. No Server like the BB, no software cost...support contracts.

I am not up to date on the latest and greatet BB devices but do any of them allow you download music or have a camera in them????
Posted by Lindy01 (443 comments )
Link Flag
The Apple Newton is Not Dead!
Apple will not purchase palm becuase palm was started by people that originally worked at Apple. That being said there are other ways to get Apple to situp and take notice of this platform. Knowledgenavigator (through newtonsales.com) is one of the many ways that users can purchase and upgrade their units to ensure future compatibility and usability.
Posted by knowledgenavigator (11 comments )
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