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Palm cofounder shares design philosophy

As the architect of the original PalmPilot device and the new Visor handheld from Handspring, Jeff Hawkins has a tip for software and hardware developers: Know when to stop.

SANTA CLARA, California--As the architect of the original PalmPilot device and the new Visor handheld from Handspring, Jeff Hawkins has a tip for software and hardware developers: Know when to stop.

Using his keynote at the PalmSource developer's conference here to articulate a philosophy for designing handheld products, Hawkins shared anecdotes about the pitfalls he encountered while crafting devices based on Palm Computing's operating system.

One of the keys to successful product design, Hawkins stressed, is understanding the importance of a simple user experience. That simplicity can and should stop designers from overloading devices with too many unnecessary features.

Along with Donna Dubinsky a co-founder of both Palm Computing and now start-up Handspring, Hawkins is referred to as the "father of handheld computing" by conference attendees. Handspring, established a year ago, began shipping its first product last week, the first product to tackle Palm devices on their own turf.

The conference is a gathering of hardware and software developers in the handheld realm, a market that is expected to grow by leaps and bounds during the next few years. The principal players are Palm Computing, with its dominant Palm devices, and Microsoft and its hardware partners, whose products run the scaled-down Windows CE operating system. So far the latter have struggled to make much progress against Palm.

Hawkins suggested that the audience of third-party software and hardware developers remember two key groups when designing products, developers and users.

Developers should weed out unnecessary features and disregard PC-centric concerns such as processor speed, user interface, and hardware specifications, he said. Instead, designers should figure out the desired function of their device and work backwards to develop the necessary technology which should be simple to use.

Hawkins described an unusual method for testing prototypes. That process, which includes repeated usability testing with a wooden model of both the PalmPilot and Handspring's Visor devices, may result in dropping some good features from a prototype of a device, he said. In addition, developers should avoid being wooed by "the next big thing" if the technology is not integral to the function of the device.

Hawkins cited voice recognition as one such expendable technology. "I find voice recognition uncompelling, even if it works," he said, dismissing speech recognition as an attractive method of inputting data.

Designers who make hard decisions about what features to drop from products, as well as which features to include, will be rewarded by a loyal development community, Hawkins predicted.

"Make the product compelling to the end user and then get out of the way," he said, explaining his method of dealing with the development community.

Many observers credit the loyal corps of Palm software and hardware developers as one of the keys to Palm's continued success in the handheld market. Hawkins indicated he intends to continue that trend, noting that he pushed to have Handspring's Hardware Development Kit posted to the Handspring Web site the same day the product was announced.