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Apr 3, 2020

Today we’re going to look at the history of the Palm. 

It might be hard to remember at this point, but once upon a time, we didn’t all have mobile devices connected to the Internet. There was no Facebook and Grubhub. But in the 80s, computer scientists were starting to think about what ubiquitous computing would look like. We got the Psion and the HP Jaguar (which ran on DOS). But these seemed much more like really small laptops. And with tiny keyboards. 

General Magic spun out of Apple in 1990 but missed the mark. Other devices were continuing to hit the market, some running PenPoint from Go Corporation - but none really worked out. But former Intel, GRiD, and then Tandy employee Jeff Hawkins envisioned a personal digital assistant and created Palm Computing to create one in 1992. He had been interested in pen-based computing and worked with pattern recognition for handwriting at UC Berkeley. He asked Ed Colligan of Radius and Donna Dubinsky of Claris to join him. She would become CEO.

They worked with Casio and Tandy to release the Casio Zoomer in 1993. The Apple Newton came along in 1993 and partially due to processor speed and partially due to just immaturity in the market, both devices failed to resonate with the market. The Newton did better, but the General Magic ideas that had caught the imagination of the world were alive and well. HP Jaguars were using Palm’s synchronization software and so they were able to stay afloat. 

And so Hawkins got to work on new character recognition software. He got a tour of Xerox PARC, as did everyone else in computing and they saw Unistrokes, which had been developed by David Goldberg. Unistrokes resembled shorthand and required users to learn a new way of writing but proved much more effective. Hawkins went on to build Graffiti, based on that same concept and as Xerox patented the technology they would go into legal battles until Palm eventually settled for $22.5 million. 

More devices were coming every year and by 1995 Palm Computing was getting close to releasing a device. They had about $3 million dollars to play with. They would produce a device that had less buttons and so a larger screen size than other devices. It had the best handwriting technology on the market. It was the perfect size. Which Hawkins had made sure of by carrying around a block of wood in his pocket and to meetings to test it. Only problem is that they ran out of cash during the R&D and couldn’t take it to market. But they knew they hit the mark. 

The industry had been planning for a pen-based computing device for some time and US Robotics saw an opening. Palm ended up selling to US Robotics, who had made a bundle selling modems, for $44 million dollars. And they got folded into another acquisition, 3Com, which had been built by Bob Metcalfe, who co-invented Ethernet. US Robotics banked on Ethernet being the next wave. And they were right. But they also banked on pen computing. And were right again!

US Robotics launched the Palm Pilot 1000 with 128k of RAM and the Palm Pilot 5000 with 518k of RAM in 1996. This was the first device that actually hit the mark. People became obsessed with Graffiti. You connected it to the computer using a serial port to synchronize Notes, Contacts, and Calendars. It seems like such a small thing now, but it was huge then. They were an instant success. Everyone in computing knew something would come along, but they didn’t realize this was it. Until it was! HP, Ericsson, Sharp, NEC, Casio, Compaq, and Philips would all release handhelds but the Palm was the thing. 

By 1998 the three founders were done getting moved around and left, creating a new company to make a similar device, called Handspring. Apple continued to flounder in the space releasing the eMate and then the MessagePad. But the Handspring devices were eerily similar to the Palms. Both would get infrared, USB, and the Handspring Visor would even run Palm OS 3. But the founders had a vision for something more.

They would take Handspring public in 2000. 3Com would take Palm public in 2000. Only problem is the dot com bubble. Well, that and Research in Notion began to ship the Blackberry OS in 1999 and the next wave of devices began to chip away at the market share. Shares dropped over 90% and by 2002 Palm had to set up a subsidiary for the Palm OS.

But again, the crew at Handspring had something more in mind. They released the Tree in 2002. The Handspring Treo was, check this out, a smart phone. It could do email, SMS, voice calls. Over the years they would add a camera, GPS, MP3, and Wi-Fi. Basically what we all expect from a smartphone today. 

Handspring merged with Palm in 2003 and they released the Palm Tree 600. They merged back the company the OS had been spun out into, finally all merged back together in 2005. Meanwhile, Pilot pens had sued Palm and the devices were then just called Palm. We got a few, with the Palm V probably being the best, got a few new features, lots and lots of syncing problems, when new sync tools were added. 

Now that all of the parts of the company were back together, they started planning for a new OS, which they announced in 2009. And webOS was supposed to be huge. And they announced the Palm Pre, the killer next Smartphone. 

The only problem is that the iPhone had come along in 2007. And Android was released in 2008. Palm had the right idea. They just got sideswiped by Apple and Google. 

And they ran out of money. They were bought by Hewlett-Packard in 2010 for 1.2 billion dollars. Under new management the company was again split into parts, with WebOS never really taking off, the PRe 3 never really shipping, and TouchPads not actually being any good and ultimately ending in the CEO of HP getting fired (along with other things). Once Meg Whitman stepped in as CEO, WebOS was open sourced and the remaining assets sold off to LG Electronics to be used in Smart TVs. 

The Palm Pilot was the first successful handheld device. It gave us permission to think about more. The iPod came along in 2001, in a red ocean of crappy MP3 handheld devices. And over time it would get some of the features of the Palm. But I can still remember the day the iPhone came out and the few dozen people I knew with Treos cursing because they knew it was time to replace it. In the meantime Windows CE and other mobile operating systems had just pilfered market share away from Palm slowly. The founders invented something people truly loved. For awhile. And they had the right vision for the next thing that people would love. They just couldn’t keep up with the swell that would become the iPhone and Android, which now own pretty much the entire market. 

And so Palm is no more. But they certainly left a dent in the universe. And we owe them our thanks for that. Just as I owe you my thanks for tuning in to this episode of the history of computing podcast. We are so lucky to decided to listen in - you’re welcome back any time! Have a great day!