The Palm Pilot Turns 20

Palm Pilot 1000

An old friend popped up in my news feeds over the weekend; gadget nostalgia site Retromobe did a nice little write-up of the original Palm Pilot PDA. The first two models, the 1000 (with 128kb of RAM) and 5000 (512kb of RAM), first went on sale in March of 1996. I remember it like yesterday, because I was there.

Unfortunately I was using an Apple Newton at the time—only because a local shop had a bunch of them returned en masse and were reselling them on the cheap. My first Palm would be the next iteration, the backlit Palm Pilot Personal. I would quickly come to depend on its 160 x 160 monochrome display; its utility set the stage for the PDA phones that followed.

Famously modeled on a block of wood that inventor Jeff Hawkins carried around in his chest pocket, the Palm Pilot was much more portable than the clunky Newton. Text input was orders of magnitude better as well; though Research in Motion launched its qwerty-powered Inter@ctive Pager that same year, for touch input Palm’s Graffiti couldn’t be beat.

Included software on every Palm Pilot would come to be known as the four pillars of personal information management—calendar, contacts, notes and tasks. A third-party app, DateBk3, gave the user their calendar and tasks on the same screen. Other third-party software extended Palm’s utility even further; among the best was AvantGo, which piggybacked onto a sync session with a personal computer to suck down news headlines and such for easy reading anywhere the user happened to be.

For me, Palm OS peaked on board one of my favourite smartphones of all time, The Handspring Treo 270. But my favourite memory of my first Palm is this: I was invited to represent PDAs in a debate versus paper-based organizers on a local radio station. At the end of it the host issued a challenge to see who could find their dentist’s phone number first. Much to the delight of my dental practitioner, I was already rattling off his contact info on-air while the other guest was still processing the question.

Sources: Retromobe, iMore, Pimlico Software, Palm Infocenter, My Phone Book

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