Ten years on, revisiting Palm's first Pilot

It's been a decade since Palm unveiled Pilot 1000, which made mobile computing simple and affordable. Photos: Ten years of Palm handhelds

A correction was made to this story. Read below for details.

Ten years ago, Palm's Pilot 1000 made mobile computing simple and affordable for millions of people--a revolution, said one early employee, born of frustration, a direct challenge and plywood.

Palm was about two years old in 1994, and designing software for handhelds, said Rob Haitani, employee number 25 and the lead designer of the Pilot 1000's user interface. The high-profile struggles of complicated devices like Apple Computer's Newton were making it hard to convince companies to invest in mobile computers.

"'Do you know the right product to make?'" Haitani recalled board member and early investor Bruce Dunlevie asking co-founder Jeff Hawkins. After Hawkins said yes, Dunlevie dropped the gauntlet: "'Well, then do it.'"

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More than a decade later, it's clear Hawkins did. The Pilot 1000 became the first viable mobile computer, spawning the PDA market and making Palm its champion right up till the time the market was undercut by the advent of the smart phone. You could even call the Pilot 1000 a distant relative of Palm's Treo, the device that seems to be helping the company meet the smart phone challenge: Last Thursday, Palm reported third-quarter earnings that exceeded Wall Street's expectations thanks largely to the new Treo device.

But when Haitani joined Palm in 1993, the company's future was less clear. Its first product, the Zoomer, went nowhere, and software development--such as that of the Graffiti handwriting-recognition program--continued to pay the bills. According to Haitani, Hawkins was frustrated by the hardware being produced by Palm's partners--perhaps not a surprise, given the climate.

"A lot of people (at that time) were trying to cram everything into one device," said Todd Kort, an analyst with Gartner, "like handwriting recognition and wireless capabilities that weren't ready yet."

After Dunlevie delivered his fateful challenge, Hawkins went home and did some whittling, carving a model of the proposed device out of plywood.

"Jeff said, 'It has to fit in your pocket, it has to be fast, and it has to be $299,'" Haitani recalled.

It also had to reach potential customers.

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"We knew we could build it," Hawkins said recently in a podcast produced by Palm in celebration of the anniversary. "But we knew we could also not possibly bring it to market."

The resources provided by U.S. Robotics, which bought Palm in 1995, helped bring the Pilot 1000 to the masses. Palm wasn't totally sure it had a hit until it started to get fresh orders from its channel partners much more quickly than it had anticipated, Haitani said. However, the company had already started designing the second generation, he said.

"The first generation of a product, you focus on the core pillars. And what will make that successful is not what you put in, but what you leave out," Haitani said. Palm, unfortunately, had left out a backlight, which made the screen hard to read at times. It corrected that oversight with a revision to the product: the PalmPilot.

Over the next few years, sales of the PalmPilot skyrocketed, and later varieties, starting with the Palm III, also did well. But after Palm co-founders Hawkins and Donna Dubinsky left the company to form Handspring following the acquisition of U.S. Robotics by 3Com, the two already had their second act in mind: the smart phone.

Haitani joined Handspring in those early days, when the plan was to fund development of this new class of handheld computer with sales of Palm OS-based PDAs called Visors. But manufacturing issues and the collapse of the dot-com market deeply hurt Handspring, which was

Both Handspring and Palm went public right at the height of the dot-com boom in 2000, and suffered through the same downturn. Unlike Handspring, however, Palm didn't have a ready successor to its PDAs. So in 2003, Palm brought Hawkins and Dubinsky back into the fold by spinning off the Palm OS development group and purchasing Handspring and the Treo.

Dubinsky now serves on Palm's board of directors, but she never took an active role with Palm following the Handspring acquisition. Hawkins is still Palm's chief technology officer, but he also works for Numenta, which is developing a new type of memory patterned after the human brain.

What's next for Palm? As a Palm architect, Haitani is helping develop the products that will carry the company through the next 10 years. He declined to drop any hints as to future direction, but the momentum generated by a certain a balsa wood prototype will continue to push the company through the next decade.

"I'm actually really excited about the next 10 years," Haitani said. "The Treo was, 'Let's take the functionality of the (Pilot) and the phone, and combine them without breaking anything.' The next generation will say, 'Now that we have these capabilities, I'm really carrying a whole high-speed Internet computer around with me.'"

Though Palm faces challenges moving into overseas markets, the company is in good shape as it enters its second decade of mobile computing, Gartner's Kort said. "If Palm hadn't acquired Handspring, Palm would be a dying company today."

 

Correction:Due to incorrect information provided by Palm, this story misstated the material used by Jeff Hawkins to build the first model of the Pilot 1000. It was plywood.
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