Antiquities: Three Palm Stories

    This company has changed a dozen names, but let's just use the very first, original. Palm Computing usually causes the warmest feelings among computer enthusiasts, and once its handheld computers were, in a sense, the default choice. The history of Palm can be divided into three parts: the era of classic handheld computers, the era of early smartphones and the business analogue of a car accident, the modern era, at the very beginning of which Palm, along with Nokia and Blackberry, lost to two upstarts - Apple and Google.

    But this is a separation by devices, and today I want to talk about people and the circumstances of the creation of these devices. I chose three stories about the golden period of Palm in particular, and the Palm OS ecosystem in general - until 2003. And I want to start from prehistoric times, when Palm OS already existed, but handhelds we knew were still a long way off. As is the case with Apple, one of its founders, Jeff Hawkins, was responsible for both the ups and downs, a significant role in the development of Palm.

    I keep a diary of a collector of old pieces of iron in real time in a Telegram .

    Casio Zoomer or endless meeting development

    Jeff Hawkins did not actually plan to become the creator of the first truly massive handheld computer. Moreover, he was not going to lead a startup. He was always interested in the principles of the brain and what is now called machine learning systems. In 1979, he graduated from Cornell University with an engineering degree, but interrupted his successful career in 1986 by entering the University of California at Berkeley, specializing in biophysics. But it did not work out there either. Hawkins did not see himself as a researcher, and wanted to realize his ideas in a business environment, create a commercial product that could be sold for money.

    In 1989, at the age of 34, he returned to his previous job - at GRiD Systemswho created the first laptop computer, and in the late 80s - became a pioneer in the market of "pen-type computers." GRiDPad was the ancestor of modern tablets, only weighing two kilograms and costing $ 3,000 (more than 6,000 in modern money).

    The device was successful in narrow circles: with such a price tag it was bought only by corporations, and a little more - state structures and the army. In the early nineties, “pen computing” was as hot a topic as blockchain and augmented reality is now, but the time for mass production of such devices has not yet come. Nevertheless, GRiDPad first introduced a handwriting recognition system, which later evolved into a proprietary input system on all Palms under the name Graffiti. In 1991, Hawkins tried to sell the idea of ​​a miniature computer for the masses to management, but was defeated - a B2B-oriented company did not want to engage in retail sales.

    Negotiations are ongoing with the owner of GRiD Systems, the company Tandy, known to all US residents for its RadioShack chain of radio equipment stores. The idea of ​​a handheld computer was supported, but Hawkins did not want to work on a breakthrough product within the framework of the "old-school" corporate structure of an old-mode manufacturer of minicomputers from Texas. In the end, it turned out the same startup: sponsored by venture funds and the same Tandy, it promised the founder a certain level of independence.

    Independence did not work. Before traveling to Tandy’s headquarters, the founder of Palm wrote a short description of the device, “which by the end of the decade will be distributed just like calculators today.” It was necessary to come up with a name, and almost from the ceiling the project was given the name "Zoomer". So then it went into production. Casio Zoomer PDA was a developer’s nightmare and experienced a fantastic market failure: Zumers were sold ten times less than the Apple Newton PDA (despite being a failed product in itself).

    We can say that Zoomer fell victim to the "development committee." The iron was responsible for the Japanese Casio, a partner of Tandy, and at that time was more of an expert on watches and calculators. She presented “calculator” requirements to a handheld computer, such as 100 hours of battery life, which led to the choice of a too low-power processor. GeoWorks was responsible for developing the operating system , and for her it was also the first trip to the rake of mobile computers. The newborn Palm Computing was engaged in handwriting recognition system and user software; and worked in parallel with GeoWorks, that is, each new build of the OS and applications threatened to break each other.

    From Japan, mainly at night because of the time difference, alarming calls about bugs were received (if you click here ten times, it doesn’t work here). Software developers felt like contractors with an iron maker who didn't understand that bugs were happening, and that's normal. As a result, in 1992 it turned out not the best device - expensive ($ 700), braking, limited in capabilities. But, given the failure of the more affluent Apple in the same field, we can assume that just the time has not come.

    Palm Pilot and Passion by Brand

    From the history of the Zoomer project, both useful experience and some income were extracted. Handwriting recognition system has become a commercial product for Apple Newton PDAs. Palm made money by developing software for synchronizing portable HP devices. It became clear, however, that it would not be possible to avoid the development of our own iron, and this required serious investments. The first PDA of its own design, called the Pilot 1000, was released in 1996. Already in the course of work on Zoomer, a team has formed (executive director Donna Dubinski, marketer Ed Colligan, developers), and the principles of work, the very Zen of Palm, a combination of reasonable minimalism and attention to detail. Hawkins experimented with wooden mock-ups of his first personal handhelds, dragged them in his pocket for days and imagined typing in with a stylus.

    In early 1996, Palm hosted a road show and met with “opinion leaders” - journalists and analysts. Pilot is touted as a “companion for a personal computer,” an easy-to-learn tool for a person “who wants to keep things in order and is constantly moving.” The impressions of the press are positive, but the reviews are caustic, up-to-date in the style of luminaries tired of technological innovations. "Why is there no modem?" "Where is the PCMCIA slot?" “What about wireless?” It always seems to us that promising technologies are about to become the new standard, but in fact, even years and decades pass between even a well-developed new product and its actual application. Well, what kind of wireless internet in 1996? At that time, the design of the “Pilot” (monochrome screen, 16-MHz processor, 128 or 512 kilobytes of memory), its features (contacts, calendar, notes, to-do list) and price ($ 300) were perfectly in line with the era. The first models did not even have a backlight!

    PalmPilot became a successful product, occupying 70% of the market by the end of 1996, but this does not mean that its launch went without problems. The company sued the Japanese manufacturer of fountain pens Pilot Pen . I had to agree, and since 1998, “palm trees” ceased to be called “pilots”. This is not the last trial: in 2003, Graffiti had to redo the handwriting system following a lawsuit by Xerox.

    And the matter is not only in litigation. In the manufacturing process, bugs were discovered that could put the company on the brink of survival. The springs supporting the batteries in the device crumpled and led to the loss of contact: in a device without backup power, this was equal to the loss of all data from simple shaking. Already on the conveyor a hardware bug was found in the Motorola processor, for which I had to write a software patch that circumvented the problem. At an important company presentation at the Demo '96 conference, Hawkins showed Pilot to industry representatives, it was important to make a good impression. The founder of the company goes on stage, takes the device out of his pocket (approving sighs in the hall), puts it on the projector, and at that moment the screen goes blank. Hawkins, trying to defuse the situation, asks marketing chief Ed Collingan, does he have a suitable joke. Ed replies: "Yes, something is not at all funny to me now."

    So they worked.

    Mergers and Acquisitions

    Palm could not become independent for quite some time and corporate squabbles were added to the expected difficulties of developing new devices. In 1995, Palm became a division of US Robotics, a well-known manufacturer of consumer and corporate modems. At that time, this business was close to sunset, and Palm was alternately considered a bright future, then an excessive ballast, which needs to be cut funding. In June 1997, US Robotics, together with Palm, was sold to 3com, at that time a major manufacturer of network equipment. Palm CEO Donna Dubinski already during the merger of the two companies demanded to make her company independent.

    The reason was the difference in approaches: Palm, despite the good first sales of the PDA, was still in the status of a startup with two hundred employees. 3com was a huge conglomerate, rather clumsy and with traditional ideas about rewarding employees. The company could attract the best developers in the era of the booming boom in investments in IT and dotcoms only with the help of options, shares of the company, which theoretically could bring millions in the event of listing. 3com management had its own priorities: merging two large companies is a difficult task, especially if both are not in good shape. Having been refused both the spin-offs and the option program within 3com, the Palm founders leave the company they created and create a new one - Handspring (after making sure that no one claims to this name).

    Left without founders (and even part of the employees, and for the first few months without management at all), Palm was nevertheless separated into a separate company and entered the stock exchange in 2000. In 2002, the company was divided into two: just Palm was engaged in hardware, and the new PalmSource - software. This was an attempt to increase the market share of the Palm ecosystem: an independent OS manufacturer is more attractive to third-party vendors. In 2003, Palm merged with Handspring and became PalmOne, the founders returned to their company the same way Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1997.

    All these corporate calls were carried out with the best of intentions, but we are well aware that the more often the reorganizations occur, the less time is left for real work. However, the outcome of Palm’s management of free bread has led to the emergence of a fundamentally new device based on proven technologies: the Handspring Treo smartphone. Released in 2002, the monochrome Treo 180 model provided a reserve for the future, which Palm / Handspring / PalmOne / Palm could not fully realize.

    Leaving Palm in 1998, executive director Donna Dubinski tried to maintain the spirit of the unit’s leaders remaining on the ship with words about the stock of ideas and projects that the company would have enough for a couple of years even without sensible leadership. And so it happened. In 1999, perhaps the best classic PDA based on Palm OS was released - the Palm V model.

    For a collection that lasts for a long time, it is best to buy a “palm” on batteries, but incredibly thin compared to its predecessors, Palm V captivates with its subtlety and elegance. The design, created by Hawkins before leaving Palm, survived several reincarnations, including the Palm m500 series, first equipped with an SD / MMC card slot. Handspring at the same time made even slightly more brutal models, but they had a slot for additional memory and for expanding functionality. I wrote more about Handspring PDA here .

    It is clear that then there were colored PDAs and more powerful ones, but the real classic of “palm building” is this. A thin case, a square monochrome screen, the ability to work on a single battery charge for weeks, an almost instant response to any user actions. But at the same time - almost complete inability to access the Internet, even in the form in which it was available at the beginning of the two thousandth.

    Despite the difficulties in business and technology, the golden age of Palm handheld computers is a monochrome era. In 2003, it seemed to them that all the difficulties were behind: the company was finally independent, the founders were at the helm again, there was enormous experience in the development of portable devices, smartphones appeared in the product line. In fact, the main tests were ahead: this was a forced abandonment of the further use of Palm OS, despite the ready-made multi-tasking version of the system, known as Palm OS Cobalt. This is a transfer of smartphones to Windows, and attempts to write from scratch their own mobile platform to modern requirements - both successful and not very. I have yet to study this part of Palm’s history and understand how it turned out that the company was acquired by HP in 2010, almost simultaneously with the once-owned 3com,

    This will be a difficult study. Palm's early history is described in detail in the Piloting Palm book , from which I took a few quotes for this article. This detailed and fascinating story was written by people who worked at Palm and truly loved their company, although they were forced to leave it with the founders. It ends just at the development of Palm Treo. This is the best moment for a happy end: behind is an incredible history of classic PDAs, ahead is a bright future for mobile devices that are always connected to the cellular network. It is a pity that Palm did not succeed: today, in 2019, I would be glad to have a strong competitor to the modern mobile platforms Apple and Google.

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