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From the editor

Commentary by Pen Computing Magazine's editor-in-chief

By Conrad H. Blickenstorfer
April 2000, issue 33

This is the first time in Pen Computing Magazine's almost seven year history that we are dedicating our cover to a person rather than products.

Depicted on the cover of this issue is Jeff Hawkins, the man who conceived the original Palm Pilot. Hawkins is almost singlehandedly responsible for taking on the struggling field of handheld and palmtop computing and making it into a huge, booming success.

What most people don't know is that Jeff Hawkins, despite his relatively young age and boyish looks, is one of the guiding pioneers of mobile and pen computing.

In the 1980s, after a start at Intel, he became interested in handwriting recognition, turned down GO which he felt didn't have a realistic business model, and joined GRiD. At GRiD he invented some of the first pen computers, including the GRiDPAD and GRiD Convertible with that ingenious hinge mechanism that lets a computer be used as both a clamshell and a pen tablet. It later showed up in the IBM ThinkPad 750 and 360 and, most recently, the Vadem Clio. He then became interested in the PDA consumer market, co-founded Palm Computing, then did (and named) the Tandy Zoomer/Casio Z-7000. They didn't do well in the marketplace, primarily since the state-of-the-art in electronics just wasn't adequate at the time.

Jeff, having worked on handwriting recognition for almost a decade, then conceived Graffiti, the character recognizer now found in millions of Palm OS devices. None other than mobile computing and wireless guru Andrew M. Seybold, in a rare exhibition of genuine excitement, called me up at home to tell me about Graffiti. In a special column in the November 1994 of Pen Computing issue he wrote "I believe that Graffiti will breathe new life into PDAs."

Graffiti was an instant hit, but Hawkins had bigger dreams and wanted to go after the consumer market. Even though Palm Computing was just a small software company, he conceived the Palm Pilot, a device that according to the prevailing wisdom at the time was certain to fail. It had no keyboard, it didn't have many whistles and bells, and it didn't have any sort of expansion slot at all. Yet, against all odds, Hawkins and his comrades at arms, Donna Dubinsky and Ed Colligan, and the 20-odd people at Palm Computing managed to launch the Palm Pilot.

The rest, of course, is history. Palm needed money to properly promote the Pilot and found an unlikely funding source in US Robotics, which was then swallowed by 3Com in a move that caught Hawkins by surprise. He tried to convince his new bosses to spin off Palm but was told by 3Com's suits that this would never happen. Hawkins and Dubinsky left 3Com, licensing agreement to the Palm OS in hand, to form a new venture. Marketing genius Colligan soon joined them and Handspring was born. Hawkins latest brainchild, the Visor, was launched in the Fall of 1999.

3Com continued to reap the benefits of Hawkins' work with the hugely successful Palm V and the Palm VII that proved that wireless could be completely integrated into a tiny PDA. Millions and millions of Palm devices have been sold, and the Palm OS platform's market share in the handheld space is surpassed only by that of Microsoft on the desktop. Despite their statements to the contrary to Hawkins, 3Com decided to spin off Palm anyway.

On March 2nd of this year, Palm's IPO became one of the most successful initial public offerings ever. At the end of the "new" company's first day of trading, it was worth a staggering $53 billion, almost twice that of parent 3Com. Jeff Hawkins, the father of the Palm, had not only created over $50 billion in wealth but a new era of computing.

Yet, few people outside of the mobile computing arena have ever heard of Jeff Hawkins. While his accomplishments are right up there with the great pioneers of the computing age, he has remained the same modest, engaging person he's always been. While Bill Gates is the richest man in the world, Jeff Hawkins may be the richest man on his block.

It's not clear whether it bothers Hawkins that his share of fame and fortune are in no proportion to his gargantuan achievements. Jeff Hawkins remains as approachable as ever and can be found sitting in the audience of a conference session just like any other guy. At the recent Mobile Insights 2000 conference in Desert Palms, Palm honcho Alan Kessler's presentation came across as glib and polished in a mercenary way compared to Hawkins' relaxed and delightfully insightful commentary in a "fireside" chat with Mobile Insight's Dr. Gerry Purdy.

In my opinion, Jeff Hawkins ranks right up there with Microsoft's Bill Gates and Apple's Steve Jobs. He has changed an entire industry and our lives in the process. People should know that. This is why Jeff Hawkins is on the cover of little old Pen Computing Magazine. One day he will be on the cover of Time and Fortune.

Faithful readers of this magazine will recall an interview with Jeff Hawkins in our April 1997 issue. In it, Hawkins' predictions for the future of the Palm and Windows CE platforms were eerily on the mark. He predicted that Windows CE devices would grow in size and features, he predicted the much lower prices of PDAs, he predicted the integration of wireless into handhelds, and there was this priceless quote, "Around here we like to say that for the price of a CE device you can buy a Pilot and have money left over for a washer and dryer."

Now that Hawkins is gone from Palm and has founded Handspring, will Handspring become the Palm camp's new leader? Perhaps and perhaps not. The Visor certainly represents Hawkins' original vision better than any other current Palm device. Palm, on the other hand, lost a lot of its focus after Hawkins and Dubinsky's departure. That may or may not have been related to the poor chemistry between the Palm division and parent 3Com. Examples of mounting weirdness at Palm were a letter from their legal eagles dictating to the press how we were to refer to Palm's products. And when we ran our special 16-page "Palm in the enterprise" section in our February 2000 issue, Palm's ad agency refused a free ad we offered as a show of goodwill to a company that has lost its connection to the early adopters and supporters. Pen Computing did "not represent the direction Palm was going," they said. We were perplexed and inquired with management. Eventually we received an email saying that Palm's advertising budget did not include the 50 dollars it would have cost to run an extra set of existing ad film...

Suffice it to say that with such missteps, and after Palm's recent addition of a whole gaggle of chief officers, the suggestion to "bring back Jeff" is growing louder. I don't think Hawkins, Dubinksy and Colligan would ever entertain such a notion, but then again you never know. Look at what the return of Steve Jobs did for Apple.

Interestingly, this issue with Jeff Hawkins on the cover coincides with a big review of Palm's first color device and Microsoft's unveiling of the Pocket PC platform. Our Palm editor, Shawn Barnett, is quite fond of the IIIc. My own assessment wasn't quite as favorable. I posted my impressions on our website ( palm/Reviews/palmIIIc-commentary.html) and concluded, "I am not quite sure what Palm is trying to prove. The IIIc is too expensive and not innovative or attractive enough to grab more than a tiny slice of Palm's overall sales. And no one seriously doubted that Palm could do color. So the release of the IIIc is more about bragging rights for the first color Palm among a growing roster of licensees. It also stops mounting criticism over a slate of monochrome-only devices and serves notice that there will be real color Palms in the future.

Until then, the Windows CE-based Cassiopeia E-105 or the HP Jornada 430se offer significantly greater technological value for the dollar."

That technological value for the dollar will increase with a new generation of Pocket PCs. Code-named "Rapier," Microsoft's latest attempt to slow the Palm juggernaut represents much more than just a name change from "Palm-size PC" to "Pocket PC." While improvements to the oft-maligned Palm-size PC user interface are perhaps less than we expected, Microsoft went all out in every other respect. The addition of Word, Excel, and Internet Explorer Pocket apps provide a lot of new functionality, and the Reader and Media player are nothing short of sensational. Add to that some terrific new hardware from Compaq and HP (and soon from others), and there is good reason for guarded optimism.

In closing, I should mention that the long awaited QBE pen slate from Aqcess Technology has finally arrived at our editorial offices. Time (and our review in an upcoming issue) will tell if the coveted dream of the early pen pioneers has been realized at last.

Conrad H. Blickenstorfer is editor-in-chief of Pen Computing Magazine and general editor of Digital Camera Magazine. He is also a mobile technology contributor to the Fortune Magazine Technology Buyer's Guide. He can be reached via e-mail at

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