10 years ago , things used to be so simple:
If you wanted a PDA, you bought a Palm Pilot: “…a successful design of human and computer interaction that remains all too rare (Stanford University computer science Assistant Professor Scott Klemmer: 2/21/06).
In human-speak, that means they were easy to understand and use. In fact, the user experience was so unique, that a term was coined for it: The Zen of Palm.
Today, much the same is being said about the current crop of Palm’s Treo Smart Devices…and is being said by both leading technical reviewers and the exponentially growing number of Treo owners.
So, where did this Zen come from?
It all started with the legendary team of Donna Dubinsky and Jeff Hawkins, along with their marketing whiz kid (and current Palm CEO) Ed Colligan. This group (who shall henceforth be known as The Founders) decided that portable computing should extend beyond the technical fraternity. In the process, they started an industry that is continuing to evolve and expand into everyday life.
The personal connection between The Founders and the Zen should come as no surprise to anyone who has followed Palm’s mercurial fortunes over the past 10 years. While they had autonomy at Palm/US Robotics, standards-setting devices kept coming out the door (Pilot, IIIx, Vx). When 3Com owned Palm (forcing the three founders into Handspring exile), Palm produced new products that were either minimal tweaks to the Vx, or half-hearted reactions to the offerings of HP and Dell. When Palm acquired Handspring, the three founders returned, and an audacious (though not always successful) blend of new products came out the door…led by the line of Treo smart devices. This is no coincidence, and it is clear (with no apologies to George Lucas) that the Zen is with them.
The Treo’s success is simply the latest articulation of the Zen of Palm; and, the natural evolution of how the Zen matured while in exile at Handspring. When The Founders left 3Com, they had long ceased to view the handheld as a PDA…an electronic DayTimer. They felt stymied in their quest to evolve the handheld towards its next stage: as the CPU of a multi-purpose handheld experience.
So, in September, 1999, Handspring launched the Visor line; a family of Palm-powered PDAs with a difference: a 68-pin socket in the back, called the Springboard. The Springboard allowed the attachment of modules to the Visor, each of which added new functionality; and, made the Visor something more. By the time Handspring moved on to the truly converged Treo line, available Springboard modules included:
• GPS receiver,
• MP3 player,
• Digital camera,
• Cell phone,
• Wireless modem,
• Voice recorder
• VGA connector to control video presentations
• FM radio
• Even a speakerphone
In order to get a better perspective on the genesis of this decade-long trip, we decided to go to the source:
Although Ed Colligan has provided access for our interviews in the past, the 10th Anniversary and growing demands on his time didn’t allow for it this time. However, Donna Dubinsky and Jeff Hawkins were kind enough to participate in a brief Q&A for our article, and their answers speak reams for keeping faith with the Zen:
DD: I think the thing that gives me the most pleasure is seeing our products in use by so many people, all over the world. It still is a thrill to randomly come across somebody who is using a Palm device, and know that I was a part of making that happen.
JH: I am not nostalgic, nor do I dwell on the past. For me the present is always the best. I think Palm has great products right now and the business is going well. I most enjoy designing the next generation of products.
DD: Interestingly, our major goals have been the same throughout ... from Palm to Handspring and back to Palm. We've wanted to be the leader in the next generation of computing, handheld computing. At Handspring, we realized that computing would be strongly tied to communications, so that's why we developed the Treo. We continue to see this whole category as just the start of what ultimately will be truly personal, meaning on-person, computing.
JH: Starting Handspring was not something we wanted to do. We would have preferred to stay at Palm. Since that option was not available at the time, we started Handspring to continue what we were doing at Palm. So the mission was the same. Build the leading company in mobile computing.
DD: I definitely consider Handspring a success. First, on the product front, we created the enormously successful Visor handheld, and then the category-defining Treo smartphone. Second, I'm very proud of the culture we created at Handspring, and of the outstanding team, many of whom have become key members of the leadership team at Palm. Although the form of the transaction was Palm's acquisition of Handspring, in the end, it very much is a blended company that has taken the best from both sides, whether that's product, practices, or team members.
JH: Absolutely. We started Palm as independent company creating category defining mobile computing products. That is exactly where we are today. Everything in between was what we had to do to keep doing what we love.
DD: Palm's success today is clearly a validation of the over ten year long effort, starting with Palm and continued through both at Palm and at Handspring, to create a new generation of mobile computing devices.
JH: Sort of. When we started Handspring we knew that cell phones would be a huge phenomena. We saw our opportunity at Handspring was to eventually integrate the PDA and the cell phone. Trying to do that as our first product would have killed us. So instead, we created the Springboard slot to allow us to increment our way to integrated radios. The success of the Treo has validated the basic idea.
•The three of you clearly brought the practical vision of convergence to the marketplace. How do you react to the Wall Street pundits who are constantly trying to marginalize Palm and its market relevance?
DD: You have to keep your eye on the long term. Over any short term period, there will be nay-sayers and doomsday scenarios. And there always are very real current problems to deal with. But over the long term, our focus has always been on products, customers and markets. Ultimately, if we do that well, we will deliver strong financial results, and Wall Street will buy into it.
JH: Some people on Wall Street love us and some don’t. As we continue to execute on our vision and show consistent growth, more and more analysts like Palm.
DD: That's Rob Haitani's phrase, so you should ask him!
JH: I believe the phrase “Zen of Palm” originated with a presentation made by Rob Haitani. It was a fun and serious discussion of our design philosophy. I won’t try to define it, per se, but in general we try to make our products easy to use and to delight the customer. It is easy to say, but very very hard to do. People always want to add more technology to solve problems, but the best solutions accomplish more by doing less.
DD: We're going to continue to see some great innovations coming. First, of course we'll see better and better smartphones on faster and faster networks, with more lower priced options to draw in new customers. Second, I believe that a whole new layer of applications and services will be possible based on these platforms. Finally, we continue to have some exciting and innovative products in the labs that will move us towards our vision of leadership of the next generation of computing.
JH: The next decade is going to be great. I honestly feel that Palm is entering a period where it will create its most exciting products. High speed wide area networks, WiFi, GPS, and really huge amounts of storage will enable amazing products. Today, about 2 billion people have cell phones. Over the next decade I guess that 80% of them will become smartphones. It is incredible time. For example, I am finding more and more uses for my Treo. I watch more movies on my Treo (I use the TCPMP viewer) than on my TV. I use my Treo for GPS navigation in my car (TomTom). And my Treo is my first place I go for Google and email. I wouldn’t have imagined all this was possible four years ago. The next ten years will be equally exciting. And yes, Palm has some amazing new products under development that will surprise people (don’t ask ;-) ).
DD: I've been working with Jeff to commercialize products based on his theories of intelligence. Our new company is called Numenta. It's very early stage, but I'm greatly enjoying the opportunity to be thinking about yet another revolution in computing, the move towards truly intelligent computing.
JH: I love Palm and am active working on new products. I split my time between Palm and Numenta. Numenta is a new company building the next wave of computing (machines that work on the same principle as the neocortex). Of course I would love to have more time to sail! (BTW there are many great apps for PalmOS useful to the sailor. TideTool is a good example.)
How are things at Palm, Inc. today? Well, it just wouldn’t be Palm without the usual cadre of financial doomsayers squawking ‘nevermore’. Ever since I bought my first Palm PDA in 1996, someone in Wall Street has been predicting Palm’s imminent demise…so, I take this backbenching as a good thing.
Even better, Palm just released financial results showing a 36% increase in year over year revenues, and a 102% increase in Treo sales.
It all points to Palm’s undeniable pedigree as the originator of converged computing, led by Dubinsky, Hawkins and Colligan at Handspring, and then brought back to Palm. Don’t believe me? Then look at these recent headlines:
• A More Treo-Like BlackBerry
• “Treo Killer” to Ship Next Month
• Verizon Wireless Ships Samsung 'Treo Killer'
• Pocket PC Treo Killer?
• Nokia Preparing a Treo Killer?
• HP rolls out 'Treo-killer' iPaq with built-in GPS
• TORQ P120 smartphone: The Treo killer?
Bottom line: To dismiss Palm is to dismiss the longevity of The Founders’ vision, and the influence they have had on the way people use digital devices and why they are willing to buy them. Palm alone has the pedigree, bloodlines and heritage to lay claim to the converged-computing crown. If Wall Street will only step back from the RIM, and read their Palms…they’ll see the future for what it really is.