Palm OS and the devices that ran it: An Ars retrospective

Palm OS and the devices that ran it: an Ars retrospective

Aurich Lawson

“Gadgets aren’t fun anymore,” my wife sighed, watching me type on my Palm Zire 72 while she sat on the couch with her MacBook Air, an iPhone, and an Apple Watch.

And it’s true: The smartphone has all but eliminated entire classes of gadgets, from point-and-shoot cameras to MP3 players to GPS maps and even flashlights. But arguably no style of gadget has been so completely passé as the personal digital assistant, the handheld computer that dominated the late ’90s and early 2000s. The PDA even set the template for how its smartphone successors would make it obsolete, moving from simple management of personal information to games, messaging, music and photos.

But just like smartphones, PDAs offered a dizzying array of operating systems and applications, and many of them ran Palm OS. (I bought my first Palm, an m505, new in 2001, upgraded from an HP 95LX.) Naturally, we can’t list each of these devices in this article. So in this Ars retrospective, we’ll look back at some notable examples of the technical evolution of the Palm operating system and the devices that ran it, and how they paved the way for what we use today.

You never forget your first(s).  Here are my Palms from back in the day, my original m505 and later my first Zire 72. They are in poor condition, but with fresh batteries they still work great.
Enlarge / You never forget your first(s). Here are my Palms from back in the day, my original m505 and, later, my first Zire 72. They are in bad shape, but with fresh batteries they still work great.

Cameron Kaiser

When Zoom(er) did not meet software

In the mid-to-late 1980s, portable computing primarily meant either heavy, transportable workstations or a unique class of handheld computers with tiny screens, small memories, and calculator-style keyboards. Jeff Hawkins, then vice president of research at portable systems maker GRiD, thought he could do better. He wanted to build a system in which the screen itself would become the input device, replacing keyboards with pens and styluses.

While handwriting recognition presented an even greater challenge for systems at the time, Hawkins’ PalmPrint system simplified the task by simply matching strokes to characters instead of trying to recognize entire words. PalmPrint became GridPen, the heart of 1989’s GriDPad 1900, or what today we would call the first commercially successful tablet. Using a 10-inch resistive black-and-white LCD as a display and writing surface, it ran MS-DOS on a low-power 10 MHz Intel 80C86 processor and weighed just two kilograms (4.5 pounds), sold at a suggested retail price of $2,500. (about $6,200 in 2024 dollars).

The GriDPad line was very successful for GRiD, but Hawkins increasingly viewed his own creation as too bulky and expensive. Surveying existing GriDPad enterprise customers about a portable machine they would like personally use, the feedback was unanimous: it had to be much lighter, much smaller and at a cool price.

GRiD itself was not interested in producing a low-end consumer device, but such a unit was well within the reach of Tandy Corporation, GRiD’s parent company since 1988 and owner of Radio Shack. Tandy’s management was fascinated by the concept of what Hawkins called the “Zoomer,” so much so that the company was willing to invest $300,000 in Hawkins’ new venture to develop it, which he called Palm Computing.

Hawkins chose GeoWorks’ PC/GEOS as its operating system because of its proven ability to run on inexpensive hardware, and Tandy brought in its longtime partner Casio (also a major handheld computer manufacturer) as OEM of the new device. To manage the growing company, Hawkins hired Apple-Claris alumna Donna Dubinsky as CEO and then Ed Colligan as vice president of marketing, fresh from Macintosh peripheral maker Radius.

The Tandy Zoomer, here in the OEM Casio Z-7000 version.
Enlarge / The Tandy Zoomer, here in the OEM Casio Z-7000 version.

Cameron Kaiser

Unfortunately, the Zoomer’s development became increasingly disrupted due to company interference and software churn, and although underclocking its x86-compatible processor to 7 MHz significantly extended the life of its battery, this also made the unit slow and heavy. Yet the Zoomer arrived on the market in October 1993 at a price of one pound (less than half a kilogram) and for $599 ($1,240 in 2024), significantly lower than Apple’s Newton MessagePad. On the other hand, it was still too big and was essentially treated (and judged) like a PC, and even though its handwriting recognition was better than the Newton’s, it still sold for four times as much.

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