Palm Inc., originally known as Palm Computing, was founded in 1992 by Jeff Hawkins. Together with Donna Dubinsky and Ed Colligan, the company went on to invent the original Palm Pilot. The Pilot was one of the earliest and most successful personal digital assistants which made the name “Palm” synonymous with PDAs and a leading handheld computing form factor for nearly a decade.
Before the Palm Pilot, however, the company developed the Zoomer -- marketed as the Casio Z-7000 and Tandy Z-PDA. This early attempt went head to head against the more memorable but still flopped Apple Newton. The Zoomer was supported by PalmPrint and PalmOrganizer, software based on an operating system developed by Geoworks. At the time, Palm billed itself as a third-party developer and targeted customers like Apple and Microsoft with their early PDA offerings.
Particularly of interest was Palm’s Graffiti handwriting recognition software. Graffiti was particularly adept reading handwriting, provided the user was willing to learn Graffiti’s writing style. For example, writing the letter ‘A’ would mean omitting the crossbar and writing an upside-down ‘V’ instead. However, Palm was confident in the system and even claimed 100 percent accuracy once learned.
Android users today can download a third-party keyboard that uses the Graffiti system.
The success of Graffiti led to Palm being acquired for $44 million by U.S. Robotics in September 1995.
A year after the acquisition, Palm unveiled the Pilot. This was a simplified PDA that primarily did four functions: memos, address book, calendar, and to-do lists. The Pilot went on to dominate the PDA market, selling over a million in the first year and half alone.
What made the Pilot so special? The device was designed to fit in your hand and fit in your pants' pocket. Sounds familiar? Clearly it was revolutionary at the time, making for a handheld device that users would be more likely to have with them at all times. The original Pilot ran Palm OS 1.0 on top of a Motorola 68328 CPU running at 16 MHz. It had a 160x160 pixel monochrome touchscreen LCD accompanied by the Graffiti input zone. It was powered by two AAA batteries.
Users could connect the Pilot to their PC using a special cradle and sync data. At $299, the base Pilot 1000 was half the price of the Apple Newton and could hold 500 addresses and 600 appointments. The upgraded Pilot 5000 only sold for $69 more and had five times the storage.
Palm was sued by the Pilot pen company for using the name "Pilot," this is the reason devices were later referred to as "PalmPilot" (one word) and then dropped the Pilot branding for subsequent models like the Palm III and Palm Tungsten.
U.S. Robotics was acquired by 3Com in 1997 in a huge stock transaction that was valued at $6.6 billion, the second-largest merger in the tech industry then. However Palm’s original founders, Hawkins, Dubinsky, and Colligan were unhappy with 3Com’s direction and left to form Handspring a year later. Handspring’s own PDA, the Visor, licensed Palm’s software. In an interesting twist of fate, Handspring would get acquired by Palm years later.
Palm was eventually spinned off and launched an IPO on March 2000 with its share price more than doubling during first-day trading. That made Palm more valuable than General Motors, McDonalds, and even parent company 3Com. Unfortunately, Palm's high share price would get demolished following the dot-com bust with the company losing 90% of its value in just over a year.
During the 1999 to 2006 timeframe, not all was rosy, but Palm kept finding validation of an ever growing market for handheld computing devices and a fledgling "smartphone" market. Handspring was finding success with Treo devices that boasted of wireless connectivity, and Palm was pushing its own line of devices before the two merged.
PDA competition was fierce for a while with the likes of HP, Sony, Compaq, Nokia, and Casio all releasing PDAs. Palm was able to stay ahead with up to 70,000 third-party developers compared to only 200 developers on the Windows side. But that didn't last long and the company surrendered to introduce its own Windows Mobile device, the Palm Treo 700w. While Palm still had their own PalmOS, the Treo 700w was aimed at people who wanted the familiarity of Windows.
Of course, there was also Blackberry, a hugely popular device made by Research In Motion (RIM) out of Ontario, Canada. Palm would not stand by and let competitors take over and at one point it seemed everyone with a mobile device was adopting either a Palm Treo or a BlackBerry. That didn't last long either.
In 2007 Apple launched the first iPhone and the entire ecosystem of handheld devices is challenged and seen as prehistoric in comparison. Former iPod mastermind Jon Rubinstein joins Palm that same year and takes over as Palm CEO in 2009. The company decided to go all-in on smartphones in response to the blockbuster hit of the iPhone and the threat of Google’s Android. At CES 2009, Palm introduced the Palm Pre, a smartphone that ran an entirely new mobile operating system called webOS.
The Palm Pre was a pebble-shaped phone with a slide out keyboard and was the first smartphone to popularize wireless charging via the Touchstone charger. Unfortunately, the keyboard was not the greatest and it was a carrier exclusive to Sprint, the number three wireless carrier in the U.S. at the time.
On the positive side, many reviewers enjoyed how revolutionary webOS' UI design was. Many of the design concepts pioneered by webOS such as multi-tasking “cards” and swipe gestures were later adopted by iOS and Android.
WebOS also allowed users to combine multiple internet accounts into a single manageable list. This had the added benefit of combining multiple messaging services into a single interface. Palm also allowed advanced users to enable developer mode by typing in the infamous Konami Code. The operating system was actually more open than Android was and whole developer communities popped up to create third-party app stores in addition to the official Palm store.
Unfortunately, build quality issues plagued the Pre with many citing concerns with the sliding keyboard mechanism, screen cracking, and faulty headphone jacks. While webOS UI concepts were revolutionary, the underlying hardware made it slower than competing mobile phones, namely the iPhone. Finally, while the Pre ended up being Sprint’s fastest selling smartphone, sales were not enough to help Palm’s bottom line. The company ended being bought by HP in 2010 for $1.2 billion.
To their credit, HP attempted to keep webOS alive and released successors to the original Pre. The Pre 2 attempted to fix the build quality issues of the first iteration with an upgrade to Gorilla Glass. Even then, however, the Pre 2 only seemed like a minor spec bump compared to the original Pre.
As a last-ditch effort to save webOS, HP announced the HP TouchPad, Veer, and Pre 3 (no longer using the Palm branding). The TouchPad was supposed to compete with Apple’s iPad 2 but was met with extremely poor sales and was discontinued just 49 days after its announcement. A “firesale” of the TouchPad briefly spiked sales but that was due to the low sale price and the ability to port Android to the device. Just last year, a version of Android 9 Pie was made available for the TouchPad, nearly ten years after its failed launch.
HP saw the writing on the wall and discontinued all webOS products, including the Pre 3. In fact, the Pre 3 was never released in the United States. HP sold webOS to LG who still uses it to power their smart TVs. The Palm brand was sold to TCL.
Palm no longer exists as a company, but the name was used to brand a “companion device” released in late 2018. The device is powered by Android Oreo and is meant to be a secondary device in lieu of a smartwatch. This “Palm phone” is about the size of a credit card and features a simplified grid of app icons to emphasize the minimalist nature of the device.
It remains to be seen if TCL decides to officially resurrect Palm. However, respect must be given to one of the company that had an enormous impact on how smartphones are used today.
TechSpot's Gone but Not Forgotten Series
The story of key hardware and electronics companies that at one point were leaders and pioneers in the tech industry, but are now defunct. We cover the most prominent part of their history, innovations, successes and controversies.