Current Cover (3068 bytes)
Current Cover

Navigation Bar (3057 bytes)
Homepage (723 bytes)

Pen Computing Magazine Masthead (5407 bytes)

Hawkins Keynote at Comdex 2001

November 14, 2001; 3:22 AM
With a look at the past, present, and future of mobile computing, Jeff Hawkins, chairman and CEO of Handspring, entertained and educated Comdex attendees at his noon keynote speech on November 13, 2001.

In his signature casual style, Hawkins settled into his seat onstage and began to tell his story, illustrated with pleasantly simple and informative slides, devoid of the usual tiresome bulletpoints that often accompany such speeches.

Following are mostly selected quotes, since Jeff's humor and purposes are best expressed with his own flare. I picked the quotes that I thought were most informative, and the result is that I've transcribed nearly the whole show, including the press conference that followed. I don't put it forth as my best writing, please consider the conditions under which it is written, late at night after a long day on my feet, and with a painful thumb from pressing the rewind button so often to catch Jeff's hastily spoken speech as I struggle to maintain accuracy. It's not really an article, just me sharing my notes with you.

As I mentioned, his keynote began with a retrospective of the mobile products that helped bring us to today. Later he commented that he had a lot more material, but it ran quite long, so much of it was cut. Products covered included the Osborne 1, arguably the first portable computer, which debuted in 1981, with its small screen (3 inch?) and large 5.25 inch floppies left and right. Next was the GriD laptop, the first clamshell laptop computer, with a 1200 baud modem, revolutionary for its day. Next was a slide showing the Compaq "sewing machine" computer, similar to the Osborne, but with a slightly larger screen. He covered Pen Point, a pen-centric operating system, which was quickly challenged by Microsoft, which didn't think you needed a new OS to do Pen technology; the result was that both OS attempts died.

Then Hawkins mentioned the Psion and Sharp Zaurus, successful overseas, but largely ignored in the US; and the HP 100LX, "We all thought those were like little calculators and they weren't very interesting," said Hawkins. "But all these products were actually very successful, very elegantly-designed products."

"The Newton was a great success," he said, moving on to the next slide, "for a little bit of time. They sold about a hundred thousand of these in the first quarter or so, and then it stopped. The product wasn't really that bad, it just wasn't done yet."

On Magic Cap: "There were some other Apple engineers who decided that 'when you leave the office, you want to take the office with you.' But it turns out that when you left the office you didn't want to take the office with you, and you really didn't want to look at this thing [showing a slide of the Magic cap desktop, a cartoon-like representation of a desk, with letters, folders, inboxes, etc represented graphically]. Magic cap had Sony, AT&T, and Motorola building these products."

Microsoft about the same time thought: "'We can do something better than that, we can give you a whole living room. We'll give you a fireplace, and we'll have this window, and the sun will be setting outside. Instead of you having to do the work, the dog will do the work for you. And you can just talk to the dog."

Commenting on Windows CE: "These products were very similar, they had little keyboards, a chicklet keyboard and the displays fold over. These were introduced with much fanfare in 1996, again they lined up a whole series of companies to build these things. Now these companies keep coming back over and over again. Sometimes a few people drop out and a few come back, but just everytime Microsoft calls them, they say yes."

Getting to Palm Pilot: "In 1996 of course we introduced the Palm Pilot, when I was at Palm. And this was a very successful product, and we did a number of things right with this product. First of all, we made it very small, smaller than anyone had done before. We also made it very inexpensive, I think the target was under $300, which was very difficult to meet at that time, but we did. We focused on very simplistic kind of applications, we tried to make them very simple to use. And the last thing that we did was that we focused on connectivity, specifically synchronizing with the PC. We said--we didn't even think we had a new operating system--we said no, we just got this product. It's an accessory to the PC. We're not competing with anybody. We're not competing with you, Microsoft, we're an accessory to Windows. And it was true. This was the first product that had a cradle, and it had a button, and it really talked about synchronization. And for the moment people left us alone. We said, "we're just an accessory." But then all these people started writing programs for it, and it really was an operating system, so eventually we caught the attention of Microsoft.

"And they came after us. They repositioned Windows CE, with 2.0. They got rid of the keyboard, and they built a pen-based machine, closer to what we were doing at Palm. And they were really targeting Palm. They had a developer's conference once where they had this big circular target, and at the center of it was a Palm Pilot. And someone got up--I don't know if it was Steve Ballmer or something--and says, "We're gonna get you guys."

"It was a bit scary, I have to admit that. You know, people said, 'What are you going to do for your next career,' you know."

Hawkins said that even despite the extra features, Windows CE 2.0 was also a failure, with its "one handed-operation" buttons on the side and poor synchronization. So instead of competing with Microsoft, Hawkins decided "Let's do something they don't do. They don't build hardware. Let's build a beautiful piece of hardware. Let's not try to tackle them on the software side. So we started down the path of the Palm V."

"And the Palm V was all about style and elegance." When the product marketing department came to ask for new features to be added to the Palm V, Hawkins said no. "I said, there are no new features going to go into this product." Even though he thought they were good ideas, he had a reason. "I figured if we added new features, then the reviewers would come out and say, 'Palm has three new features, Microsoft has 30 new features, Palm loses.' But if I had no new features, they couldn't do the features comparison chart! So all they could talk about was how thin and beautiful it was, and that was a very successful strategy."

About the Pocket PC: "With these products, they finally got it right. With the Pocket PC, they had a nice, colorful display, that got rid of the readability problems. They put a really honkin' fast processor--at least the iPAQ did--so they got rid of the performance problem, and they fixed some of the UI [user interface] stuff. So now they finally got some success here. Mostly Compaq has had success. They've captured about 10-20 percent of the market, varying over time and by market."

He tempered those comments by comparing the current Pocket PC market share surge with the early surge in Apple PowerBook sales on their introduction, a surge which was arguably due to pent-up demand after Apple's earlier attempt at creating a portable computer was met with failure. "When they finally had a product that worked, [their customers] all went out and bought it."

Back on the Pocket PC, "It's a good product, I'm not going to knock it. I think, though, that the industry's changing right now. And I don't believe that Pocket PC is going to be a long-term player. I think the whole industry's changing."


Hawkins compared the computer industry of today with those in the railroad industry who didn't realize that the next wave of transportation was upon them when the airplane and automotive industry overtook them. Handheld makers need to avoid the same fate by realizing that PCs don't have to be the monitors and keyboards we've had on our desks for the last 20 years.

Citing the near-billion phone users, Hawkins said that the cell phone was the most successful mobile computing device to come along. He then brought in statistics of the second most popular mobile computing device, the pager, which also has decent penetration in the world, "Maybe close to 100 million people." Handheld computers come in third with 20 or so million units shipped.

Hawkins said there are four things he believes have made these three devices successful.

1. Size. "People care a great deal about size. The smaller the better. They want to put them in their pocket, they want to put them on their belt, they want to put them in their purse. They don't want to feel the weight of them. Everything I've ever learned in this industry says that smaller is better. This is why I'm completely dumbfounded by this new promotion going into doing even more Tablet PCs, even at this show. I can't understand it, because everything we know says that it's got to be smaller."

2. Ease. "The second thing that is important is ease of use. Cell phones are pretty easy to use. You enter the number, you hit talk, and it dials it. Most people don't know how to do anything else with their cell phone. It's amazing. A pager's even easier, right? You got it on your belt, it beeps, and you read it. On a cell phone, you have to learn how to delete the message..."

Handheld computers are the more complicated of the three, which was why, Hawkins said, they put the four application buttons across the bottom, for ease of use.

3. Reliability. "Now we had trouble coming up with a slide mentioning reliability, so this is the best we could do." At which point a Microsoft Scan Disk blue screen came up on the large displays to his left and right, with the progress bar slowly crawling across as he continued to laughter and applause.

4. Communication. Cell phones are for talking. "And if I can't talk to you, I'm going to write you, and that's what the pager is all about." And the handhelds in their raw form are about supporting the other two devices with telephone numbers and email addresses.

"The things that have really, really been successful in my definition of mobile computing, have been all about communications. All about how to talk to people, or write to people, when to do it, how to do it, etc. It's not about productivity apps, or document creation, and so on. And I predict that in the future this is what's going to be driving. Communication is going to be driving personal computing, and our view of what personal computing is is going to shift more and more in this direction."

"Now I'm going to tell you a story. I was on our road show a year and a half ago, and we were doing our pitch, and at the end of this pitch, a woman comes up to me--this was in New York City. And she pulls me aside, and she puts these three devices on the table in front of me: a Nokia phone, a RIM pager, and a Handspring Visor. She says: 'I love all these things. I use them all day long. But I'm sick and tired of carrying them.' She looked me in the eyes and said, 'Please, can you help me?'

"So, she was an attractive woman, right? And I'm a guy. So I said, 'Yes! What do you want?!' She said, 'Build me one device!' I'd already been thinking about it, and you know, she pushed me over the top."

Hawkins then went on to describe the Treo, information you can get from, including video of Hawkins himself, where you can get an impression of his personal style.


After the walkthrough and demo, Hawkins moved onto his predictions for the future.

1. Communicators are going to get smaller, and he believes many of the features of the treo demonstrate that smaller makes the interfaces work even better.

2. With cool wireless applications will come security problems. This is key to making these applications successful.

3. Wireless will be ubiquitous, but further it will be free. Not entirely free, but mostly free. Citing long distance charges and cellular costs going down over the years, he sees wireless becoming a commodity through amortization of the equipment involved. "You'll have the cheapest Internet access in your pocket."

"When I look to the future here, I look at products like treo and its successors, I imagine very small devices that will be very reliable and affordable by everybody--almost everybody, at least a large portion of the world. It will have major social impact, and I think it'll have a lot to do with freedom and democracy too."

Later at the press conference, Hawkins made a few more interesting remarks.

Regarding some questions about the recent announcements of a new 'initiative from Nokia and Symbian,' including 'significant players,' Hawkins responded:

"The MagicCap consortium was like 15 major companies that were going to support the General Magic operating system. In all those other examples, they did the same thing. So it's very easy to say this kind of stuff. Even Symbian itself was announced as a consortium between Nokia, Motorola--Ericsson joined, and a bunch of other people came in and out of that thing, and you know when we look at it, we say that that's no the way you create successful things. You don't create successful things by announcing initiatives. You have to create great products to come up with the right solutions to these problems. Just because there's a lot of names behind it, doesn't necessarily make it sell."

Regarding going up against big companies with Treo:

"You can compete with big companies, you just have to work with the environment, you have to see what are your strengths, what are your weaknesses, who do you want to partner with, and just don't try to go head to head with very large companies. Try to do something a little bit different."

To the question of what's going to happen to the Visor line:

"I think the future of the Visor is quite good. It's going to shift, though. I think the non-connected organizer, the PDA as we know it today, will become the middle or low end of the market. I think over time, though, the majority of the products will become wirelessly-enabled. Almost all of them. And I don't know when that transition will occur."

To the question, "Will Handspring do versions of the treo that are non-GSM:

"Yeah, we will. We haven't announced any time frames or relationships with parties. But clearly, in North America, GSM represents 20% of the market. And one thing we've learned is that customers are very segmented by their carriers. They don't like switching carriers. So, if GSM is 20% of the North American market, we can address 20% of the market with treo today. I can address 100% of the European market, 100% of Austrialia, New Zealand, and Hong Kong, but if I want to get to the rest of the US market, we will have to have products with other radios, and we will do that."

On Tablet PC and note taking as a compelling app:

"You know, some ideas never die, I just can't understand that. The first PDA we worked on was the Zoomer, we focused all on this ink stuff, and we developed technology with patents on it, and we ended up concluding this was a bad idea. Now, I haven't seen this new tablet stuff.... But it kind of goes against everything I've learned. It goes against the fact that people want everything small, and more reliable and they want them cheaper. Bigger machines are less reliable, and they're heavier, and they're more expensive. The whole ink thing--it's just--we learned that. Didn't we do that ten years ago? I don't quite get it. But I'll have to reserve judgment completely until I actually get one and try it out. But it just seems to go against everything I know. People want little things that go in their pocket, they don't want bigger things that they have to treat gingerly. So I'm just really surprised that it's come back. It's like bell-bottom pants or something."

As for whether the treo can compete with a tablet for note taking:

"You can take notes on the treo much faster than any product I've ever designed. In fact, much faster than ink taking. Managing ink notes is very difficult and cumbersome. This little keyboard is very fast. Plus I don't think note taking as an application is a really great one. Personally, I use paper, and I'm not embarrassed about it. People say, 'Well, how come you're using a piece of paper?' And I say, 'Well, it works really well and I like it!'"

On the question of whether Handspring will mount a takeover bid on Palm:

"Takeover bid? Hey, that sounds like high finance and stuff. 'We're going to top your dollar share with our dollar fifty a share.' We get this question all the time: 'Well, shouldn't you guys be combined?' I think Palm's got enough problems, they don't need to have us back in there.... We have a lot of work to do on our own, and we're focusing on that."

As for why the return to the keyboard, when the PDA 'was about getting rid of the keyboard':

"Well the PDA wasn't introduced to get rid of the keyboard. We all felt that the keyboard didn't belong on the PDA, you had to have a stylus, you had to have a pointing device, and therefore Graffiti or handwriting recognition was the right thing to do. And I was behind that. Look, we're humbled. We learned, now that you can actually make a small keyboard and they work really well. I think RIM showed the way on that, and so we're not going to sit around and be foolish about it. I think the most important thing here is that on a phone, you have to have a keyboard. You really want to have one-handed operation, and that requires a keyboard.... I still like Graffiti, by the way, I'm not trying to kill it or anything."

On TCP/IP Radio market:

I'm not a big fan of Bluetooth. I think the premise of the multiple device scenario is not going to be the big issue. If it takes off we'll play with it. I think the 802.11 is a much more interesting play. I talked about the wireless network being free, and here you have essentially a technology which could be totally free.... In the long term, I do think it could be a threat to the carriers, in terms of voice and data calls, so that's something they ought to be thinking about."

Overall, it was a great presentation. I'm afraid the wit and fun doesn't come through as well in text, but hopefully this gives you a good taste of what was a very important presentation from a key innovator in the market.

-Shawn Barnett

Questions? Comments?

[Features] [Showcase] [Developer] [Members] [Subscribe] [Resources] [Contacts] [Guidelines]

All contents ©1995-2000 Pen Computing Magazine, Inc. All rights reserved.
Unauthorized reproduction in any form is strictly prohibited.
Contact the Pen Computing Publishing Office for reprint information