Stephen Curry slides the gadget onto his arm. Encased in a spandex sleeve, it goes up past the New Testament quote tattooed on his right wrist–“Love never fails,” in Hebrew–and lands on his forearm below the short sleeve of his gray linen shirt. Curry breaks into an approving grin. “I can see I’m going to wear this when the time is right,” he says of the accessory. He’s gotten into road cycling lately, and he exuberantly mimes the act of glancing at the device while chugging from a water bottle.
Dennis Miloseski and Howard Nuk smile, too. The Silicon Valley design veterans, who look the part with neatly trimmed beards and head-to-toe black wardrobes, have invited Curry to their San Francisco office on this July afternoon to solicit his opinion. Curry isn’t merely a one-man focus group; the Golden State Warriors point guard and two-time NBA MVP is an investor in Palm, the company they cofounded, and carries the title of creative strategy director. Besides capital, he’s providing them with advice and—as Palm’s public face—promotional value which might be worth millions in itself.
Hold on—Palm? The once-mighty, now-defunct maker of the pioneering 1990s personal digital assistants and, later, smartphones? Not exactly. This is a brand-new startup, which has borrowed the original company’s name and at least some of its ethos. Its debut product, the device Curry has affixed to himself, is itself known as the Palm. It resembles a smartphone, makes calls, and runs Android apps, but it’s remarkably diminutive—more like a few stacked credit cards than the Hershey bar–size handsets of today.
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Despite its nostalgia-inducing moniker, the Palm—scheduled to arrive in November at 1,500 Verizon-owned stores plus resellers—is a new kind of gadget. (“We call the category ‘Palm,’ ” Miloseski declares when I ask, though he and Nuk also bandy about the term “ultramobile.”) Unlike a full-blown smartphone—which it aims to complement rather than replace—the Palm is small enough that you can easily strap it on like Curry is doing, tuck it into a yoga-pants pocket, or drape it around your neck on a lanyard. The software strives to be similarly minimal, safeguarding you against being pelted with notifications or seduced by Instagram, Candy Crush Saga, or other distractions. Palm envisions the $350 device as an alternative to wearables such as the $399 Apple Watch Series 4.
With a handful of full-time employees, Palm, the company, is based in a historic San Francisco building that once housed a lithographer of fruit-crate labels. Its brick-walled, lofty space overlooks a tranquil courtyard and feels more like a home than a headquarters. So it doesn’t seem odd that Curry, who is famously a family man, has brought a couple members of his with him to this meeting. His father, Dell, himself a 16-season NBA veteran, mingles with staffers, while his 6-year-old daughter, Riley, occupies herself with an iPad in a pink case. (Curry’s wife, Ayesha, a Food Network host and restaurateur, is at home with their son, Canon, who was born the previous week; 3-year-old Ryan is at school.)
At 6-foot-3, the 30-year-old Curry doesn’t come off as a colossus in person, and he’s even more approachable once he slouches into a chair to chat about why he got into the consumer electronics business. Though his endorsement deals—Under Armour, Infiniti, Brita, and others—added up to, by one estimate, $42 million in 2018 alone, he’s interested in pursuing more meaningful collaborations that will help prepare him for the day when he’s no longer on an NBA roster. It’s not about “just picking partners based around financial gain,” he says, “but being part of the development process.” He’s chosen this particular project because he believes in its potential to make people—including himself—”more present, more energetic, more engaged with family.”
On the court, where Curry has turned the seemingly mundane three-pointer into the trendiest shot in basketball, he’s used to thriving by doing the unexpected. “Players tend to underestimate him because he’s always been small, and the game was always about size,” says Marcus Thompson, the author of Golden: The Miraculous Rise of Steph Curry. In an era of ever more gargantuan, immersive smartphones, Palm is trying to convince consumers that they want something smaller and more subdued. It’s also intruding on the territory of giants such as Apple and Samsung, carrying the banner of a seemingly moribund brand. And even in the best of circumstances, hardware is—as tech-industry conventional wisdom says—hard. If Miloseski and Nuk’s little company defeats the odds, there will be poetry in the fact that Steph Curry helped make it happen.
The seed for the new Palm was planted at Samsung, where Miloseski and Nuk met in 2012. Miloseski, who spent five years at Google, had roots in software; Nuk, who’d previously worked for industrial-design titans Frog and Ammunition, was a hardware guy. The gadgets they cranked out from Samsung’s San Francisco design studio—fitness bands, smartwatches, headphones, and more—helped the company overcome a festering reputation for knowing only how to knock off Apple.
Wearying of the big-company grind, the pair quit Samsung toward the end of 2016. “We did a bit of soul searching,” says Miloseski. “We’d spent the greater part of 20 years addicting people to technology.” Rather than creating something designed to lure humans into spending even more time staring at screens, they wondered if they might find a way to liberate people.
Even at Samsung, Miloseski and Nuk had attempted to make technology less attention grabbing with the Gear Fit, a sleek, minimalist smartwatch. But though smartwatches let you keep your phone stowed away, they still have a tendency to intrude on real life. “Notifications come in so often that people are now looking at their wrists more often and it’s almost more rude,” says Miloseski. The noble goal seemed to call for a fresh perspective.
Seeing the smartphone’s addictive nature as a problem to be solved was an idea that was just beginning to gain cultural currency, and it’s achieved only more traction since. Tristan Harris, a design ethicist at Google, had grown increasingly concerned that tech companies were willfully engineering their apps to make them compulsive habits, as if they were slot machines; he left the company in January 2016 to crusade full time against this trend, later turning his Time Well Spent movement into a nonprofit organization called the Center for Humane Technology.
Psychotherapist Nancy Colier’s book The Power of Off had just come out when Miloseski and Nuk were devising their plans. “As soon as we show up for a meal with a friend, we’ve got the phone right there in between us,” she says. “We’re saying, ‘You’re not enough. Something better might come in.'” Even solitude has been corrupted by digital distraction, she laments: “People see their own company as something they dread.”
Miloseski and Nuk are, of course, technologists. So it’s not a shocker that the cure they landed on for screen addiction was . . . another screen. But theirs would be a less attention-hogging one. Something you might take to the gym or nightclub, while your primary phone stayed at home.
The vision, in its initial incarnation, was hyperminimalist. “We stripped it down to nothing,” explains Nuk. “We took the cameras off, no buttons, no anything. [We thought] it should just be a black pebble, and magically light up and respond to your voice. From there, we started to put the features back in that we believed were absolutely critical.” When that process concluded, their device did look more like a smartphone again, and could perform every major smartphone task except replacing a credit card for in-person payments. (Don’t call it a smartphone around them, though: “We never call it a phone—it’s something new,” Nuk stresses.) But it was tiny, with a touch screen measuring only 3.3 inches from corner to corner—Lilliputian in an era when smartphone displays routinely sprawl to 5.8 inches and beyond. And it had just one button, to turn the screen on and off; even the volume buttons went away in favor of on-screen controls.
On the software end, Miloseski and Nuk took Google’s Android—designed to permit customization by hardware makers—and retooled it for a simpler experience. A feature known as Life Mode—represented on the device’s screen by an idyllic palm tree—ensures that the device will never demand your attention when you’re otherwise occupied. When the screen is off, Life Mode shuts down incoming calls, notifications, and every other form of distraction. Unlike a typical smartphone do-not-disturb feature, Life Mode is designed to be something you might keep turned on most of the time, though you can flip it off and on at will or set it on a timer to turn off for one, two, or three hours at a time. Additional elements include a vastly streamlined home screen and shortcuts to let you accomplish tasks—such as playing a Spotify playlist—with a minimum of taps. The streamlined on-screen keyboard was provided by Fleksy, a company with experience designing even smaller ones for use on smartwatches.
The end result is an experience which feels both familiar and new. Android apps are still usable on the dinky screen, and the whole device is so compact that you can comfortably cradle it in your palm and tap with your thumb in a way that’s increasingly unwieldy with big phones. But the display’s tight quarters discourage the sort of uses which might suck you in: Unless you’re a fan of eyestrain, you probably won’t want to read lengthy articles—like this one, say—or watch a movie in its entirety.
If you think back far enough, you’ll remember a time when many mobile phones—as well as gadgets such as the iPod Nano—embraced being tiny as a defining characteristic. Miloseski and Nuk’s brainchild is their spiritual heir. “It’s a little bit Back to the Future,” says Mike Finley, senior VP and president, North America at Qualcomm, which provides the chip that powers the device. “You have a small device that’s easy to carry around. From the sport and fitness side, the social and fashion side, the music side, the convenience of it, I think it has a lot of legs in a lot of different places.”
Like nearly all consumer electronics, Miloseski and Nuk’s new device was bound to be assembled in a factory in Asia, which led them to approach TCL, a manufacturing behemoth headquartered in Huizhou, in China’s Guangdong Province. As it turned out, the company wasn’t just happy to help Miloseski and Nuk with their manufacturing needs; it also quickly made a strategic seed investment, which permitted them to ramp up their still-nascent enterprise. It even offered a name for the still-stealthy startup: Palm.
That moniker, though a head-snapper at first, had an undeniable logic. The original Palm Pilot took off in 1996 because it didn’t try to do too much. At the time, “a lot of the folks who approached the [handheld] space had tried to create miniaturized personal computers,” says Michael Mace, who served in several executive positions at Palm and its software spin-off, PalmSource, from 2000 to 2005. “The Palm Pilot was an accessory. It was about your calendar and your address book, and that was about it. But it made those things super, super easy to carry with you.”
From those humble beginnings, Palm’s handhelds grew increasingly capable, helping to set the stage for smartphones such as the company’s own Treo. Palm sold more than 30 million personal digital assistants and smartphones during its first decade, but also made more than its share of strategic blunders—and struggled for relevance in the iPhone era. Hewlett-Packard bought the company in 2010 and announced grandiose plans to build an ecosystem around its next-generation WebOS software. Fourteen months later, however, the CEO who had championed the acquisition was gone, and his successor killed all of HP’s WebOS products, including a tablet that had been introduced, with Apple-esque hoopla, just seven weeks earlier. With that, Palm’s history came to an ignominious end.
But not quite. Three years later, the Palm trademark, though dormant, retained enough value that HP was able to off-load it to TCL, which had a long-standing interest in selling gear to Westerners using names they know. (TCL struck a deal in 2003 to market TVs under the 99-year-old RCA brand, and in 2016 licensed the rights to make BlackBerry phones as BlackBerry itself focused on software and services.) When Miloseski and Nuk came calling, TCL still “didn’t know what they were going to do with the brand,” says Nuk.
From Westinghouse to MySpace, old nameplates have been affixed to new products for years, simply to wring out any residual equity out of a familiar brand. But Miloseski and Nuk insist that they have something more ambitious in mind. “This is not about saying, ‘Look at this great brand, and it’s back,'” says Miloseski. “It had to be an invention story.” Their model is BMW’s reboot of the Mini Cooper as a modern, sporty car: “You have a 25-year-old driving right now who may not have known that the Mini existed in the ’60s, yet they still love that Mini.”
With dry-erase marker in hand, Stephen Curry stands at a whiteboard in Palm’s office. With him are Miloseski, Nuk, and Bryant Barr, Curry’s best friend, college roommate and teammate, and the current president of SC30, the company responsible for managing Curry’s investments, philanthropic efforts, and more. The four are plotting a promotional plan for the device’s release, and their chatter has a guerrilla aspect to it, with discussions of unrelated Curry media tours and TV appearances that Palm might be able to piggyback on. Then there are the influencers who may be reachable with his assistance; when a boxer’s name comes up, Curry notes that he was at the second game of the Warriors’ NBA Finals this year.
By the time this brainstorming session happens, the Palm/SC30 team has been working together for months. It’s easy to forget, at least fleetingly, that that’s Stephen Curry up there. Product-management head David Woodland, Miloseski and Nuk’s first hire, was the one who’d first thought to approach the basketball icon to invest in Palm, during the summer of 2017. It was a wild idea—but not completely nuts. Like his Warriors teammates Andre Iguodala and Kevin Durant, Curry had strong ties to the Silicon Valley–startup ecosystem. He had even cofounded a tech company with Barr, called Slyce, which built social media tools for athletes before shutting down last summer. (“There were a lot of learning moments,” says Barr.)
“We had no idea how you get hold of Steph Curry,” recounts Woodland, a Bay Area native and Warriors fanatic who Googled for leads. An earnest pitch to Curry’s agent and finance chief led to face time with the NBA star himself over Labor Day weekend at his gym. He was practicing shooting when the entrepreneurs arrived with a slide deck and a nonfunctioning model of their device, which they’d code-named Pepito after a French brand of cookie.
Curry had a plane to catch and had blocked out half an hour for Palm. He still associated the company’s brand with the Palm Pilot his father had carried years ago and the games he had played on it as a child. “When he was done with it, he handed it down to me, and my brother and I would fight over it,” he remembers. “When I met them at the gym and they said ‘Palm,’ that was the first thought I had for a second.”
Once Curry learned about the new device and its ambitions, he found it so intriguing that he blew right past that window and had to scramble to make his flight. (Fortunately, they held the plane for him.) “From the jump, I fell in love with [it],” he remembers, and envisioned “how I could use this product in my own life. I was like, ‘What is that? Does it work now? Can I have it?’ ”
If anything, Palm wasn’t prepared for how quickly the NBA star bonded with what it had created. “He started digging into the function of the product and what it was about and why we started the company and why all of that mattered,” says Miloseski.
For everyone involved, the timing was serendipitous: Curry and his SC30 crew were already scouting for opportunities that went beyond standard endorsements. “Most athletes hire an agency to do everything for them, and for 99 percent of athletes, that’s perfect,” says Barr. “You strike while the iron’s hot, you have this limited runway, and you try to capitalize.” As an investment, a learning experience, and a vehicle for his own active participation in product development, Palm offered Curry something different.
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Turning Curry’s enthusiasm into an investment did take a few months. During that time, Palm was also talking with Verizon, which was impressed both by the device and Curry’s possible involvement. “It wasn’t simply about the smallest smartphone,” says Brian Higgins, Verizon’s VP of device and consumer product marketing. “Quite honestly, if it was, then we probably would have passed. They were really thinking about how can they reinvent something in a smaller form factor that allows individuals to really just connect with what matters.”
Both deals fell into place in early 2018, with Verizon securing exclusive rights to sell the Palm and putting its formidable muscle behind the launch. The team the carrier deployed to help get the device ready for market is far larger than Palm’s staff in its entirety; dozens of Verizon employees took part in a full day of brainstorming workshops at the company’s New Jersey office. “There are things that they don’t have to deal with when they deal with the megacorps, but they have to do with us,” says Nuk. “They’ve gone above and beyond.”
Along with cases which Palm is developing itself—and some created by third-party makers—Verizon is producing its own line of accessories, such as a sparkly Kate Spade wristlet case. It also provided the technology—originally developed for use with smartwatches—that lets you share one phone number between the Palm and your main smartphone, so you can call and text on whichever one you have with you. (Adding the Palm to your existing Verizon account costs $10 a month.)
As for Curry, some of the value he brings to Palm comes from the fact that he’s active, family-oriented, and, while digitally savvy, prefers living in the moment: “He is the persona we’re trying to make this for,” says Woodland. Miloseski and Nuk take his opinions seriously when he chimes in about the fit of an accessory or the look of a product’s packaging. For instance, they made the spandex sleeve grippier after Curry found that it tended to slip on his arm as he threw three-pointers—300 of them per set—during training sessions.
Though Curry doesn’t claim to call the shots at Palm, he’s not a figurehead, either. There are plenty of examples of celebrities associating themselves with tech brands in a way that begins with a PR blitz and ends in disappointment, but Palm and Curry aspire to a deeper, more productive relationship. One source of inspiration is Beats, which was cofounded by rapper/producer Dr. Dre and quickly came to dominate the market for premium headphones before being acquired by Apple for $3 billion in 2014. “From the very beginning, [Dre] was really just very passionate,’ ” recalls Robert Brunner, the founder of Ammunition, Beats’ original industrial-design partner. “In the first meeting we had, he made the statement, ‘People aren’t hearing my music,’ and we put it on the box.”
For any celebrity, “It’s a mistake to think, ‘I’m going to put my name on it, and it’ll be successful,’ ” adds Brunner, who also worked with LeBron James and Will.i.am on Beats headphones and Lady Gaga on a line of Polaroid products, among other collaborations. “People see through that. They can understand when there’s a lack of authenticity in something, and they’ll leave it behind very quickly.”
Curry’s extracurricular activities beyond Palm are manifold. In April, he signed a development deal with Sony that spans movies, TV, games, and VR. Then there’s his philanthropic work, such as the basketball camp he hosted for 200 girls, ages 9 to 16, in August—to help “close the opportunity gap,” he wrote. Still, his visits to the startup often stretch well past their official end time, and he sees Palm not as an isolated sideline but something he can blend with other aspects of his personal platform. If he’s playing in a celebrity golf tournament, he reasons, why not just happen to be spotted on the greens with a Palm in hand? “It’s something I would do whether anybody was looking or not,” he hastens to say. “But it’s about finding ways that that Palm can show up very strategically, but also with the biggest impact.”
In one case, Curry’s input during a meeting at Palm HQ proved pivotal. The company had planned to call its gadget the CoPilot. Along with conveying the sense that it was designed to be a companion to a big smartphone, the name further linked the new Palm with the Palm Pilot legacy. But it “didn’t roll off the tongue very well,” sniffs Curry, who persuaded the founders to go all in on the Palm brand. He likens the contribution to the scene in The Social Network when Sean Parker casually informs Mark Zuckerberg that “TheFacebook” should remove “The” from its name. “That was my moment,” he says, chuckling at the memory.
When I drop in at Palm’s loft in late August, the team is congregated around the table where Miloseski and Nuk work each day, group editing the on-screen text that Life Mode will use to explain itself to users. (“Life Mode is off,” they agree, beats “Life Mode has been turned off.”) Marketing head Collin Willardson—a recruit from underwear purveyor Mack Weldon—walks everyone through the storyboards he’s sketched for a promo video, with stick figures of Curry and others integrating the Palm into their lives.
Earlier in the month, several gadget blogs had gotten wind of a few photos and details relating to the Palm device and strained to suss out what, exactly, it was. (The Verge: “Alleged new Palm smartphone is tiny, strange, and has low-end specs.”) No one, Nuk emphasizes to me, grasped that Palm is attempting to create a new, less distracting piece of personal technology. But at least they were intrigued.
The confusion underscores how difficult it is to anticipate how the public will react to the Palm—one more device, probably on top of a pricey smartphone!—until it’s in the wild. Miloseski and Nuk have identified an actual problem that needs addressing: digital distraction. But as with any new piece of hardware from an unproven company, execution is everything, and the margin for error is small. “We think about it every day, a thousand times a day, how hard it is,” says Nuk.
Then again, even if the Palm is a game-changing triumph, it could still end up being trampled by giants. “Tech companies, thankfully, are waking up and saying, ‘Wait a minute—if we’re making this happen, and benefiting from it financially, we have to take some responsibility for this crack cocaine for the mind,'” says psychotherapist Colier. At their 2018 developer conferences, both Apple and Google unveiled digital well-being features for their respective operating systems, providing tighter control over interruptions as well as stats on daily phone use.
Smartphone kingpins such as Apple, Google, and Miloseski and Nuk’s former employer, Samsung, could easily downsize their current designs into something at least superficially similar to the Palm. If the device sells well, at least some of them probably will. When asked about competitors, Miloseski gives the traditional bring-it-on response: “We’re expecting them, and we’re welcoming them, because what it does is validate our category.”
By then, Palm might be exploring new territory. “Obviously, we’re focused on this first version and making it a huge hit,” Curry tells me during our July encounter. “But we’ve already talked about different categories that Palm could go into.” His determination and optimism feel absolutely real. And when he leaves the loft—with his father at his side and his daughter in his arms—he has once again stayed longer than he intended.