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Palm Column

Where do we go from here?

by Shawn Barnett
January 2001, issue 37

Somebody's thinking. Right now, as I sit here typing into this page, somebody's mental wheels are spinning. That person is the one. They will come up with the next big thing that takes us a little closer to the Tricorder or the PADD of StarTrek mythology, and perhaps beyond: an indispensable tool as universally useful and ubiquitous for data and communication as a hammer is for manipulating objects, only a lot more graceful.

The innovation may be as radical as a new wireless standard or a new piece of hardware, but it'll more likely be a software-driven idea. Most of the hardware is already in place.

I won't say what platform I think it'll run on. Not because I'm sure it'll be some Palm OS machine, but because I really don't know. What I think we do know is the size and basic shape. It'll be Palm-size, it'll be easily held in the hand.

I don't think it will be wearable, because I think we opposable-thumb humans are used to holding tools: pen and paper. Clothes don't ever do much more than protect, conceal, or decorate; there's no precedent for interaction with clothing so what would such an interface look like? And it probably won't talk or listen to us, since we don't like talking to machines. After all, we have voice recognition and text-to-speech software now, and very few use it. We may talk through this device to other humans, but otherwise we'll work with pictures and words like we do on our desktops today.

But what will make it useable for everyone, or at least those who've mastered the push-button interface of the phone? No. Not T9. It might work for 1-800-COLLECT, but not for sending a letter.

The truth is, I don't have an answer, so I'm probably not the one. We're pretty close with Graffiti, and even with handwriting recognition. But people still struggle to come up with other input methods: different alphabets, special keyboards, voice recognition, face recognition. The fact remains that not everyone uses handheld computers, nor are they interested. What will make the handheld a universal tool?

I ask this question because Palm is about to come out with some new hardware. Now separated from their founder, Jeff Hawkins, they're about to embark on some very important journeys into the unknown. What Palm and the various licensees have come up with thus far is not that different from the original Pilot that debuted in 1996. The OS is more streamlined, there's IrDA, there's a bunch of software, and Handspring has their expansion modules, but we're still running on the same processor, and for goodness sake, the Address Book still won't sync completely with Outlook.

Palm, the holder of the banner at this point, has a lot of decisions to make about how to proceed. They've already said they will move to the StrongARM processor, and they've outlined visions that include Bluetooth, cell phones, expansion ports, and multimedia. Those are a lot of areas to venture into, and each decision they make about those areas could either make or break the next PDA to come from the portable computing giant. That's a lot of pressure, and I'm sure they're feeling it. Many others have tried at this market, and only Palm has been successful. Simplicity is the reason for that success, simplicity enforced by the vision of a single man-a man who is no longer with the company.

We've gone beyond the original simple vision in many ways, but the Palm OS, at its core, is still simple: exactly what is necessary to make such a small device useful.

Faster processors, hot ports, and built-in wireless offer so many opportunities-so many possibilities-that the next Palm could look a lot like the Apple Newton, which also ran StrongARM, had expansion ports, and yes, was even wireless. Will Palm, without its original leader, be able to maintain the simplicity of the OS while moving into new areas?

3Com, Palm's former parent, recently announced Audrey, a mobile wireless computing device that runs a mixture of QNX, a Unix derivative, and some Palm OS technology, including HotSync. It's quite a bit bigger than a Palm, and is intended to be a mobile computer for using around the home. It'll even sync with a Palm, so you can take its data with you. I'll reserve judgment until I see it, but we've seen a lot of other devices over the years try this tablet tack, and it's gone nowhere. Tablets are uncomfortable, they get hot, and there's nowhere to rest your hand as you write. One of the most hyped tablets in recent history, the Aqcess Qbe, has run into the same problem we've watched others encounter over and again: people say they want tablets, but when they're finally available, no one buys them. Many great tablets have come and gone because it just doesn't fit into the human way of working with tools, especially with heavy tools. So it won't be a tablet, and I hope Palm doesn't move in this direction.

Palm vs Handspring

Sensitive subject, this. It is the final wrench in the works as I try to see into the future. How these two companies handle their relationship will significantly determine the future of our favorite handheld computer. We watched as software and OS development languished in the IBM vs Microsoft war years. And Apple vs NeXT was no productive picnic either, though the victor was clear early on, despite Jobs' superior OS. Jobs is the ultimate victor, as he sits at the helm of Apple with his NeXTStep OS finally about to come out as OS X; yet consumers did not benefit from this war.

Similarly, the vision of a simple, usable OS for handheld computers cannot be maintained on a shifting battlefield. Despite the talk I hear about "growing the Palm Economy" I've seen blatant evidence of an ongoing bitter war that could slow or completely derail two of my favorite companies, and by extension the products they make.

So what remain are the questions: what will these industry leaders do next? Will they work together to make a hot computer that we'll all want? Will they pile on features to create a kludge of a machine? Will they fight until that someone, whose wheels are spinning right now, comes up with that next big thing that will leave everyone else in the dust?

Does that someone work for one of them, or somewhere else?

Whoever you are, I wish you Godspeed.

Shawn Barnett can be reached via e-mail at

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