Palm OS and the hardware that runs on it: an Ars retrospective

Urich Lawson

“Gadgets aren't fun anymore,” my wife sighed as she watched me tap into my Palm Zire 72 while she sat on the couch with my MacBook Air, iPhone, and Apple Watch.

And it's true: the smartphone has eliminated entire classes of gadgets, from point-and-shoot cameras, MP3 players, GPS maps, and even flashlights. But arguably no style of gadget has been as completely replaced as the personal digital assistant, the handheld computer that dominated the late 1990s and early 2000s. The PDA even set the template for how Their successors in smartphones would make them obsolete, as they move from simple personal information management to include games, messaging, music and photos.

But as smartphones do, PDAs offered a dizzying array of operating systems and apps, a large number of which ran Palm OS. (I bought my first Palm device, an m505, new in 2001, and upgraded from an HP 95LX.) Of course, there's no way we can enumerate every single device in this article. So in this Ars retrospective, we'll take a look at some notable examples of the technical evolution of Palm's operating system and the hardware that ran it, and how they paved the way for what we use now.

You'll never forget your first.  Here are my hands from the past, my original m505, and later, my first Zire 72. They are beat up, but with new batteries, still work great.
Zoom in / You'll never forget your first. Here are my hands from the past, my original m505, and later, my first Zire 72. They are beat up, but with new batteries, still work great.

Cameron Kaiser

When Zoom(er) wasn't a meeting software

In the mid-to-late 1980s, portable computing primarily meant either heavy, portable workstations or a unique class of pocket computers with small screens, little memory, and calculator-like keyboards. Jeff Hawkins, then vice president of research at portable systems builder GRiD, thought he could do better. He wanted to build a system where the screen itself became the input device, replacing keyboards with pens and styluses.

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While handwriting recognition was more challenging for systems at the time, Hawkins' PalmPrint system simplified the task by only matching lines to letters rather than trying to recognize entire words. PalmPrint became the GridPen, the core of 1989's GriDPad 1900, or what we today call the first commercially successful tablet computer. Using a 10-inch black-and-white resistive LCD screen as a display and writing surface, MS-DOS ran on a low-power 10 MHz Intel 80C86 processor and weighed only about 2 kg (4.5 lb), selling for an MSRP of $2,500. (About $6,200 in 2024 dollars).

The GriDPad line became very successful for GRiD, but Hawkins increasingly viewed his creation as too bulky and expensive. Conduct a survey of existing GriDPad customers about the mobile device they want Personally In use, the comments were unanimous: it should be a lot lighter, a lot smaller, and under a lot of bulk.

GRiD itself was not interested in producing a low-quality device for the mass market, but such a unit was within the market scope of Tandy Corporation, GRiD's parent company since 1988 and owners of Radio Shack. Tandy's management was so impressed with the concept, which Hawkins called “Zoomer,” that the company was willing to invest $300,000 in Hawkins' new development project, which he called “Palm Computing.”

Hawkins chose GeoWorks' PC/GEOS as the operating system to rely on proven capacity To work on inexpensive hardware, Tandy brought in long-time partner Casio (also a major manufacturer of pocket computers) as the manufacturer of the new device. To run the growing company, Hawkins hired Apple-Claris alumna Donna Dubinsky as CEO, and then Ed Colligan, fresh from Macintosh peripheral maker Radius, as vice president of marketing.

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Tandy Zoomer, here in Casio Z-7000 OEM version.
Zoom in / Tandy Zoomer, here in Casio Z-7000 OEM version.

Cameron Kaiser

Unfortunately, Zoomer's development became increasingly troubled by corporate interference and software disruption, and although underclocking the x86-compatible CPU to 7MHz significantly extended battery life, it also made the unit slow and heavy. However, the Zoomer came to market in October 1993 at a pound (less than half a kilogram) and priced at $599 ($1,240 in 2024), significantly undercutting Apple's Newton MessengerPad. On the other hand, it was still very large and was treated (and judged) like a personal computer, and although handwriting recognition was better than the Newton's, it still outsold it four to one.

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