mobile OSMobilitySmartphonesTablets

Tales In Tech History: Palm And The PDA

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelance and long standing contributor to TechWeek Europe

Palm was a smartphone pioneer and a leading personal digital assistant provider, but HP’s acquisition sealed its fate

Back in 1992, a company called Palm Inc was founded, and it was widely regarded as a pioneer of the mobile revolution that took root in that decade.

Palm specialised in the personal digital assistant (PDA) thanks to its successful Palm Pilot devices, but it also developed one of the first smartphones with the Treo 600.

Rise And Demise

The early days of Palm saw it earning its crust by selling synchronisation software for HP devices, and the Graffiti handwriting recognition software for the Apple Newton MessagePad.

palmpixiBut in 1996 it created the Palm Pilot that boasted a serial port, and the two different models came with either 128 kB (Pilot 1000) and 512 kB RAM (Pilot 5000) respectively. The original devices were powered by a Motorola 68328 processor at 16 MHz, and used Palm’s own operating system, Palm OS.

For the day, the Palm Pilot was actually a fairly decent piece of kit. The device itself measured 120x80x18 mm and it came in at 160 grams in weight. It offered a 160×160 pixel monochrome LCD, and featured a “Graffiti input zone” in the bottom third of the screen.

It should be remembered that in the 1990s, people were still using filofaxs (large paper-based diaries and personal organisers), but the Palm Pilot offered a calendar, address book, to do list, memo pad, and boasted a stylus as well, all in a relatively small footprint.

For many years Palm offered consumers a range of PDAs, and then smartphones, but it never captured the dizzy heights it achieved in the late 1990s.

The company itself had an interesting journey over the course of its lifespan. It was acquired by US Robotics in 1995, but in 1997 US Robotics in turn was acquired by 3Com and Palm became a 3Com subsidiary.

Palm never sat easy within 3Com, and the parent decided in 2000 to make its Palm subsidiary an independent, publicly traded company. Its IPO came during the height of the dotcom bubble, but over the following years the company’s devices struggled against rising competition from the likes of Nokia, BlackBerry and Motorola.

In 2002, Palm created a wholly owned subsidiary to develop and license Palm OS, the well regarded operating system that was later to become WebOS.

Dot com bubble

Palm Pre 2
Palm Pre 2

The 2000s were not kind to Palm and it is fairly to say that it was increasingly being left behind in a fierce smartphone sector until it was eventually acquired by HP for $1.2bn (£722m) in 2010.

At the time, it was optimistically predicted that the deal would propel HP into the smartphone and tablet big leagues, and even allow it to take on the likes of Apple. But there were many doubters, who were ultimately proved right.

HP announced in August 2011 that it was dropping WebOS and was discontinuing its TouchPad tablet devices (which ran Palm OS).

Hewlett-Packard eventually all but gave away Palm’s operating system to LG Electronics, which is now using it to power its range of Smart TVs.

To put the final nail in the coffin, HP eventually sold its portfolio of 2,400 Palm patents to chip manufacturer Qualcomm for an undisclosed sum in early 2014.

Quiz: What do you know about HP?