Face Time: Donna Dubinsky

Donna Dubinsky is half of the duo that turned the PalmPilot into the fastest-selling consumer product in history. So what's her killer app?

Title: President and CEO, Handspring Inc.
Age: 45
Family: Husband, Len Shustek, 52; daughter, 9
Net worth: $1 billion and change
Techno-gap: Didn't have a cell-phone until summer 2000
Limits to her sense of whimsy: "No, I will not do a handspring. No handsprings, no handstands."

Donna Dubinsky is worldly enough that in her first job, she did spreadsheets for a bank -- by hand. She is half of the duo (with Jeff Hawkins) who invented a new zone of computing with the PalmPilot, the fastest-selling new consumer product in history.

The pair left Palm in 1998 and started a new handheld-computing company called Handspring. Talk about having a magic touch. Handspring's first product, the Visor, is selling even faster than the PalmPilot did.

Dubinsky spoke to Fast Company in her second-floor office at Handspring's headquarters in Mountain View, California.

You worked for Apple and started two influential tech companies. What did your parents do?

My father was a scrap-metal broker. And my mother was a homemaker -- and a very serious bridge player.

Do either of them own a Palm or a Visor?

My mother has to have one by every phone. And everybody who knows me hears from her if she doesn't have the latest one.

What handheld are you using now?

I'm using Visor Platinum, with the new Visor Phone. There's a dictionary plug-in -- I don't think it's shipping yet, but it's about to -- a Merriam-Webster dictionary. I love having a dictionary. Just plug it in and look up a word.

Do you remember the last word you looked up?

Uh, let's see. "Chimera" (pronouncing it "chi-mera").

You mean "chimera" ("ki-mera")?

See, I'm not even pronouncing it right! I was reading it in some article. It's a word I see all the time. I thought, Well, let's look it up. So what's it mean? I don't remember now (laughing). But at the time, it made sense.

What's your favorite software besides the ones that come standard?

I love this little application called Password Store. You know, when you can't keep track of whether you're "Dubinsky" or "Dubinsky1" or "DDubinsky." And I love this little puzzle called Sokoban -- moving boxes in a warehouse. And there is this wonderful astronomy program. You show where you are, and what day of the year it is, and it will give you a map of the sky. It's a beautiful program.

What's the most over-the-top story you've heard about someone's relationship with their handheld?

I remember back at Palm, we had a couple who got married, beaming each other "I do." That certainly seems over the top!

When Len and I got married in July, I'd written this little poem for him, to toast him. At the appropriate time, I brought out my little sheet of paper and read him this funny limerick I had written about him. Then he whips out his Visor and says, "I don't know why you're using that old-fashioned paper. I've got my wedding poem right here." And he goes ahead and reads me his wedding poem from his Visor!

Is this your first marriage?

Yes. And it's Len's as well. It's proof that miracles do happen. Forty-five years old and never been married. He's 52 years old and never been married. Ninety-seven years of inexperience.

What was the big surprise in living with someone for the first time at age 45?

Actually, I made that transition by having adopted my daughter about 6 years ago. She was 3 1/2. So I'd been living with someone, and often there was another adult around, because I had a live-in nanny.

My husband had more of an adjustment. It's the strange things that are the hardest. Like, things move. You put something down, and it ends up somewhere else later. This is a very foreign concept if you've lived alone.

Your daughter's in the third grade. Does she have a Palm or a Visor?

No, but she would love one. She's constantly grabbing at mine, just to play the games. But kids don't really do anything useful with them, I've found, until they're young teens. It's becoming my standard bar mitzvah gift. Thirteen-year-olds love getting it.

Wow. You've certainly managed to up the ante on bar mitzvah gifts.

(Laughing) If you print that, there will be kids who didn't get one who will be very, very disappointed.

You're worth roughly a billion dollars, is that right?

It depends on the day. But it's very tenuous wealth. It's totally illiquid. There's no way I could turn that into a billion dollars today.

But you're certainly richer than your dad, the scrap-metal dealer.

Yeah.

Do you worry about that in relation to your daughter? Do you guys live a "wealthy" life?

Not really. I drive my Chevy Blazer with 50,000 miles, five years old, although I have been thinking of getting a new car. We go to nice places on vacation. We don't live frugally. I don't want to overexaggerate it.

So what's your daughter's allowance?

She doesn't have one. She's not into money yet. She doesn't quite get it. I'll tell you one story. I heard her say to another child, "I'm rich." And it upset me. So after the child left, I sat my daughter down and said, "You can't be saying this to people. We're very fortunate." And so on.

And she looks at me like, What are you talking about? She pulls out her change purse, which is stuffed full of pennies and nickels, and says, "But look, Mom, I am rich." I thought, Okay, I don't have to worry about it quite yet.

Contact Donna Dubinsky by email (ddubinsky@handspring.com).

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