This tweet yesterday got me thinking:
Palm went public on this day in 2000.
At the time, it was worth more than Apple, Google and Amazon combined. pic.twitter.com/BqNJF37sNV
— Jon Erlichman (@JonErlichman) March 2, 2023
Two big tech things happened in the late 90s: one was the adoption of the Web, and two was the adoption of handheld computers. While Apple and its Newton may have been the first to go big in this area, it was Palm and its Pilot device that was truly successful. The Newton came out in 1993 and was killed by Jobs in 1998, while the Palm came out in 1997 and sold like gang busters. (Interestingly the Blackberry came out in the late 90s too.)
To appreciate why the Palm Pilot was so successful, it helps to know how things were back then. In the 90s we were still in the era of rolodexes and Dayrunners. Every year I would head down to the local paper shop (in Toronto I went to the Papery on Cumberland) and get my latest paper refills for the year and manually update my calendar and pencil things in. (And god forbid you ever lost it.) The Palm Pilot promised to get rid of all that. You could enter it all in the hand held device and then sync it up with your computer. It solved so many problems.
It also avoided the problems the Newton had. Unlike the Newton, it’s recognition of handwriting was simpler which made it better. It was relatively cheap and much cheaper than the Newton. And it worked on the PC. All those things also helped with its success.
What did not help Palm was a deluge of competition in this space, with everyone from Sony to Microsoft to RIM to deal with. They continued to make good devices like the Tungsten, but by then I was already moved over to the Blackberry. I wasn’t alone in this regard.
I still have a Palm Pilot. It’s a well designed device, even if the functionality it possesses seems quaint now. But back then, it was a force of change. It led the revolution in computing whereby instead of sitting in front of a computer, we carried one around in our hands. I would not have guessed it at the time, as I looked up my calendar or made my notes. I thought it was just a personal digital assistant. It turned out to be a world changer.