Palm Creator Envisions Handhelds' Future

FRAMINGHAM (06/27/2000) - The opening speech at PC Expo Tuesday hardly mentioned the PC.

Jeff Hawkins, generally considered the father of the Palm Inc. handheld organizer, ran through a list of ideas he labeled "conventional thinking" about wireless handheld devices. He contrasted these with his own ideas, most of which seemed to rely more heavily on simply observing human behavior than exploiting leading-edge technology.

When an audience member asked him about speech recognition software, Hawkins said speech would never be the main interface for computers because it's simply impractical.

"It just doesn't feel right," he said. "It's too hard to edit. There are too many issues to address. I say to [speech software] vendors, 'give me the A-to-Z alphabet for under US$5 so I can spell a name.' No one can do that."

Hawkins told a throng of show attendees - sweltering in New York City's heat and humidity, despite the air conditioning at the Jacob Javitts Convention Center - that handhelds might not be the future of computing, but they would be the future of Internet access.

"The handheld computer space is not at all like the PC space. It's more like the cellphone space," he said. "In the PC space, the operating system defines the product. But the operating system is much less important in defining a handheld device. The innovation [in handhelds] will be in things like new services."

Hawkins left Palm about 2 years ago, with several colleagues, to found Handspring Inc., which introduced the Visor handheld in the fall of 1999. Visor runs the Palm OS and looks very similar to the Palm device itself. Its main innovation is a proprietary hardware interface, called Springboard, which lets various peripherals plug into the Visor, such as a barcode reader or cellular radio.

Conventional thinking says "adhere to standards," Hawkins said, his face boyish and readily smiling. But he said standards often are not implemented well and so don't work well for users.

"If you take a PCFlash card from one Windows CE device and plug it into another one, the card will crash, because the CPUs are different," he said. "What kind of a standard is that?"

What users want is something that works, he said. The Springboard interface, though not standard, works.

In contrast to the idea that "computers should adapt to people," a goal no one expects to be realized very soon, Hawkins said, "people are willing to learn how to use useful tools, even if they have to spend some time doing so.

In contrast to the mantra that "more features are better," Hawkins said the handheld market should focus on doing a few, important things very well. The secret to the success of the Palm devices was not advanced technology like intelligent agents or wireless nets. "We focused on being a good organizer," he said.

In contrast to the PC dynamics of ever-faster CPUs, Hawkins said the real issue was a faster user experience with the device. Thus the Palm design insisted on being always on, with no delay for starting up and loading applications. And the design created "one-button operation" - pressing one button displayed the user's calendar for that day. For all this, a 16-bit processor works just fine, Hawkins said.

His prediction of future evolution was as low-key as his onstage manner. The first "killer app" for the new generation of smart phones will be better voice calling, he said. Most cellphone users program only three or four speed dial numbers, or don't use the feature at all, because it's too difficult. Same goes for call conferencing, a feature almost universal on cellphones and almost universally ignored.

Call conferencing on his own Ericsson handset was difficult because there are so many complicated menus that Ericsson created menus to reduce the number of menus, he said. This sparked a laugh from audience members for whom the experience was clearly familiar.

Better voice calling can be achieved by improved networks, but also by simpler user interfaces that make it easier to use an array of existing features and conveniences.

Hawkins said the second killer application will be an integrated Personal Information Manager (PIM). The integrated PIM will let users store not just 50 speed dials but an entire address book of several hundred names, and then speed-dial any one of them. The caller ID feature would be able to retrieve the name and other information of the caller from the address book and display this data caller's number.

Further out, Hawkins said, instant messaging will become much more important, but only when vendors can make this function much simpler. Finally, Web browsing and Web transactions will slowly become prominent.

"These functions don't work very well today," Hawkins said, with apparently unconscious understatement. For these functions to be effective users will need a persistent Internet connection, via wireless nets, and low latency to create faster interaction, he said.

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