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Palm’s progress: The rise, fall—and rebirth—of a legendary brand

Long before its revival in 2018, the pioneer of PDAs and smartphones flourished—then foundered.

Palm’s progress: The rise, fall—and rebirth—of a legendary brand
Jeff Hawkins, the genius behind Palm—and Handspring, which later became part of Palm—proudly brandishes the Handspring Visor Prism in 2000. [Photo: TOSHIFUMI KITAMURA/AFP/Getty Images]

It was a pioneer in two of the most significant technology categories of our time: PDAs and smartphones. It was sold to a company that then sold itself. It went public, was split in two, reunified, and sold itself off again. Along the way, it lost its original team, then got them back. Then they left again.

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Oh, and it died. Until this year, when it came back.

Even by the fast-moving standards of Silicon Valley, the history of Palm is a little dizzying. In our new cover story, I write about its latest chapter: The brand has returned, on a new kind of portable gadget designed to help keep you in touch without distracting you too much from the real world. Here’s a look at some of the milestones in Palm’s story thus far–and until recently, who would have guessed that there was more to come?

1992

Jeff Hawkins launches Palm Computing, which helps create the Casio Zoomer, a rival (sold at RadioShack stores) to Apple’s Newton “Personal Digital Assistant.” Palm also devises Graffiti, a simplified handwriting-input system, which it sells as add-on software for the Newton. Acknowledging that he’s an idea guy rather than a manager, Hawkins hires Donna Dubinsky, a former executive at Apple software arm Claris, as Palm’s CEO. Ed Colligan, previously of display maker Radius, joins as VP of marketing, and eventually becomes CEO himself.

Palm’s original Pilot organizer and its immediate successors were a tad boxy—but the pocketable form factor worked in ways that Apple’s Newton and other early PDAs had not. [Photo: Rama & Musée Bolo/Wikimedia Commons]

1996

Now part of modem maker USRobotics (itself swallowed by 3Com in 1997), Palm releases its own PDA, the $299 Pilot. (The name it had planned to use–“Taxi”–was abandoned at the last moment over trademark concerns.) Small, affordable, and–above all–easy to use, the Pilot is the industry-changing blockbuster that the Newton and Zoomer were not. A 1997 update is officially called the PalmPilot; the “Pilot” part of the brand goes away after a lawsuit by the pen manufacturer of the same name, but consumers never stop using the “PalmPilot” term for Palm’s devices–and even PDAs from other manufacturers.

Handspring’s Visor ran the same software as Palm’s PDAs, but sported its own iMac-like aesthetic–and a clever expansion slot. [Photo: Flickr user Yuri Litvinenko]

1998

Hawkins, Dubinsky, and Colligan depart to found Handspring, which licenses Palm’s software for its own PDA, the Visor. Its biggest selling point over Palm’s own PDAs is its Springboard slot, which lets you add modules to give the Visor new features such as a camera or even cell-phone capability. When Palm acquires Handspring in 2003, it gets the execs back—along with Handspring’s Treo, the best smartphone of its era.

Like many a svelte mobile gadget, the Palm V wasn’t quite so portable once outfitted with a full complement of accessories. [Photo: FLC/Wikimedia Commons]

1999

Palm releases the Palm V, whose sleek aluminum case makes earlier Palm Pilots look like plasticky Fisher-Price toys. To achieve the slimmest possible profile, it dumps earlier Palms’ AAA batteries for a sealed-in battery, a controversial design move at the time. “The goal was beauty,” Hawkins later explains. “Beauty, beauty, beauty.” Perhaps the most lustworthy pre-iPhone handheld device, it’s a smash.

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2000

3Com spins off Palm as an independent public company. In the wake of IPO frenzy, it’s not just worth almost twice as much as 3Com–as the New York Times notes, it’s worth more than General Motors, Chevron, and McDonald’s.

2003’s Zire 71 was Palm’s first PDA with a camera; the LifeDrive was a short-lived super-PDA with a whopping–for 2005–4GB of storage. [Photo: Wikimedia Commons]

2003

Pursuing a Microsoft-like software licensing strategy, Palm rebrands as PalmOne and spins out its software arm into a company called PalmSource. The idea is that PalmSource will sell its operating system to third-party manufacturers such as Sony, which has already been using it for its innovative Clie handhelds. The gambit disappoints, prompting Palm to revert later to its original name and reacquire perpetual rights to its own platform.

Everything about the Treo 650, from its jellybean keyboard to stubby antenna, may mark it as an antique, but it was a delight when it came along. [Photo: ScaredPoet, ScaredPoet.com/Wikimedia Commons]

2004

The smartphone era is well underway, and Palm is a leader. The Treo 650 may be the hottest model of the moment, boosted by its impressively expansive software library: 20,000-plus apps that let users do everything from crunch spreadsheets to zap aliens.

A Palm running Windows? The Treo 700w was a good Windows Mobile device but a grim move for Palm. [Photo: Wikimedia Commons]

2005

Bowing to the corporate world’s predilection for Microsoft products, Palm introduces a Treo that runs Windows Mobile. The company continues making Palm OS–based Treos, but after years of heated battle with Microsoft, embracing Windows feels like spiritual surrender, complete with Bill Gates showing up at Palm’s press conference.

The Foleo was a laptop with the brains of a Treo, an idea Palm had second thoughts about before it had ever shipped a single unit. [Photo: Flickr user Thom Cochrane]

2007

At the Wall Street Journal’s D conference, Palm founder Hawkins proudly demos the Foleo, a laptoplike shell that lets you use your Treo with a big screen and real keyboard. Though clever, it’s a distraction from the smartphone wars–which, with the iPhone’s arrival, are entering a new phase. Palm kills the Foleo without ever having shipped it. Though it insists it will someday be back with a Foleo II, that never appears either.

Also in 2007, Palm hires former Apple executive Jon Rubinstein–one of the masterminds of the iPod–as its executive chairman. He replaces Colligan as CEO two years later. Steve Jobs is not pleased by his former lieutenant’s new affiliation.

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For one moment, it looked like the Pre stood a chance of restoring Palm’s faded glory. [Photo: Flickr user GillyBerlin]

2009

At the annual CES gadget-palooza in Las Vegas, in a launch event with Apple-esque flair, Palm reveals the Pre, a smartphone based on an all-new operating system called WebOS. The software is gorgeous and innovative. The Pre, however, has a form factor–small screen, slide-out keyboard–which feels out of date from the moment it ships. Initially available only on Sprint, the phone never threatens the iPhone and Android.

2010

Weakened by the Pre’s lackluster reception, Palm sells itself to HP for $1.2 billion. The computing giant says it plans to launch phones, tablets, PCs, and other products built around WebOS. (Under the HP name, that is–it retires the Palm brand.) But then it fires Mark Hurd, the CEO behind the deal. Under new chief Léo Apotheker, the company launches a would-be iPad killer called the TouchPad in 2011. But seven weeks later, it shutters the WebOS business.

2013

HP sells WebOS to LG, which adapts it to power smart TVs–and continues to use it for that purpose today. It’s not much, but it’s a whole lot better than if WebOS had never found any success at all.

2014

Chinese electronics giant TCL purchases the rights to the Palm brand from HP. It talks about using it on new phones, but doesn’t actually do so.

Palm’s comeback device runs Android and isn’t an exact counterpart to anything the original company ever shipped–but the spiritual linkage is there. [Photo: courtesy of Palm]

2018

A new startup backed by TCL–and Golden State Warrior Stephen Curry–adopts the Palm brand for a tiny Android-powered device designed for use when you’re working out, out on the town, or otherwise more interested in living in the moment than keeping your eyes glued to a screen. Though hardly the first time an old name has been applied to a new gadget–hello, Polaroid drones–it’s far more intriguing than most.

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About the author

Harry McCracken is the technology editor for Fast Company, based in San Francisco. In past lives, he was editor at large for Time magazine, founder and editor of Technologizer, and editor of PC World.

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