PalmPilot: 10 Years that Changed the Way We Work

Thursday Apr 6th 2006 by Sharon Gaudin
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The PalmPilot, and the age of the mobile worker that it helped to create, has turned 10 years old. It wasn't the first handheld but users say it was 'revolutionary'.

Ten years ago, workers largely were tied to their desks, hemmed in by cubicle walls. When they were sent outside company confines, they lugged papers and folders and bulky laptops from airport to airport.

Then in March of 1996 something happened that changed the way people work.

Palm Computing launched the Pilot 1000, a mobile device that worked as a companion to a PC, enabling users to synchronize information and take it with them, helping to break the chains that tied them to their offices. Weighing in at only 5.7 ounces, the Pilot wasn't the first handheld device to hit the market. But it was the first one to catch fire, becoming not only a market leader but a cultural phenomenon. The pocket-sized devices have organized information and lives in the boardroom, the emergency room and countless hotel rooms. It's even made it to the top of Mt. Everest and flown in the Space Shuttle.

And now the PalmPilot, and the age of the mobile worker that it helped to create, has turned 10 years old -- a nostalgic milestone for those who love their cool tools and for those who just like to keep their work lives better organized.

By allowing people to travel with their schedules, addresses, phone numbers and to-do lists, that first Pilot grabbed the attention of the Silicon Valley elite. Since then, Palm has sold more than 34 million devices to busy mothers managing the family schedule, students keeping track of assignments... and, of course, to the now mobile worker.

''They changed the world... It changed the way we work,'' says Richard LeVine, senior manager of Accenture, a Chicago-based global management consulting and outsourcing company. ''In 1996, I went to work in Silicon Valley and a friend came in for a job interview. I said, 'What is that cool thing you have?' He said, 'Oh, it's a Pilot.' I went right out and got one... It was revolutionary.''

LeVine, like many longtime PalmPilot users, upgraded over the years from one version of the PalmPilot to the next. Today, though he uses an Audiovox SMT5600, he has a cabinet full of old Pilot handhelds that for years organized his life.

''PalmPilot was the beginning of the handheld revolution,'' he adds. ''Palm drove a huge part of the technical population into this space and then we dragged consumers along with us. It changed the way people thought. People carried this to a meeting instead of a laptop or a pad of paper... Having access to this information in my pocket was revolutionary.''

In the last decade, that original pocket-sized organizer, which sold for $299, has added email, a wireless connection and multi-media capabilities, like images and music. And Palm even has morphed it into a new incarnation of itself -- the popular Treo smartphone, which combines cell phone capabilities with email and organizational applications.

But it was that original handheld device that started it all.

''I had one of the very first ones,'' says MJ Shoer, president of Jenaly Technology Group Inc., a Portsmouth, N.H.-based outsourced IT firm. ''I was sick of carrying a huge daytimer that had all my contacts, my calendar, my reference information that I needed to have with me. It was a pain in the neck to carry around. When I saw there was something electronic out there and it wasn't big and bulky like the Apple Newton, I thought, 'Hey, I gotta get this'. This was pocketable. I could synch it up to my computer so I didn't have to have separate copies of stuff. It was easy to carry around. It was awesome. It was a natural evolution.''

As new versions of the Pilot were released, both Shoer and LeVine continually upgraded, adding to their growing collections of handhelds. Shoer says he had eight over the years.

And both say each one freed them up to move about with critical business, personal and technical information in their pockets.

''There's more mobility and more co-mingling of information today because of the PalmPilot,'' says Joe Wilcox, an analyst with JupiterResearch, an industry analyst firm. ''If people can carry their stuff around -- both work and personal -- it fundamentally changes how they work and how the work role is defined. If you go back 10 years, most workers were defined by location. With the proliferation of mobile devices, whether PDAs, cellphones or laptops, the workforce has grown in mobility and people's roles have changed.''

Read on to find out what made the PalmPilot the 'must-have' tool and where it's headed in the future...

Simple by Design

Rob Haitani, Palm Architect at what now is Palm, Inc., says what originally worked for them was actually looking beyond the technology and focusing on what people needed to carry around with them. Too much technology -- no matter how cool -- simply carried too much weight. And another bulky gadget wasn't what consumers were looking to lug around.

''We thought products like the Newton didn't succeed because it was technology for technology's sake,'' says Haitani. ''It was too large and too slow. It had very poor battery life and it was too expensive. It was like $700 for this large brick. They kept adding new features and we thought they were going in the wrong direction.''

Company founder Jeff Hawkins figured that people needed to find phone numbers and see their schedule, according to Haitani, who was the twenty -fifth employee hired at Palm. If they could deliver that with a long- lasting battery in a light-weight form, the underlying technology wouldn't matter. So Haitani says they stripped it down, built in hot synch, and went with the basics.

And it quickly caught on.

Palm reports that in the first 18 months the Pilot was available, the company sold 1 million Pilot organizers. That's a faster adoption rate than that for the IBM PC, the Apple Macintosh and even the microwave oven.

''What Palm got right was simplicity,'' says Wilcox. ''It was easy to use and it did just enough... The other thing that Palm got right was that it took a platform approach, the way Microsoft had done on the desktop with Windows. It made third-party development easy and attractive. While Palm kept the core simple, there were plenty of things to buy for people who wanted more.''

Guiding the Pilot into the Future

While the Pilot, which Palm executives now refer to as 'the handheld', still is being sold, it's clear that Palm is focused on the Treo. Research and design efforts, as well as marketing muscle, are solidly behind this popular smartphone.

The Treo got a lot of publicity and market attention recently when the company diverted from the Palm platform and used the Windows Mobile Platform for the Treo 700W.

''I think their willingness to put the Windows smartphone operating system on the Treo is brilliant,'' says LeVine. ''A lot of firms would go down in flames before they adopt a disruption because they would find that offensive to their purity... They're showing some vision right now in being willing to adopt other operating systems. This is all normal for a firm that reaches ascendancy and then has to deal with disruption. What they've done is deal with it. They got themselves onto some phones. They got the Windows technology into their devices where it made sense. They've made smart decisions all along and I can't see them losing their grip on the market now.''

Palm's Haitani says part of the handheld's legacy will be that it's a part of the Treo. And though he says the handheld won't be going away anytime in the near future, there will come a time when it will have morphed into other devices and will no longer be needed.

''The Treo and the handheld aren't the same product line but they are the same evolution,'' he notes. ''Our future growth is focused on the Treo at this point. The whole pie is mobile computing... Handheld devices and PalmPilots will all evolve into these smartphone types of products.''

The form factor may change but communication and organizational needs will remain the constants, says Haitani.

''In the future, they may not even be a phone,'' he says, adding that as smartphone prices come down, they'll eventually be considered entry-level devices, pushing the handheld further out of the market. ''The point is we're saying people want to communicate and send information, and whatever technology that takes we will follow that path.

Ultimately, the PalmPilot's future lies in the digital DNA it passed on to the Treo and all the other smartphones that will come along from Palm.

''Palm was the beginning of this era,'' says LeVine. ''I bought it. I liked it. I used it. It was invaluable to me for a decade... I moved away from it and stepped into the next generation. They had a great product and people, like me, who were very early adopters are moving to become early adopters of other great products. We see the promise of the next thing.''

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