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What happened to Palm PDAs?

Admin - May 28, 2022 4 Min. Read

Category: Palm PDAs

The short answer is because of failure to adapt combined with rising competition, Palm could not sustain their business model on selling Palm PDAs alone and they struggled to successfully transition to smartphones. Fortunately there are still smaller companies like ours that still offer professionally refurbished Palm PDAs with new batteries and screens for sale. So if you still love the Palm PDA it’s still possible to purchase one in factory restored condition.

But for a more complete answer: 

If you were around during the late 90’s to early 2000 and interested in technology, it would be hard to ignore the technology juggernaut known as Palm. Considering they sold hundreds of thousands of Palm PDAs and held a near monopoly on mobile computing, it would be hard to believe they would would eventually be acquired by another technology giant and are no longer the leaders in mobility.

The original Palm PDA were released in 1996, under Palm, Inc. (then a subsidiary of U.S. Robotics). Eventually 3Com agreed to acquire USRobotics, and Palm, for $6.6 billion in 1997. That was the first nail in the coffin though – since 3com management didn’t see eye to eye with the Palm founders Jeff Hawkins, Donna Dubinsky, and Ed Colligan. By 1998 the founders had enough and decided  to form Handspring, a competing mobile computing company that licensed the Palm OS while using their own hardware. 

Handspring largely took the lead in future innovation – adding the springboard expansion slot which allowed you to add all kinds of innovative hardware to your PDA,. Most notably they were first to create the “smartphone” as we know it with the Visorphone springboard module in 2000, which turned your PDA into a phone. And then they followed up with the first Treo smartphone  in 2002.

Although Palm was still selling plenty of PDAs, they didn’t really adapt fast enough. You have to wonder what might have happened if the founders had stayed with Palm, had 3com management been more accommodating.  A Palm smartphone would have potentially been launched much earlier, potentially securing their place in future technology.

Palm eventually acquired Handspring, in 2003 and with it managed to launch several smartphones under the Treo and Centro brands between 2003-2008.  It even dabbled in releasing some Windows Mobile based Treo smartphones.

But by that time a large amount of people had already moved on to BlackBerry and Windows Mobile devices.  The Palm OS software seemed too limited in an evolving media and internet centric world. Palm OS 5 was an attempt to evolve the OS with features such as multi tasking but it still had major limitations compared to the competition on the media consumption front. (Although it had features that have not been matched since, like incredible battery life.)

By 2007 – 2008 the mobile world was knocked off kilter with the release of the first iPhone and Android devices, which the majority of people quickly adopted. You could argue that both of them largely copied the Palm user interface, while successfully integrating the internet and media the ways users wanted to interact with their devices..

Palm was left to play catch up – and they tried to counter with the release of webOS based devices which was intended to be their big next generation OS. They successfully released the Palm Pre and Palm Pixi smartphones - but by that time it was too little too late. Being a publicly traded company, they couldn’t survive with lackluster sales and a tiny market share. They had thousands of employees to pay and shareholders to answer to. And so they were acquired by HP, and all efforts to fund webOS mobile devices was halted shortly after. 

Interestingly webOS was eventually acquired by LG and now powers most of their smart TV offerings. And the Palm brand name was purchased by the Chinese electronics firm TCL Corporation in 2014.

TCL has offered a new tiny phone under the Palm brand, that is supposed to be an Android powered companion phone to your main phone. So in theory, you can still get a modern Palm branded phone. But it remains to be seen if that venture will bear fruit for TCL.

But in the end of the day we still think the Palm PDA offered something that is missing in “modern” technology – namely incredible battery life and a unified interface for organizing your digital life that has been unmatched on modern smartphones. The Palm PDA interface felt so tied together. All of the apps felt like they were part of the core OS, with the same user interface and the same way of organizing your personal data. 

According to Steve Jobs, this unified user interface around organizing your life didn’t really amount to much:

“I started asking myself, how useful are PDAs really? How many people in a given meeting show up with one? I don't think early cultures had organizers, but I do know they had music. It's in our DNA.”

But we would definitely disagree.  While he was clearly right about music and media being important – clearly people do care about organizing. I’m guessing the first task list was invented by a caveman painting the walls of his or her cave.

And if you agree, we invite you purchase one of our professionally refurbished Palm PDAs. We’re still carrying the PDA torch forward, and you would be surprised by how many people are still buying – in spite of what Steve Jobs had to say on the matter and in spite of all the shiny new iPhones available in your nearest retail outlets.

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