View profile

Palm and me

Technologizer
Palm and me
By Harry McCracken • Issue #9 • View online

Steph Curry patiently indulges me as I snap a shot of him wearing several Palm prototype devices
Steph Curry patiently indulges me as I snap a shot of him wearing several Palm prototype devices
One of the most memorable briefings about a new tech product I ever received involved a gadget called Taxi.
It took place in 1995, and it’s not the actual demo I recall so clearly. What’s imprinted on my brain cells is the reaction which my PC World colleagues and I had after the folks who presented to us had departed. We all knew that Taxi was going to be a huge hit. (In my experience, anyway, that sort of visceral consensus among tech reporters about a new product—right or wrong—hardly ever happens.)
Taxi was a blockbuster—but not under that name. After our meeting, but before it was released, its creators learned of another tech product called Taxi, a digital travel guide. To avoid a trademark snafu, they rebranded their device at the last moment.
The company I’ve been talking about was Palm Computing. The new name it chose for its “Personal Digital Assistant” was Pilot.
(Side note: Even before I met with Palm, I was familiar with the company from its Graffiti input software for Apple’s Newton. When one of the visiting Palm executives–I wish I remembered who–gave me a business card with a USRobotics logo, I remarked that I didn’t know that Palm was part of that company, the biggest name in dial-up modems at the time. It turned out that USR had recently bought Palm to pursue a vision of people plugging Palm handhelds into docks located around their homes to control household devices–a proto-smarthome concept which went nowhere.)
I bring all this up because I just wrote a cover story for the November issue of Fast Company on a new device from Palm. The Palm in question is not the company I met with 23 years ago, but a startup trying to combat smartphone addiction with a device that’s way smaller than a monster like the iPhone XS and even a tad tinier than the original 2007 iPhone. It borrowed the dormant Palm brand, designed its own Android-based experience, and signed up the Golden State Warriors’ Stephen Curry as an investor, adviser, and brand ambassador.
I had fun talking to Palm’s founders and Curry about the new device—which, however it ends up doing with consumers, is anything but Yet Another Smartphone. The project also let me luxuriate in nostalgia for the old Palm on company time, which was a reward in itself. (Bonus factoid just for you newsletter subscribers: The new Palm is based in a building across the street from where PC World was and is headquartered, which means that I saw the new Palm device for the first time just yards from where I met the original Palm Pilot so many years ago.)
After meeting with Palm in 1995, I’m not sure when I first wrote about the company’s products for publication. The earliest piece I can easily dig up is a 1998 PDA roundup covering the Palm III. (That link is to CNN.com, which has done a better job preserving ancient PC World articles than PC World has.) But the early Palm review that sticks in my mind is the one I wrote about the Palm VII, which I reviewed along with a very early BlackBerry. (That link is also to CNN.com; I don’t know who came up with the headline there—“Handheld Net gadgets get funky”—but it sure wasn’t me.)
Not that well remembered today, the Palm VII was the company’s first wireless device, giving you access to bite-sized chunks of online content rather than anything remotely resembling the full web. Unlike the BlackBerry I wrote about, it was a dead end. But at the time, getting useful information onto a PDA while I was out and about in downtown Boston–no syncing from a PC required–felt like magic.
I should pause here to acknowledge that though I was impressed by Palm’s handhelds in the 1990s, I didn’t actually own one. My palmtops of choice were made by Psion, the British firm whose devices had little clamshell cases, physical keyboards, and some of the best software ever created for a mobile gadget. I only switched to Palm devices once it was clear the Psion platform was on the rocks. I started with a Palm-compatible Handspring Visor, then upgraded to a Palm IIIc, my first PDA with a color screen. The whole transition off Psion was a bit traumatic, like when I reluctantly gave up my Replay TV DVR for a TiVo.
I’m running this photo of a Palm Tungsten T5 mostly because I still have the email that Palm sent to me with it as a file attachment
I’m running this photo of a Palm Tungsten T5 mostly because I still have the email that Palm sent to me with it as a file attachment
Once I’d made the switch, however, I happily stuck with Palm OS through multiple devices. There was the fancy and expensive Sony CLIÉ which I accidentally dropped in a filled bathtub (and replaced). The Palm Tungsten which was stolen out of my car (I replaced that, too). And most of all, my Treo 650 smartphone (which I adored, and still have).
I took this photo at Universal Studios Florida in 2005 with my Treo 650--grudgingly, after leaving my real camera in my car
I took this photo at Universal Studios Florida in 2005 with my Treo 650--grudgingly, after leaving my real camera in my car
The last Palm device I owned hardly counts, since it was a Treo 700w running—gasp!—Windows Mobile. I quickly regretted buying it and got rid of it, but the fact the move seemed sensible even for a nanosecond was a sign that the Palm OS era was nearing its end.
Writing about Palm, however, continued to be engaging work—especially starting in 2009, when the company announced the Palm Pre smartphone and its next-generation WebOS operating system. It did so in a big, showy keynote-style presentation at the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas during CES, but I was dazzled in a way that wasn’t that different from how I felt seeing the Taxi at PC World in 1995.
My bad photo of Palm’s Jon Rubinstein unveiling the Pre at CES 2009
My bad photo of Palm’s Jon Rubinstein unveiling the Pre at CES 2009
As clever and full of potential as WebOS was, it failed to go anywhere; I could write an entire newsletter trying to assess why. Beleaguered, Palm sold itself to HP, which embraced the operating system but phased out the Palm brand. I attended the keynote at which HP introduced the WebOS-based TouchPad tablet and some new phones, and was not dazzled—though I would not have predicted that the company would give up on the whole acquisition within weeks, shortly after I reviewed the TouchPad for TIME.
Another bad photo by me, of HP waxing ambitious about a WebOS-powered ecosystem of devices which never amounted to more than a slide in a presentation
Another bad photo by me, of HP waxing ambitious about a WebOS-powered ecosystem of devices which never amounted to more than a slide in a presentation
And that was the end of my career covering Palm, unless you count my new story—which is really about a different company, though it’s embraced a bit of the original Palm’s spirit of simplicity as well as its name.
Following the original Palm over its 19-year history was a little like being a fan of a plucky sports team that often thrived but also had a tendency to break your heart. It seemed to make strategic mistakes (like this and this) almost as quickly as it pumped out nifty products. As nice as it would have been to see WebOS take off, Palm’s death warrant was signed the moment Steve Jobs showed the Treo in a rogue’s gallery of current smartphones as he introduced the first iPhone in 2007.
Moments before Steve Jobs showed this slide, all of these devices were considered cool
Moments before Steve Jobs showed this slide, all of these devices were considered cool
Still, Palm created the first pocket-sized computing device that was a mainstream success, built it into a powerhouse platform, and had an impressive second act with the Treo. Elements of the original Taxi–I mean Pilot–interface remain visible in every modern smartphone. I would unhesitatingly put Palm on any list of the most important technology companies of all time. And it ranks even higher on the list of companies I’ve enjoyed covering.
More by me
What I’ve written lately, including a guest piece for the Washington Post:
Five myths about Apple - The Washington Post
Steph Curry and Palm want you to forget your phone
The rise, fall, and rebirth of Palm
New Square Terminal takes on clunky old-school payment systems
Coda wants to turn docs into apps
See you soon (maybe even in person, if you happen to be attending the Fast Company Innovation Festival in New York this week). Until next time, I’m harry@technologizer.com.
Did you enjoy this issue?
Harry McCracken

A roundup of technology-related stuff I'm writing, reading, and remembering.

If you don't want these updates anymore, please unsubscribe here
If you were forwarded this newsletter and you like it, you can subscribe here
Powered by Revue
harry@technologizer.com