Palm was a high-flying brand in the late 1990s, creating the first really popular personal data assistant. Then it seemed to vanish almost as quickly as it came. What happened to Palm Pilots, and the company who made them?
My Palm Pilot story
It was 1997. I was working my first IT job at a college. The dean got a fancy new Palm Pilot. Somehow we got his Palm Pilot working with Lotus Notes, which was what we used for calendaring and e-mail at the time. It took several of us to figure it out. And the dean was happy. Until he saw someone else’s Palm Pilot connected up to a PC running Outlook.
The dean came back and decreed we would use Outlook for e-mail, and whatever backend we had to use to support Outlook, because he liked how it worked with his Palm Pilot. And that was the beginning of the end for Lotus Domino and Lotus Notes in my department, because at the time, Domino and Outlook didn’t work together.
Eventually IBM got Outlook to work with Domino. But not soon enough for our dean. I suspect a number of executives who got Palm Pilots early on had similar experiences and made similar decrees, and that hurt Domino almost as much as anything. Domino was faster and more stable than Exchange ever was, but end users want their fancy gadgets, and Microsoft always did a better job of delivering that.
What happened to Palm Pilots? I’m not saying they single-handedly killed Lotus Notes. But they helped.
My second Palm Pilot story
I walked into a meeting with another tech and a couple of managers. It was sometime in 1999 or maybe 2000. The two managers were comparing their Palm Pilots while we waited for more people two arrive. At a pause in the conversation, the other tech pulled out his Apple Newton and said, “I feel so old fashioned.”
I picked up the Office Depot notepad I’d brought, set it back down, pretended to get up, and said, “Excuse me while I go get a chisel and a stone tablet.”
Everyone laughed, and then the managers went back to comparing what the newer Palm Pilot did that the old one wouldn’t do. Noting my disinterest, one of the managers asked, “You don’t have Palm Pilot envy?”
I didn’t. But an awful lot of people did. A new Palm Pilot model wasn’t as big of a deal as the newest big-name smartphone model today. But they had a cult following, and when we got word of a new model coming out, we had a pretty good idea who’d be getting one first.
What happened to Palm Pilots’ cult following?
Palm Pilots weren’t exactly a mass-market gadget. They tended to be popular with early adopters. And in the mid 90s when it came out, its only competitor was the Apple Newton Messagepad. It was smaller and cheaper than Apple’s device, and learning the Palm’s alphabet was faster than training the Newton to recognize your handwriting. Its upstart status wasn’t a problem for long, as US Robotics bought them in 1995, and in turn, 3Com bought US Robotics in 1996. So they were backed, for a time, by the biggest name in networking.
Managers and executives used them to track their appointments and meetings and to take notes. When they got back to their office, they’d dock the Palm Pilot in its cradle, push a button, and it would sync with their PC. In 1996, it was really slick, at least when it worked.
The Palm Pilot’s inventors left the company in 1998 and founded another company called Handspring, which licensed the Palm OS and produced Palm Pilot clones that were better. You could even add phone capability to them. Later models were smartphones, and not just PDAs. Handspring and Palm ended up merging in 2003.
But there was a problem. I wrote about it when I got a Palm Pilot myself. I was carrying around too much junk.
There was another problem. It wasn’t long before Palm Pilots started feeling old-fashioned. Microsoft’s Pocket PC was faster, had color, and had more features. And it worked a lot like Windows. They weren’t super-stable, but they worked well enough for most people. And then there was Blackberry, which let you read e-mail on your pager, and then on your phone.
Killed off by the smartphone
But ultimately, even when Palm Pilots had well-integrated phones and technically were smartphones in their own right, they couldn’t compete with smarter smartphones. Blackberry was offering Internet capability, not just e-mail, by the time Palm Pilots with integrated phones were common. By 2005, Palm was fading fast. In 2006, it even made a Windows Mobile-powered smartphone, not even using its own OS.
Any hopes of a big comeback were pretty much dashed in 2007 when Apple released its first-generation iPhone. Now with one device, you could read your e-mail, make phone calls, update your calendar, and you didn’t even have to plug it into your computer for it to sync. And it had a web browser with computer-like capability.
Palm, like so many other companies, tried to create an answer to Apple’s product. It created a new OS, called Web OS, as the official successor to Palm OS. Palm released a couple of smartphones based on the product in the 2009-2010 timeframe. Then HP acquired Palm as part of an acquisition spree, mostly to get Web OS. That was a disaster. HP botched the Web OS upgrade for existing Palm phones, its new phones based on Palm technology didn’t really catch on, and HP’s Web OS-based tablet, the Touchpad, was an unmitigated disaster that lasted only two months on the market. In August 2011, HP went so far as to decide to pull out of phones, tablets, and even PCs entirely, though it quickly reversed course on PCs.
At any rate, the idea of HP going head to head with Apple using Palm’s technology on phones and tablets died a rather sudden death in the summer of 2011. And ultimately it led to HP splitting itself in two in 2014.
Starting in 2013, HP licensed the technology to LG for use in smart TVs, sold the patents to Qualcomm and the Palm name to TCL in 2014.
Re-emergence in 2018
In 2017, rumors of Palm’s return started surfacing. In October 2018, it became reality. Chinese conglomerate TCL, best known in the United States for its inexpensive TVs, announced a 3.3-inch smartphone under the Palm brand. It doesn’t intend to be a primary smartphone, but rather, a secondary phone that’s less bulky. TCL opted to use Android on the phone, which makes sense. TCL doesn’t own the OS, and Web OS is almost a decade removed from being a viable competitor in that space anyway. Sometimes bringing back undead brands works, at least for a time.
So what happened to Palm Pilots? I guess TCL hopes you’ll wonder, and remember the brand fondly enough to be willing to pony up $349 for a tiny phone to use when your regular phone is too much. Will it work? Time will tell. But don’t hold your breath.