From Palm Pilot to Palm Pre: A Brief History of Palm's Handhelds

Will the Palm Pre be the last in a storied line of products, or will it mark the beginning of a new era for the once and former Palm, Inc.?

Remembering Pre-Pre Palms

Regardless of how things go for the financially beleaguered company, Palm pioneered the modern PDA and smartphone markets, and its handhelds will live on forever in tech history. Here's a quick pictorial look at the various Palms in our lives. How many of the models in this slideshow have you owned over the years?

In the Beginning: The Pilot 1000/5000

In March 1996, less than three years after Apple's first Newton MessagePad attracted much media interest but little commercial success, Palm Computing (by then a division of U.S. Robotics) brought to market a pair of personal digital assistants that offered some of the Newton's most interesting features (including the Graffiti handwriting-recognition system) without its hefty $700 price tag--or its plain old heft.

PC World named the $299 Pilot 1000 (shown above with 128KB of memory) number four on our list of "The 50 Greatest Gadgets of the Past 50 Years." The Pilot 5000, with 512KB of memory, cost $369. Though the two models' gray cases looked stubby and square by today's standards, either could fit in a shirt pocket.

Both PDAs had 160-by-160-pixel grayish green screens capable of displaying four shades of gray. They lacked infrared or a backlight, but using a supplied cradle they could hot-sync calendar information, contacts, and memo pad data with desktop software for Windows (3.1 or 95) and Mac (OS 7 or later). These early Palms could run for a week or more on two AAA batteries. Notice that the Palm brand name is nowhere to be found on the front of the device.

Photo: Courtesy of Palm

Enter the PalmPilots

Ecstatic media reception and good word-of-mouth made the first Palms a moderate success, and a year later the name Palm appeared as part of the second-generation products' name--the PalmPilot Personal and the PalmPilot Professional (shown above). The new models incorporated backlighting but not infrared. The $299 PalmPilot Personal had 512KB of memory; the $399 Pro had 1MB of memory and could hot-sync either through the included cradle or through an optional 14.4-kbps modem.

The design was a tad sleeker than that of the original Pilots, and Palm added an expense-tracking app to its basic organizer suite. By this time, 3Com had swallowed up U.S. Robotics and its Palm Computing subsidiary (the 3Com brand appears on the upper right).

Photo: Courtesy of Palm

Exit the Pilot, Enter the Palm III

After a copyright infringement suit involving the makers of Pilot pens, Palm dropped the Pilot moniker. Still, to many people, the name PalmPilot is synonymous with "personal digital assistant").

Introduced in 1998, the $400 Palm III added an infrared port for transferring files and contact information; it also had both EDO SD-RAM memory (2MB) and flash ROM memory (2MB), so removing the batteries did not wipe out data.

Photo: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Thin Is In: The Palm V

By late 1999, the Palm had achieved iconic status in the United States, but Microsoft was starting to nip at Palm's heels, as were several licensees of the Palm OS--most notably Sony, with its cool Clie line of handhelds.

The Palm V took focused its innovation efforts on size. Less than half an inch thick, and outfitted with a handsome metal case, a redesigned connector (annoying in that you couldn't use an older cradle for hot-syncing), an improved monochrome display, and an internal rechargeable battery, the Palm V made a svelte profile as important to a well-appointed handheld as desktop synchronization. However, the days when a handheld could run for weeks between charges were over.

Photo: Courtesy of

The First Wireless Palm: Palm VII

At roughly the same time that the Palm V appeared--and before the first color Palm appeared--Palm also shipped the Palm VII, its first PDA with built-in wireless capability. Equipped with a flip-up antenna, the Palm VII cost a small fortune ($599), but the astronomical price probably wasn't the only reason that the Palm VII ultimately flopped. Its service relied on Bell South's Mobitext network, which at best could move data at a poky 8 kbps--slower than most conventional dial-up hookups. At that speed, browsing standard Web pages was out of the question, so Palm devised a scheme that involved accessing specially packaged Web content using so-called Web Clipping applications from high-profile partners such as Travelocity, USA Today, and Yahoo.

The pricing for the required service began at $10 a month and rapidly escalated, depending on usage. But Palm's tech-savvy customer base--by now accustomed to easy all-you-can-eat desktop access to a World Wide Web that was growing by leaps and bounds--never took to the notion of limited, packaged content and metered pricing.

Photo: Courtesy of Palm

Palms Get Colorful: Palm IIIc

While the Palm V and the Palm VII were luring high-end customers, new iterations of the less expensive Palm III remained the company's bread-and-butter PDA--even after 3Com spun off its Palm Computing subsidiary in early 2000. Shortly thereafter, the newly independent Palm, Inc. shipped its first color model, the Palm IIIc.

Regrettably, at a time when devices running Microsoft's rival Windows CE were already appearing with dazzling 65,000-color screens, the IIIc's disappointing color display supported only 256 colors. The display also looked washed out and all but unreadable in sunlight. And the IIIc's premium price ($449) didn't help matters.

Photo: Courtesy of

Palm Diversifies: The Tungsten and Zire

Undeterred, Palm refined its line over the next couple of years with the m100 and m500 series, which replaced the III and the V, respectively, adding such features as much-improved color displays and expansion slots (for the new SD card/MMC format). In 2002, the company dropped the numeric model names in favor of two new brands: the high-end Tungsten, outfitted with high-res screens and powerful processors; and the entry-level Zire, the first sub-$100 Palm handheld, configured with a monochrome screen, no expansion slot, and limited storage capacity). Palm continued to manufacture the two brands even after its 2003 merger with Handspring and its adoption of yet another company name, this time PalmOne. Shown here are the Tungsten E2 (above left) and the Zire 72 (above right), later models that appeared after Palm's PalmOne rechristening.

Photo: Courtesy of Palm

Handspring Pioneers Palm Phones

In the early 2000s, successfully marrying a PDA to a cell phone with data capabilities became the Holy Grail of handheld computing. Several Palm licensees--most notably Kyocera with its 6035 and Samsung with the i300--brought products to market, but their efforts were typically too large, too heavy, and insufficiently phonelike.

Meanwhile, Research in Motion's BlackBerry handhelds were attracting more and more business customers who needed a usable keyboard to handle e-mail on the road. In mid-2002, Handspring, a Palm OS licensee founded by Palm cofounders Jeff Hawkins and Donna Dubinsky, came much closer to the mark with its first Treo PDA/phone hybrids--devices with flip-phone lids that when opened revealed QWERTY keyboards (while retaining color screens that supported Graffiti input). The Treo 270 (shown above), was a GSM phone priced at $400 from T-Mobile after a $100 mail-in rebate; the Treo 300 worked on CDMA networks.

Photo: Courtesy of Palm

The Treo Takes Off

In 2003, PalmOne and Handspring announced merger plans, and the spin-off of a new company, PalmSource, with ownership of the Palm OS. In October of that year, Handspring bowed out with a bang, releasing the groundbreaking Treo 600.

A candybar-style phone with a camera and a surprisingly usable--albeit narrow--QWERTY keyboard, the Treo 600 felt more like a phone than a PDA. Despite its $500 (with contract) price tag, the Treo 600 quickly became the hot gadget of the day--a status that its successor, the PalmOne Treo 650, retained when it appeared a year later.

Photo: Courtesy of Palm

Palm, Meet Windows

By 2005, PalmOne had become Palm, Inc. again and was focusing increasingly on its smartphone business. The result of these efforts was the Treo 700w, a version that supported Microsoft's Windows Mobile OS for handhelds.

Announced at the January 2006 Consumer Electronics Show, the Treo 700w was generally well received, thanks in part to software tweaks that Palm made on the underlying operating system (a common practice for Windows Mobile device makers).

Photo: Courtesy of Palm

A Sporty Palm Smartphone: The Centro

In the fall of 2007, recognizing that many consumers who loved the Palm OS and its applications craved a more contemporary smartphone, Palm released the Centro, a Sprint smartphone that was much more compact and looked sportier than its Treo cousins. It was significantly cheaper too--$99 with a two-year contract (after several online and mail-in rebates).

Better yet, the Centro supported Sprint's fastest (EvDO) data network--a must-have feature for techies.

Photo: Courtesy of Palm

The Treo Gets Thin: The Treo Pro

By 2008, the basic Treo design--even with modifications introduced in various later iterations--was getting long in the tooth, especially when compared to the revolutionary iPhone, which had debuted in 2007. But Palm's much anticipated next-generation operating system wasn't quite ready, so the company released the Treo Pro, a handheld that at least reflected the superthin and sleek aesthetics of other contemporaneous smartphones. It also boasted support for quad-band (world) GSM voice and superfast data (HSDPA/UMTS) networks, Wi-Fi, and GPS.

But lacking carrier support, it debuted at a whopping $549--a small fortune in the cell phone universe. The subsequently introduced Sprint model (shown above) costs a much more palatable $200 with rebates and a two-year plan.

Photo: Courtesy of Palm

Finally, the Pre

Released by Sprint earlier this month, the Palm Pre is shaping up as Palm's Hail Mary pass--a late-game attempt to regain its former preeminence in the handheld universe.

Based on the completely new WebOS and featuring a slide-down hardware keyboard, a first-rate touchscreen, 8GB of internal storage (but no expansion slot), 3G (EvDO) and multitasking support, and intriguing integration with Web applications and services such as Facebook and Google, the Pre is the most innovative Palm product in more than five years (which is an eternity for a smartphone manufacturer).

At $200 with a two-year contract, it's competitively priced. But will that be enough to battle the iPhone juggernaut (and to stave off competition from BlackBerry and Android competition? Pundits are all over the map on the Pre's prospects: Here's an assessment from someone who thinks that the Pre could be an iPhone killer; and here's a more negative prognosis.

What do you think?

Related articles:

• "Palm Pre Delivers (Mostly) on Its Promise" [video]

• "The Hottest Smartphones of Summer Battle It Out" [slideshow]

• "Palm Pre, WebOS: Super Software, Sad Device"

• "Eight Top Free Downloads for Palm Pre"

• "Palm Pre Fizzles for Sprint"

Photo: Courtesy of Palm

(Text corrected 6/25 to reflect the Pre's 8GB of storage)

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