The philosopher Plato believed that all things have a perfect form, an abstract ideal that represents the essence of the thing in its purest form. Although the perfect form is unattainable in the physical world, the Palm V probably represents the closest that we have come to the perfect form of the stand-alone PDA.
Launched in 1999, the Palm V was, as the name suggests, the fifth model in a series of PDAs (Personal Digital Assistants) from the eponymous company. It represents something of a departure, with the Californian manufacturer working with an outside design firm for the first time. The design company IDEO brought a new approach to the table: while previous models had been chunky and more about function than fun, the Palm V was thin, sleek and stylish. Gone was the dull grey plastic, replaced with an anodized aluminum case that offset the monochrome LCD screen. The awkward plastic cover was replaced with a leather flip cover. Rather than standard AAA batteries, the Palm V used a built-in Lithium Ion battery that was recharged when the device was in its distinctive stand. Technical changes aside, the new Palm V just looked cooler than the other kids in PDA school.
The design philosophy behind it would have made Plato proud: Palm focused in on what the ideal of a PDA really is. What were the things that made it desirable? It needed to be thinner, slicker and more attractive than its chunky predecessors, like the Palm III. It had to have more appeal to non-techie users. “We wanted something that didn’t broadcast that you were using a piece of technology…We were looking for something more like a piece of jewelry” said Jeff Hawkins (quoted from the excellent book Designing Interactions by Bill Moggridge).
One of the most interesting decisions that the company made was to not add features. With rivals like HP stuffing everything but the kitchen sink into devices like the Jornada 420, Palm decided to focus on making the product as simple and as elegant as possible. Jeff Hawkins told his designers that “No, we’re not going to add any features. Nothing. We’re going to make a beautiful product… We’re going to focus on industrial design.” (from a 2002 oral history).
The Palm V was greatly admired at launch, with Will Smith of Ars Technica declaring that “The Palm V can cause jealousy, coveting, and lust.” David Pogue, then at Mac World, described it as “stunning-looking… the StarTac phone or Mont Blanc pen of pocket electronics”. Palm promoted the Palm V as the PDA for non-technical people, including an adorable ad where a woman beams her phone number to a handsome man on another train using the then novel IR data transmitter.
The Palm V succeeded: the company had a record year in 1999 with over $563 million in sales, an increase of over 400 per cent since 1995. On the back of this, the company went public in 2000. However, this launch also came at a time of conflict for the company. Frustrated by current owner 3Com’s decision to not spin Palm off into a separate company, Hawkins and the other founders of the company (Donna Dubinsky and Ed Colligan) had left the company in mid-1998. They set up a rival company called Handspring that used the same OS and produced PDAs that were cheaper, faster and more expandable.
The subsequent history of Palm is, well, complicated. Handspring and Palm subsequently merged in 2003 to form the hardware company PalmOne (which was separate from PalmSource, which handled the Palm OS and software). Eventually, PalmOne became Palm again, producing a last gasp in the ill-fated Palm Pre and WebOS operating system. Although reviewers liked both, they were not big sellers, and the company was sold to HP in 2010, with the Palm brand eventually being dropped. The Verge has an excellent guide to the decline and fall of Palm.
The Palm V is a gadget we miss because it approached the idea of perfection in both form and function: it looked beautiful and did a great job of providing the features that people actually needed, rather than the ones that designers thought they did.
In many ways, it foreshadowed the iPhone, by focusing on doing a few things well rather than adding to an endless list of tick-box features that aren’t properly executed. And it heralded the era of design-lead products, when manufacturers realized that form and function were equally important.