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Keep it simple, Handspring co-founder urges

Handheld computing pioneer Jeff Hawkins, who founded Palm and Handspring, tells the audience at PC Expo what to expect in the future of wireless gadgetry.

NEW YORK--PC Expo kicked off on a decidedly non-PC note with an opening keynote address by handheld computing pioneer Jeff Hawkins.

Hawkins, introduced by Business Week columnist Stephen Wildstrom, dedicated his remarks to examples of unconventional thinking that trumped conventional wisdom. Hawkins gave the audience of PC marketers, resellers, applications developers, press and analysts a brief history of mobile computing and outlined his vision of the future of wireless gadgetry.

As founder of both Palm and Handspring, which makes a PDA (personal digital assistant) based on Palm's operating system, Hawkins referred to his own misconceptions of the device market, as well as to industry-wide missteps, many of which were driven by misreading consumer needs and interests, he said.

"It's not so easy to do," he said. "People get swept up in conventional thinking, which is often wrong."

Hawkins pointed to the idea that computers should adapt to people intelligently as an example of such misguided thinking. Rather than expecting so-called smart devices, designers should create practical tools that people will want to learn to use, like the keyboard, he said.

"People would rather have something that works," he said, adding that Graffiti, the Palm alternative alphabet he invented, works better than most handwriting recognition. "People will learn how to use a computer."

Another typical mistake is to add tons of bells and whistles to a product just because it's technically possible, he said. It's more important to do a few things well than to load a product with whiz-bang features.

Palm has referred to this strategy as the "Zen of Palm" and has compared it with competitor Microsoft's Pocket PC strategy of offering a scaled-down computing experience on a handheld device.

"You should focus on a few core things," Hawkins said. "It's very difficult."

Continuing on the theme of focusing on a simple consumer experience, Hawkins advocated forgetting about hardware specifications and CPU speeds and emphasizing ease of use.

In a possible dig at his former company, Hawkins asserted that standard technologies, especially expansion technologies, are not always better than proprietary formats. Palm today announced it is adopting the Secure Digital card standard as its primary expansion technology, bypassing Handspring's Springboard and Sony's Memory Stick formats.

"You should do what is right for the customer," Hawkins said. "I'm not trying to fracture the industry. But sometimes standards make sense, and sometimes they don't."

As for the future of mobile computing, Hawkins laid out a vision of smart Web-enabled cell phones, which won't necessarily be used primarily for Web access.

Instead, the high-speed broadband wireless networks of the future will be used to offer more intelligent voice and calling features, like caller ID, integration with address books and calendars, and better speed-dialing functions, he said.

Wireless data will actually be one of the later applications for these devices, because it needs always-on access and innovative content.

"The first generation see story: Technology tussle underlies wireless Webwon't be successful," he said, using WAP (Wireless Application Protocol) phones as an example of the slow adoption of wireless technology. "It will take a couple of years." WAP is a technology used for translating Web pages for small-screen devices with slow network connections.

Hawkins repeatedly compared the handheld market to the PC market of 20 years ago, predicting that mobile devices, like computers, will drop dramatically in price while becoming simpler, easier to use and more powerful. The overall market for such devices is at the beginning of a huge growth trend, he predicted, which means that today's major players may not dominate the market in the next few years.

"Handheld computers are the future of personal computing," Hawkins said, noting that just as Internet access has driven the popularity of home computing in the past five years, wireless Internet access will drive sales of PDAs and handheld computers.

After his formal remarks, Hawkins took questions from the audience, which mainly targeted Handspring's plans for future products. Upcoming Visors will feature rechargeable batteries and color displays, he promised, along with cellular phone capabilities through add-on products.

Hawkins--along with Palm chief operating officer Alan Kessler, Felix Lin from AvantGo and David Murphy from Tivoli Sytems--also participated in a panel on the future of wireless devices, which was dominated mainly by faulty audio feeds to the audience.