Hawkins: The Optimistic Realist

If there is a best way to describe Jeff Hawkins, it is as an optimistic realist -- and this is a potent combination.

In 1994, it was the optimist who founded, along with Donna Dubinsky, Palm Inc., and who believed despite some very notable failures which included Apple Computer Inc.'s Newton and the Sharp Wizard that they could build a better handheld.

It was the realist who understood why the others failed.

"I knew people wanted something like this. Why else would they keep buying them -- Apple sold 100,000 Newtons --" he says in a quick aside, "and then, after a while, throw them in a drawer?"

To solve the problem, Hawkins the realist found and interviewed as many Newton owners as he could.

"We watched the failure of products like the Newton and asked users, 'why were you disappointed and what were you hoping it [would] do?' That was the real important question."

What Hawkins discovered led him to design a handheld that fits in your shirt pocket, syncs with a desktop, has instant performance, and is affordable. These were the design parameters he used to build the Palm. Hawkins even measured the time it takes to look up and make an entry using a paper calendar.

"I knew we had to be faster than that. Paper calendars were our benchmark."

But there is a bit of irony in the one design point he avoided.

"We knew we didn't want to be just a small PC. The Palm was designed as a companion to a PC.

Now six years later, Hawkins believes that the handheld will become the center of all personal computing.

"To me the future of the PC is handheld devices. It will be the way most people get to the Internet."

Hawkins sees a wireless future that will "transform the world. A persistent Internet connection will change the way people think."

Hawkins believes data and voice in the long term will become "essentially free." Of course the realist admits that, at least for today, wireless connectivity is terrible, especially in North America. "It is an impediment to global business."

But the optimist side of Hawkins believes in the future.

"You name the problem and it will get fixed," he says.

When that happens, Hawkins sees wireless transforming, for example, the whole nature of personal finance. "The checkbook will go away," he predicts.

And Hawkins thinks wireless technology will also create the kinds of connections for underdeveloped regions without a wired infrastructure that will put those countries on a more equal footing with highly industrialized nations. This will help those regions create new businesses and improve the quality of life.

Although Hawkins is clearly a technologist, he does not believe technology such as online marketplaces can supplant all traditional business models. "Personal relationships are essential. It shows you are committed," says Hawkins.

Jeff Hawkins

Age: 43

Current position: Founder, chairman, and chief product officer, HandspringTechnology prediction: Wireless technology will transform the way people live their lives

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