Palm: The Rise and Fall of a Legend

I was there, when the Pilot landed.

It was the summer of 1996, and the US Robotics Pilot 5000 had just arrived in the bootLab (‘boot Magazine’ was the then-newly-launched precursor to Maximum PC).

With unprecedented ferocity, we editors were fighting gladiator style for dibs on reviewing this tiny bit of pocket-sized plastic with its dingy monochrome screen. Not even the latest uber-PC or 3D graphics card generated such editorial lust.

There was something magic about the initial Pilot.  Something simple, elegant, genuinely useful. It was one of the few products we all knew would be worthy of a “Kick Ass” award almost immediately upon touching it.

That first Pilot may not have been the first PDA, but it was the first that ‘got it right’, launching an industry, penetrating popular culture, and paving the way for an entirely new class of devices.

The humble little Pilot launched ‘Palm’ as one of the most widely recognized brands on earth.

What followed the Pilot’s launch in 1996 was one the most convoluted and tragic corporate soap operas in history, with enough owners, rebrandings, blunders, lawsuits, false starts, and missteps to make anyone’s head spin.

Here’s the story…

1992 – 1995: Pre-Flight

Palm was founded in 1992 by Jeff Hawkins, and in the early days Palm provided information management software for an unsuccessful Casio PDA known as the ‘Zoomer’, synchronization software for HP devices, and sold its Graffiti handwriting recognition software to frustrated users of Apple’s Newton.

But after watching the Zoomer fail, Jeff was determined to create a completely new breed of PDA. He realized that more important than being packed with features, a personal digital assistant needed to be small and light enough that people felt comfortable taking it with them everywhere. To keep this focus in mind, Jeff actually carried around a block of wood the size and weight of the eventual Pilot.

With the Pilot design complete but lacking the funds to bring it independently to market, in 1995 Palm agreed to be acquired by modem manufacturer US Robotics, who had the manufacturing capability and scale to bring the Pilot to market at an affordable price.

The world was about to be changed forever.

The Zen of Palm

Oftentimes the key to creating a great product is not what you put in, but what you leave out.  Palm’s initial Pilot was laughably underpowered compared to the Newton that had come out years before, and the feature lists and tech specs of Palm devices throughout the years always seemed to lag way behind every competitor.  But the secret to Palm’s success, the mystical ‘Zen of Palm’, was focusing on the user experience instead of the feature list. How many taps to complete a task? What features really matter to typical users? How can data most efficiently be displayed? How long can the battery last?

It was a focus on the Zen that set Palm apart, and arguably it was losing this focus that started Palm’s long stagnation.

1996: The Pilot Flies

The tech specs of the USR Robotics Pilot 1000 and 5000 were by today’s standards laughable.

With a monochrome 160×160 resolution screen, a pokey 16MHz Motorola 68k CPU, and just 128Kb or 512Kb of memory, the hardware was fabulously small but otherwise not particularly impressive. The screen didn’t even have a backlight!

But what was impressive was the Pilot’s software, which made managing your calendar, contacts, todo lists, and memos simple and easy on the go, doing this in a simpler and more intuitive fashion than anything that had come before.

Also revolutionary was Palm’s HotSync synchronization software and companion PalmDesktop information manger – allowing the information in your pocket to easily match the information on your desk. The Pilot was fully backed up with every sync, minimizing the trauma of losing your device or running your battery down. And speaking of batteries, the Pilot 5000 could run for months (really!) of typical use on a pair of AAA’s.

One other bit of unintentional genius that paid off over the course of the next decade was Palm’s decision to release a SDK, opening up the Pilot to software from third party developers. Palm had actually not expected the SDK to matter much, but it ultimately resulted in an avalanche of amazing applications that became one of Palm’s key advantages over other platforms.

Until the iPhone came along, there was more software for the PalmOS than for any other mobile platform.

The BeOS Connection

Yet another little-known twist to the Palm soap opera involves the pioneering operating system company Be, which in 1996 turned down a $125 million offer from Apple to become the foundation of the next generation of MacOS. Instead, Apple bought NextStep, brought Steve Jobs back, and the rest is history.

Five years later Be was limping along barely in business.  Needing a foundation to build PalmOS 6.0 upon, Palm picked up the remnants of Be (including a bunch of extremely talented OS engineers) for a paltry $11 million.

Imagine what the world might be like today if Be hadn’t turned down Apple, Steve Jobs hadn’t returned, and MacOS X had been based upon BeOS instead…

1997: The Pilot Dies

Unfortunately, almost from the beginning Palm has served as a juicy target for lawyers.

When the Pilot exploded onto the scene to become one of the most talked about products of 1996, the Pilot pen company was not amused. It launched a lawsuit claiming that consumers would somehow mistake a pocketable computer with a solid plastic stylus for one of their low-tech tubes filled with ink.

To appease the Pilot pen company, US Robotics rebranded the new PDA models for 1997 the PalmPilot Personal (512Kb) and PalmPilot Professional (1MB).  In addition to the new name and more memory, the PalmPilot introduced the thrilling innovation of a glowing green backlight on the still monochrome screen.

The Pilot pen company was still not satisfied however, and Palm’s new corporate parent 3Com (which had acquired US Robotics in 1997) agreed to never use the Pilot name again.

Palm learned a thing or two from the tenacious Pilot lawyers however, and in 1998 sued Microsoft, forcing the rebranding of Microsoft’s competing “PalmPC” platform as “Pocket PC”.

1998 – 2003: The Founders Depart / The Story of Handspring

Frustrated with the direction US Robotics and 3Com had taken Palm, the original founders Jeff Hawkins, Donna Dubinsky, and Ed Colligan left to start Handspring in 1998, becoming one of the first PalmOS licensees.

Up until this point, Palm had been licensing its OS to partners looking to explore complimentary markets – IBM rebranding Palm devices for the enterprise, Symbol building ruggedized PalmPowered barcode scanners for industrial use, and Qualcomm working on the first PalmPowered smartphone (the pdQ, which shipped in 1999).

But by licensing to Handspring, Palm signed up a ferocious direct competitor with Handspring’s Visor line of PDAs destined to go head-to-head with Palm in the mainstream market.

The Visor’s signature feature was the Springboard, an expansion slot on the back that allowed for new functionality to be added via small cartridges. In addition to voice recorders, cameras, bluetooth modules, and MP3 players, the most significant Springboard cartridge (released in 2000) was HandSpring’s VisorPhone – which when mated with a Visor created a smartphone which was actually smart, using the Visor’s large screen and integrated address book to make things like conference calls easier than ever before.

In 2002 Handspring discontinued the Visor and integrated the Visorphone to launch the Treo – a Palm Powered smartphone that went on to become one of the signature devices of the age – continuously evolving and living on under the Palm and PalmOne banner even after Handspring ceased to exist in 2003.

1999: Palm V – Form Meets Function

Before the Palm V debuted in 1999, handheld gadgets were functional hunks of plastic.

In 1999, Palm turned to legendary design firm IDEO to help create the Palm V, and for the first time PDA’s became stylish. The 10mm ultra-thin metal encased Palm V was a thing of beauty, and the stylish design pushed Palm PDA’s deep into the mainstream.

Another innovation in 1999 was the release of the Palm VII, one of the first data-capable wireless devices.  Back when wireless networks were frustratingly slow and impossible to interactively surf, the Palm VII used the Mobitex two-way pager network to allow mobile email and specially written PQA (Palm Query Applications) to look up information quickly while on the go.

As the millennium approached, Palm was innovating and expanding at a breakneck pace.

2000: Palm’s Blockbuster IPO

By the beginning of 2000, Palm was widely predicted to be the “next Microsoft”, and the sky seemed the limit.  In March 3Com spun Palm off into an independent company, and the IPO was a blockbuster. On its first day of trading, Palm shares hit $95/share.

For a brief moment Palm was worth more than Ford and General Motors combined.

Flush with cash, Palm was full of grand expansion plans and was hiring like mad. This is when I came on board, starting at Palm in October of 2000, just before the groundbreaking ceremony for what would have been a massive new corporate headquarters campus.

Standing in the rain in the middle of a huge empty field of mud, the mayor of San Jose cut a ribbon, and a Native American Medicine Man blessed the site (where excavations had found old Indian artifacts).

Or perhaps, maybe, he cursed it.

2001: The End of the Perfect Day

Heading into 2001 the tech stock bubble had burst, and so had the real estate bubble. Palm’s IPO opening day stock price was never to be equalled, and Palm’s $200 million vacant lot sat forlorn, empty and undeveloped.

Meanwhile, competition in the PDA space was heating up fast. Microsoft was pushing the Pocket PC hard, RIM was emerging as the leader in messaging devices, and Symbian was arguing that PalmOS was never going to be suitable for wireless devices.

To fire back, Palm had planned massive marketing campaign called “The Perfect Day” which was intended to showcase Palm developers and how the thousands of third-party PalmOS apps (way more than any other platform) could improve everyday life. It was a compelling campaign focusing on apps a decade before “There’s an app for that!” entered the vernacular.

But with the economy tanking and a need to desperately cut costs, Palm cancelled “The Perfect Day” before a single TV commercial ever ran.

Palm was beginning to stumble with new devices too, announcing the new flagship m505 (a slim Palm V-sized PDA with a color screen and SD-card slot) in March, but not shipping it until May, stalling sales.

By mid 2001, Palm’s stock was trading under $7/share, and Palm had switched from planning massive expansion to mass layoffs.  The company that was once seen as the next Microsoft now looked like a takeover target that might not last the year…

2002: Splitting Palms

The conventional wisdom was that the way to win in the mobile market was to follow in Microsoft’s PC market footsteps, licensing an operating system to as many companies as possible, becoming a standard in the process.

Palm had started out by licensing only to complimentary companies, but eager to pursue the Microsoft model soon Palm was licensing to all comers, no matter how directly competitive they were.

Palm was initially hugely successful in this – with Handspring, Sony, Samsung, Garmin, Kyocera, Acer, and more all signing up to release PalmPowered PDA’s and smartphones.  Even cellphone leaders Nokia and Motorola signed up for PalmOS licenses and launched high-profile development projects, though neither ever shipped.

Pocket PC leaders HP and Dell also signed on eventually (and in secret), but to avoid upsetting Microsoft their PalmOS licenses were never publicly announced. These projects all ended up ultimately scrapped.

It was hard for Palm to simultaneously support the demands of all these licensees, and at the same time try and compete with them on the market.  And innovative licensees like Sony (first with 320×320 resolution screen support, for example) felt that they had to extend the OS capabilities in secret – leading to increasing fragmentation and confusion for developers.

To succeed as a platform licensing company, Palm felt that it had no choice but to level the playing field and spin out its operating system division into a completely separate and independent company – and thus in 2002 PalmSource was born.

But it was not an easy birth – it was a grand divorce that tore a unified company in two, teams often literally being split down the middle.  The remaining hardware side of Palm was left lacking in software expertise, and the software side was left even further removed from the needs of the ultimate end users.

For both sides, it was a huge distraction – a major exercise in corporate busywork, office relocations, and rebranding.

But it would be worth it in the end, if the PalmOS licensees thrived and multiplied.

Unfortunately, they didn’t.

In hindsight, splitting Palm in two (and perhaps even licensing the OS at all) turned out to be a tragic mistake.

2002: Getting ARMed

The other big story in the Palm universe in 2002 was the release of PalmOS 5, the first version of PalmOS designed to run on more modern ARM CPU’s (ARM CPU’s are still used in all modern smartphones) instead of the older Motorola 68k architecture.

PalmOS 5 also added support for modern essentials like Bluetooth, WiFi, and screen resolutions up to 320×480.

Moving to ARM offered Palm users a huge boost in speed, but to ensure software compatibility most PalmOS 5 apps were actually running as emulated 68k code.  PalmOS 5 was supposed to be a transition OS until the day a modern fully ARM-native multitasking version of PalmOS could make it to market.

That day never came.

2003: Reunification

With the smartphone market heating up, Handspring was no longer able to survive as an independent company in its push to bring the Treo to market.

In a dramatic twist on the long soap opera, in late 2003 HandSpring (and the original Palm founders Jeff, Donna, and Ed) merged with the Palm to become PalmOne, and to further confuse things the Palm brand jointly owned by Palm and PalmSource went to a holding company controlled by PalmSource.  Palm as an independent company was no more, long live PalmSource and PalmOne!

The corporate machinations and bulk rebranding was enough to make any head spin.

Palm’s hardware highlights for 2003 included the 400MHz / 64MB Tungsten T3, Palm’s first 320×480 resolution PDA with a “Virtual Graffiti” area that allowed the writing area of the screen to be used for extra display space or to be hidden by a physical slider to make the device smaller.

The T3 remains my personal favorite PalmOS device of all time, and in many ways it was the pinnacle of Palm’s PDAs.

2003: Graffiti Rubbed Out

Even more tragic than losing the Pilot name in 1997 was Palm losing the fight for its signature Graffiti writing system.

Before Palm, Apple’s Newton had become a national laughingstock over its occasionally amazing but often horribly horribly wrong handwriting recognition technology. Palm took a different approach – rather than the PDA trying (and failing) to learn human handwriting, the Pilot worked with a special “Graffiti Alphabet” that required the user to make some effort to learn how to write.  But once mastered (it didn’t take long), you could write Graffiti quickly with a near 100% accuracy – without even looking at the screen.  (I once wrote a draft of an article for ‘boot’ with my eyes closed to test this!)

Xerox labs had a patent on a similar monostroke alphabet, and once Palm was seen as widely successful Xerox came knocking – wanting a ludicrously huge cut of Palm’s revenue in licensing fees.  Palm fought for years to get the Xerox patent invalidated, and was winning. But the potential liability grew too much for Palm to risk, so Graffiti was “upgraded” to the slightly easier to learn but much slower and less powerful for experienced users Graffiti 2. It was a major step in the wrong direction.

2004: The Death of the Clie

Sony was the largest consumer electronics company on earth, and had been the leading innovator in the PalmPowered market – delivering a string of innovative devices (spread over 13 different product lines!) that were always pushing the state of the art.

But Sony as a whole was struggling, and in mid-2004 Sony announced that as part of larger corporate reorganization and product line simplification, they were discontinuing future development of all PDA’s.

This was horrible news for PalmSource, which had been targeting the needs of Sony more so than the needs of PalmOne in its future OS planning.

The loss of Sony left PalmSource with one dominant customer, PalmOne – and a lot of increasingly fragmented smaller licensees, none of whom were fully committed to the PalmOS platform.

PalmSource was spun off at great expense to serve a licensee market that by the end of 2004 was starting to rapidly vanish.

2005: The Irrelevance of PalmSource

Ever since spinning off from Palm, PalmSource had been hard at work reinventing the PalmOS from the ground up to be a modern multitasking operating system suitable for smartphones.

The classic PalmOS (5.x) was rebranded as Garnet, and the upcoming PalmOS 6.0 was branded as Cobalt.  The intention was that both would continue on in parallel, with the older OS supporting product lines that had already been built up around the classic OS.

Unfortunately, while Cobalt was compelling under the hood – for existing PalmOS licensees it represented an immense amount of work to migrate to.  There was no clear and easy upgrade path, and there were no compelling end user features to generate customer demand for the new OS.  “It’s more advanced under the hood” isn’t much of a sales pitch to users looking for tangible features that would make Cobalt demonstrably worthwhile.

In building Cobalt, PalmSource spent all its time and energy attempting to live up to massive (and ultimately meaningless) carrier requirement documents issued by all the major cell providers.  But in the process the Zen of delighting users and keeping things simple completely fell by the wayside.

When PalmSource finally finished Cobalt in 2004, no one wanted it.

The licensees had dried up or moved on, and those that remained didn’t want to invest in the massive engineering work to move to Cobalt.  It was easier to keep sticking more and more bandaids onto the aging PalmOS Garnet to squeeze out a little bit more life.

Moving into 2005, PalmSource kept trying to evolve Cobalt to make it more appealing to new licensees, and even announced that future versions of Cobalt would embrace open source and the Linux kernel. There was even a skunkworks PalmOS Cobalt powered tablet project (ironically, done to impress HP).

But it was all too little, way too late.

To make things even more confusing in 2005, PalmOne decided that they wanted the Palm name back.  To get it, they paid PalmSource $30 million for the rights, and went through yet another corporate branding exercise – changing from PalmOne back into Palm.

The increasingly irrelevant PalmSource was up for sale, with a mobile operating system that no one wanted, one large customer (Palm) that wanted nothing more to do with them, and a lot great technology on the shelves that would never see the light of day.

Motorola made a bid to acquire PalmSource, but ultimately Japanese mobile browser maker Access Systems stepped in to buy up the remnants, and building upon Cobalt announced the ‘Access Linux Platform’.

But just like PalmSource with Cobalt, in an increasingly competitive mobile market Access never managed to find a customer who really cared.

2006: Flight to the Dark Side

With no clear OS evolutionary path forward, in 2006, the “new” Palm did what was once unthinkable – releasing the Windows Mobile powered Treo 700w. Palm was embracing their former arch enemy, and with one final payout to Access to secure perpetual rights to the classic PalmOS, Palm made it clear that they had no intention of ever embracing Cobalt (PalmOS 6.0) or the Linux-based ALP (Access Linux Platform).

With that final payout, the long and bitter divorce was over.

In 2006 Palm also turned its back on the category of devices it had pioneered – for the first time not releasing any new PDA models.

For better or for worse, from here on out Palm had tied its fate to being appealing to mobile operators, and to selling devices that come with two-year contracts attached.

The PDA was dead.

2007: Elevation Salvation

Palm was a hardware company without an operating system of its own, and with an increasingly dismal future. The PalmOS-powered Treo’s were reliant on an antiquated OS that was barely up to the job, and which had no evolutionary path forward. And relying on Windows Mobile left Palm with an untrustworthy partner and little ability to differentiate itself.

Palm needed a savior.

And it found one – in Elevation Partners, a private equity firm named after a U2 song and featuring Bono as a partner.  Elevation purchased a 25% stake in Palm for $325 million, and brought to Palm Jon Rubinstein (known for running Apple’s iPod division) to reinvigorate the company as the new CEO.

With money in the bank and new leadership, Palm decided to bet it all on completely breaking from the past to develop an entirely new mobile platform from scratch.

One casualty – Jeff Hawkins pet project, the Palm Foleo smartphone companion was cancelled just weeks before shipping.

2008: Hanging On

While working away furiously on the top secret WebOS platform, to remain relevant Palm had no choice but to keep polishing up the now ancient PalmOS 5.4.  The ultra-affordable Centro that shipped in late 2008 was a solidly capable smartphone that sold well, but there was no hiding that it was running essentially the same software that Palm first shipped in 2004.

Palm was stuck in stasis.  Only a dramatic break free from the past could save things.

2009: Overwhelmed by the Droid Army

Apple’s iPhone had raised the bar so high in the mobile platform arms race that few felt that Palm would ever be able to come back from oblivion.  But everyone’s tone changed when Palm stole the show at CES 2009 with their new WebOS platform and Pre smartphone.  WebOS emerged out of nowhere as the first credible competitor to Apple’s iOS, and it even leaped way ahead by providing advanced multitasking and notification management that left the iPhone looking old and clunky.

It seemed as if Palm might be back in the game.

But even with Elevation’s backing, Palm didn’t have the scale to push the Pre far enough fast enough, and the Pre wasn’t ready to ship until mid-year, and then only on Sprint.

It was a good solid effort, but Palm needed better than good to survive.

Palm was just starting to tread water signing up additional carriers when the tidal wave of Android powered devices came crashing to shore, leaving the Pre struggling in a crowded market squeezed between Apple, Google, and RIM – desperate for a niche.

2010: HP Takes Over

Heading into 2010, the word was that Palm was once again for sale – and reportedly Apple, Lenovo, RIM, and Google all were in negotiations to buy up Palm – some potentially interested just to acquire the wealth of patents.

But in April, Palm announced that HP had won the bidding war, and intended to keep the company and the WebOS platform alive.

Palm was saved from oblivion, but to what end?  HP indicated that WebOS had a future powering everything from printers to tablets, but the current WebOS and Pre and Pixi devices were left in limbo, waiting for HP to reveal its larger plans.

2011: Palm Nowhere, WebOS Everywhere

On February 9th, 2011 HP at last unveiled its plans for the future – announcing the upcoming WebOS powered HP TouchPad tablet and HP Pre3 and Veer smartphones.

What was missing from the announcement was any mention of ‘Palm’.  After a long and storied history, the brand was being left behind as WebOS evolved to move beyond strictly handhelds.

In March 2011, HP’s new CEO Leo Apotheker made it clear just how grand the WebOS destiny was, stating that starting in 2012, every one of the PC’s shipped by HP will include the ability to run WebOS as well as Windows.

HP is the largest PC maker in the world, and in a roundabout way, Palm may be destined to be “the next Microsoft” after all.

Perhaps in HP’s hands, the Zen will live on…

Notable PalmOS Licensees and Devices

PalmOS powered an amazing range of licensed devices.  Here are a few of the more innovative or unique highlights:

  • AlphaSmart: Released in 2002, the AlphaSmart Dana was a device designed for education, but its full-sized keyboard, incredible battery life (25+ hours of use on 3x AA batteries), and 560×160 resolution wide screen made it a cult favorite among writers on the go.
  • Fossil Wrist PDA: The Wrist PDA released in 2003 was a 160×160 resolution Palm PDA that was shrunk down to the size of a watch. I used to blow people away by checking train schedules right on my (left) wrist.
  • Garmin: The Garmin iQue line (launched in 2003) combined a PDA with a hires 320×480 screen and a built in Garmin GPS. No other device at the time could display maps on the go so beautifully. A special edition was certified for pilots, and came equipped with aviation maps.
  • Kyocera: The Kyocera 7135 (released in 2002) still has fans who consider it the best smartphone ever made. But Kyocera never made the jump to ARM and PalmOS 5.
  • Samsung: Samsung shipped a range of PalmOS smartphone, but by far the most innovative was the  planned flagship SGH-i530 flip phone.  Samsung gave the SGH-i530 to 13,000 VIPs and dignitaries at the 2004 Summer Olympic Games, but then inexplicably never released the i530 for sale.  This legendary rare device is occasionally still sighted on eBay.
  • Sony: Sony’s Clie line was on the market from 2000 through 2005, and during that time Sony released 13 different Palm Powered product lines that pushed the absolute limits integrating technology. Particularly notable was Sony’s NR70, which when it launched in 2002 was the first PDA with a 320×480 resolution screen.  It also featured an integrated camera, a swiveling screen, and a built in keyboard. It was an absolute marvel of miniaturization, way ahead of its time.
  • Symbol: Symbol’s line of Palm Powered industrial barcode scanners still live on scanning tickets at concert venues and around the world.
  • Tapwave Zodiac: Launched in 2003, the Zodiac handheld gaming device was the most powerful Palm Powered device of its time.  But it launched just in time to be steamrolled from two sides by the Nintendo DS and Sony PSP. The Zodiac featured ATI graphics acceleration, a 320×480 resolution screen, a 200MHz ARM CPU, up to 128MB of RAM, stereo speakers, dual SD slots, a beautiful metal case, and an analog joystick. It was a thing of beauty, but only 200,000 were ever made.

Timeline:

1992: Palm – Early Days

1995: US Robotics Acquisition

1996: Pilot 1000 / 5000

1997: 3Com Acquisition

1998: Handspring

2000: Palm (IPO)

2001: Be Acquisition

2002: PalmSource

2003: Merged into PalmOne

2005: Access, Palm (again!)

2006: Windows Mobile Treo

2007: Elevation Partners

2009: Palm WebOS / Pre

2010: HP Acquisition

2011: The End?

Original post by Chris Dunphy – Reposted thanks to Maximum PC. Covering everything from hi-end gaming PCs to tablets, peripherals and home theater rigs, Maximum PC’s print and Web editions stay one step ahead of the fast-changing world of everything computer and computing related. Whether its the latest on building your own desktop system, reviews of the latest laptops and accessories, or roundups of the games and software that make your machine go, Maximum PC brings it to you with news, reviews, and years of expertise. TechnoBuffalo is thrilled to bring you the best of Maximum PC right here on our own pages to keep you immersed in all things digital.



Maximum PC

Covering everything from hi-end gaming PCs to tablets, peripherals and home theater rigs, Maximum PC's print and Web editions stay one step ahead of...