The History of the PalmPilot

The PalmPilot was the pet project of a young Silicon Valley entrepreneur named Jeff Hawkins. He’d watched device after device—the expensive, elegant Newton; the expensive, clunky Zoomer—bomb in the marketplace. Their failure was particularly depressing, because Hawkins’s company—Palm Computing—was in the business of designing the software for such palmtops (including the Graffiti handwriting-recognition alphabet that’s still used on PalmPilots).

He thought he knew why those other devices weren’t successful. The experts were trying to cram too much into them. Industry experts laughed when he suggested a simpler, faster device that didn’t have infrared and couldn’t connect with corporate networks.

Finally, frustrated, Hawkins decided to design his own palmtop. He went on a personal crusade. He measured his own shirt pockets. Then, in a classic bit of engineering lore, he carved out a block of wood that’s surprisingly close to the exact dimensions of today’s PalmPilot. He’d walk around the company offices, seeing how it felt to write on the block’s surface, honing the Graffiti alphabet, and defining the product in his head.

The design goals were to make it fast and simple; let it exchange data easily with a desktop computer; keep it shirt-pocket size; and have it cost less than $300.

Every expert and analyst argued with him over this last point. “Everyone wanted to put something else into it,” Hawkins says. “Some people thought we were crazy for not having a device card slot.”

For nearly a year, Hawkins shopped his prototype around to various electronics manufacturers. Most turned him down flat. Finally, US Robotics agreed to make the little device, and the first Pilots (as they were originally named) debuted in early 1996. Eventually, 3Com bought US Robotics. But Hawkins’s company, Palm Computing, still works in its own protected division, making the best palmtop on Earth better every year.

Hawkins and his partner Donna Dubinski, meanwhile, left Palm Computing shortly after it became a 3Com subsidiary. Preferring the thrill of entrepreneurship to working for a huge corporation, they created a new startup company, Handspring, which is dedicated to bringing the Palm OS to new kinds of devices.

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