Book Review: "Piloting Palm" by Andrea Butter & David Pogue: 2002 book, modern lessons 23
I recently came across a book from 2002 that I hadn't heard of before: Piloting Palm: The Inside Story of Palm, Handspring, and the Birth of the Billion-Dollar Handheld Industry, by Andrea Butter (former VP of marketing at Palm) and technology journalist David Pogue. While it is certainly a solid, detailed history of Palm from before its 1992 official founding through the heyday of PalmOS in late 2001, the book offers unexpected and significant insight into today's smartphone market. It should be required reading for the management team at Palm and HP, and offers both perspective and some hope to the webOS community.
Keep reading below the break for the full review!
In large part, Piloting Palm is the story of its two main pilots: Jeff Hawkins, whose insights into how people think and stellar technology design gifts were the soul of Palm, and Donna Dubinsky, whose management and business skills as Palm's first CEO perfectly complimented Hawkins' contributions. The authors provide an affectionate, insider's view (Butter started at Palm soon after its founding, and stayed even after Hawkins and Dubinsky left to found Handspring; Butter's own narrative is indicated by first person language) of the challenges Hawkins and soon Dubinsky faced as they started and grew not only a company but a new industry category. Readers learn about the process of obtaining venture capital, the challenges of working with industry partners whose cultures and needs are very different, and the influence of employee morale and individual personalities in the success or failure of even the largest companies.
Even those who are long-term Palm users and fans will likely learn parts of the companies history they hadn't known before: Palm's key role in the development of the innovative but ultimately failed Zoomer, the financial challenges that led to its acquisition by U.S. Robotics and then 3Com, the corporate interplay that led Dubinsky to resign from Palm, taking Hawkins with her to create Handspring, and so on. While that would have been as true when the book was published almost 9 years ago as it is today, some parts of the story resonate quite differently now, as with this excerpt describing Dubinsky's ultimately futile efforts in mid-1998 to get 3Com's then-CEO Eric Benhamou to agree to spin off Palm into an independent company to allow it to follow its own path:
While Dubinsky waited for a decision from Eric Benhamou, she received another reminder of Palm's value in the form of a phone call from Steve Jobs, Apple's founder and, at the time, Apple's interim CEO. Dubinsky had known Jobs during her years at Apple, but hadn't spoken to him in over a decade. [...]
"Guess who I just talked to--Steve Jobs!" Dubinsky called out as she approached Ed[ Colligan, then Palm's Chief Operating Officer's] corner office.
"What did he want?" Colligan asked, stepping out of his office.
"He wants to buy Palm," Dubinsky explained.
"What did you tell him?"
"I told him that I was getting too cranky to work for anybody!"
A paragraph from the book's epilogue, looking to the possible future of the handheld market, is also notable for both the companies it mentions and those it doesn't:
Then there are the cell phone giants like Nokia: By merging phones with organizers, they may ultimately carry the day in the handheld category. Pocket PCs and their successors, from companies like HP, Compaq and Tohsiba, could take over the corporate market. Or an unknown company with a radically new idea might come out of nowhere, the way Palm did in 1996, and reset the landscape of handheld computing.
One can certainly not fault Butter and Pogue for not including Apple (which at that point in history was, as it is described elsewhere in the book, a "once-leading company" being dominated by Microsoft) or Google (no more than a highly successful search engine in early 2002), but to today's readers, the omission is a bit jarring, but also telling, since it indicates how rapidly the market did and can shift.
When reading Piloting Palm, in fact, two sayings keep coming to mind: "What's old is new again," and George Santayana's famous observation that "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." There is much here from which Palm's current management team and their colleagues at HP can and should learn, beyond just the incredible speed of the handheld marketplace: the crucial power of PR (both positive and negative; the authors discuss both the damage done to the Newton by bad press, and the incredible boosts Microsoft got for successive versions of flawed Windows CE/Pocket PC releases from good PR), the critical need for a strong and supported developer community, and the harm that can occur when an company's innovative and creative culture is suppressed by that of a corporate parent. There are some additional warnings (the separation of OS from hardware development that repeatedly plagued Palm) that may have some new relevance as HP's dual track (enterprise and consumer) strategy starts rolling out early next year.
As for the current webOS community, Piloting Palm is a nice reminder of the ability of superior (and properly marketed) devices and operating systems to triumph over the "accepted winners" in a category; Palm was not even a blip on an analyst's screen when it launched in 1992, but by 1996 it had both defined and won an entire new category; Handspring itself, born out of the corporate hobbling of Palm by 3Com, itself rocketed to leadership, with its innovations for PalmOS (expansion slots, and ultimately the Treo line of smartphones) being reabsorbed into Palm and forming the basis for the second round of Palm's success. Today, webOS is essentially in the position that PalmOS was in the mid 1990's: a superior way of doing things, needing the right promotion, message and resources to take its proper place among its inferior (but better known) competitors.
For those that wish to read Piloting Palm, it's probably available in your local library, and can be found on the normal online print and e-bookstores. Happily, it's even available for webOS, via Fictionwise and the excellent (and free) pReader by MHWSoft e-book reader program in the App Catalog. It would make a great holiday present for those interested in technology, in business, and most especially for those on your gift list who happen to work for Palm or HP.