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What the PalmPilot can teach us about designing products people love

Today, we have a love-hate relationship with our devices. There’s a lot to be learned from Palm and its intuitive, inexpensive, functionality-focused PDAs.

What the PalmPilot can teach us about designing products people love
[Source Photo: Kirk Mckoy/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images]

In our iPhone-saturated world, it can feel impossible to believe that at one point, around the turn of the 21st century, an entirely different company and mobile device dominated the market. It, too, earned outsize consumer devotion and merited praise for its simplicity, design, and function. But back then, the world of mobile computing belonged not to Apple, but to Palm.

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In a May 2001 feature in Fortune magazine about the cultural impact of Palm, the company behind the genre-defining PalmPilot handheld computer, writer John Simons reported that he’d “seen the best minds of my generation in thrall to their Palm Pilots.” He noted its one-time 83% market share, and predicted that a high-end version of the device was “destined for a place in the Smithsonian.” A million PalmPilots were sold in its first year and a half on the market, the article reported, outpacing the IBM PC, the Walkman, color TV, and cellphones in the rate of consumer acceptance. When Palm went public in March 2000, it was valued at $53.3 billion (a market cap bigger than GM or McDonald’s). “No hourglasses while programs loaded. No crashes. The Palm just made life easier,” Simons wrote.

[Photo: courtesy New Deal Design]

Palm’s era as a tech titan, like many other early leaders in mobile, would be short lived, thanks to a series of mergers, spin-offs, executive shakeups, and the arrival of the iPhone and Android. But during its brief years of glory, the fact that it “just made life easier”—unlike our devices today, which do make life easier, but also make us feel bad in seemingly a thousand different ways—underpinned its success.

Fast Company recently spoke with a former Palm CEO, designers who worked on various Palm projects, and Palm users about the company’s design legacy. It was a moment in time when many people had nothing but warm feelings for their mobile devices. What could Palm teach us about designing better technology today?

[Photo: courtesy New Deal Design]

“Nobody had really nailed the design”

In the late ’90s, cellphones were (sort of) good for one thing: phone calls. T9 messaging was a slog, and internet connectivity on phones was not yet pervasive. Laptops were in their infancy. So increasingly, in addition to their phones, many people carried a second device. Quaintly known as “personal digital assistants,” or PDAs, these devices performed tasks like list-making, note-taking, and keeping calendars and contact information up-to-date. R&D money was being spent at a furious pace on developing these devices, but until Palm came along, none of these efforts had really taken off.

Our competition wasn’t other devices—it was pen and paper.”

Ed Colligan

“We were in a strong position in early days, mostly because nobody had really nailed the design,” says Ed Colligan, the first VP of marketing at Palm, who helped develop the original Palm Pilot, the Palm brand, and would later become CEO. “There had been a lot of tries—a billion dollars had been spent on developing handheld computers.”

Colligan and his team felt the problem was that other device makers were trying to cram too much functionality into a device that didn’t yet have the memory or processing power to support it. (“It wasn’t necessarily bad thinking, it was just hugely ahead of its time,” Colligan says.)

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Palm, in contrast, narrowed its scope to what was achievable at the time; its key design differentiation would be a more focused, and easy to use, suite of basic apps: contacts, calendar, notes, and email/web.

Colligan says his team agreed on five critical concepts they’d use to guide their decision making. First, size. The device had to be small and light enough to fit in a shirt pocket, not a coat pocket or bag. Second, it had to be super fast, and instant on. “Our competition wasn’t other devices—it was pen and paper, so it had to work in that seamless manner,” Colligan says.

[Photo: courtesy New Deal Design]
Third, the device had to be simple and intuitive to use, since this was a totally new market and onboarding users quickly was key. Fourth, it had to be inexpensive (under $299). And finally, Palm would market the device for its core function as a “connected organizer” that could seamlessly sync with a desktop by putting it in a cradle and pushing one button, which seemed nothing short of magical at the time.

“We were going to create these really simplified devices, and those four key buttons are still on every device,” Colligan says of its contacts, calendar, notes, and email/web approach. “If you look at every device today, it’s basically the same design as the PalmPilot. What has changed? The display tech, wireless networks, memory, processing power.”

[Photo: courtesy New Deal Design]

This relative simplicity resulted in a device that users loved.

Even now, a Twitter account called ArchivePalmOS shares Palm-related photos and nostalgia, and an active Discord group (PalmDB) trades tips about buying, maintaining, and using old devices. Others see the creative possibilities of antiquated software; animator Pinot Ichwandardi uses old Palm devices to create art experiments like this one, and says it’s a “simple yet powerful device to tell stories.”

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Today, people have more fraught relationships with their always-pinging cellphones. But thanks to its ultra-simple interface and relative lack of features compared with smartphones, Palm fans seemed to view their devices as tools rather than extensions of themselves.

Anne Haley, an attorney for the City of Los Angeles, was an early Palm user, and remembers feeling like the device did everything she wanted it to do—and no more. “If you leave your phone at home, you have to go back; I cannot function without it,” Haley says. “I did not have the same addiction to the Palm device. It only helped my life, but I didn’t obsess over it. It was an aid, and a plaything. The phones now feel like an appendage, a necessity. There was an innocence about the [Palm devices].”

We see this desire for more stripped-down mobile experiences today in products like the Light Phone, apps like Freedom, and settings like Screen Time—as well as Palm’s latest attempt at a reboot, the pared-back Palm phone developed in conjunction with Steph Curry.

But really, there’s no putting the apps back in the store. Phones that do it all, and their relentless alerts and chirps and haptic pings, are here to stay.

Maaike Evers, cofounder of the industrial design studio Mike & Maaike in San Francisco, helped design the Palm m100, released in 2000, and m125, released in 2001. She says that artificial intelligence could help tackle some of the “busy-ness” we feel because of all the tasks our phones constantly prompt us to do.

“My phone is not making me that happy; it’s a lot of mundane tasks these days,” she says. “That’s where the next revolution will come with AI—there’s a lot of repetition in the work you do. To have that replaced with some sort of AI entity that would help you more on a personal level would be almost like having a virtual assistant represented in your device.”

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[Photo: courtesy New Deal Design]

Designing for everyone

The look of Palm products evolved significantly during the time they dominated the market. This was in no small part because Palm recognized that its early devices were not as appealing as they could be to a full half of the market: women.

“The breakthrough design that put us in the pockets of a lot of people, and a lot more women, was the Palm V,” which launched in 1999, said Colligan. “Everybody was pushing us to put more features and functionality in it. We decided the right thing to do was make the sleekest, most beautiful design that could slip in your pocket and that would be a bigger driver of adoption. It turned out to be absolutely correct, and the Palm V was a blockbuster seller.”

That’s a formula I still use every day—that the user ends up feeling they got more than they paid for.”

Gadi Amit

Evers, who worked on devices subsequent to the Palm V, said her team at the product design firm Lunar was tasked with creating devices that would be even more attractive to a younger and more female audience, pushing Palm further away from the boxy, gray PalmPilots of the ’90s.

Evers said she lobbied hard to incorporate more color into the devices, but had limited success because of the difficulty of manufacturing multiple SKUs (the second device she worked on was dual-toned, with a bluish gray front). Lunar also redesigned the Palm’s form, which became smaller and curvier—more “playful and friendly”—and fit comfortably in your hand, regardless of the size. Designers still grapple with scale today, a problem that has given us so-so interim solutions like the PopSocket. The designers of the m100 also considered how women would cart the device around. “There’s a very big difference between briefcases for working-class males and the purses women carry; we didn’t even have computer bags yet at the time,” notes Evers. “We wanted something that slipped in and out of purses easier, and had rounded edges.”

Gadi Amit, whose design for the popular Palm Zire device, released in 2002, helped put his influential Silicon Valley design firm NewDealDesign on the map, said targeting women influenced both the design and the sales strategy for the Zire.

[Photo: courtesy New Deal Design]
Women used devices like the Palm to write out task lists, collect phone numbers, and track family and work events on calendars, Amit said—none of which required that much memory. The higher-end Palm V had more memory, but the Zire could be sold cheaply, for $99, because it didn’t require as much.

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“It was I think the first Palm that was sold in the blister pack in the aisles of consumer electronics stores,” Amit says. “You didn’t have to go to the counter and ask; it was grab and go.”

Stripping the Palm of almost all of its bells and whistles was a risky gambit—but it paid off handsomely. When the Zire was introduced, it was the fastest-selling product in the company’s history. Though the product was low-cost, the design “respected the end user,” Amit said. “There were high-gloss, good plastic parts in good colors; at that time, most consumer electronics were black and gray and clunky,” he says. “The Zire had a feeling in the hand that suggested quality on top of the aesthetics. That’s a formula I still use every day—that the user ends up feeling they got more than they paid for.”

Learning from Palm

Amit believes the Zire’s success proved that, even today, there is a lucrative market for lower-end devices that are useful, if not do-all, that is being largely ignored.

“The notion that you could get fairly good functionality for what you need for under $100 is something that has been more or less neglected for many years,” Amit says. “We tend to get multifunction, way more expensive devices today. A device like Palm today could be a $10 device. It’s a market that the industry doesn’t like to look at.”

Amit, who worked on Google’s now-defunct Project Ara, which was developing modular phones, says there’s a huge untapped market in the demographic that wants a phone, but maybe doesn’t care about having a world-class camera or unlimited music streaming capabilities.

“The whole notion [of Project Ara] was to drop the price of a smartphone below $100 by increasing the competition on components, and really going down this lane of providing a phone for the next 4 billion people,” Amit says. “This is still a very important goal, in my mind.”

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About the author

Erin Schulte is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in Fast Company, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Harper's Bazaar, and Entrepreneur, among other publications. You can find her on Twitter @erin719nyc.

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