Handspring's Hawkins Chases the Unconventional

NEW YORK (06/27/2000) - Jeff Hawkins, founder and chief product developer for Handspring Inc., doesn't have much use for the latest, fastest processors. Nor does he want to cram tons of applications onto his handheld computers.

This may fly in the face of conventional wisdom, but that's often what it takes to build a product that millions of people want to use, Hawkins said here Tuesday at the opening keynote address of PC Expo -- a show that, this year, with the variety of small computing appliances on display, could easily have been called Wireless Handheld Device Expo.

The handheld computing category is still in its infancy, and right now the way to success is to do the basics things well, Hawkins said. With his record launching leading-edge devices and companies - he was a founder of Palm Inc. and the designer of the Palm V, the Palm VII and last year's Visor (from his new company, Handspring) - his ideas could provide food for thought for developers as well as insight into what handheld devices may offer over the short term.

Producing successful handheld computing and communications devices is not easy, Hawkins noted. The road to producing handheld devices is littered with failures, among them the Motorola Inc. Envoy, the Motorola Marco, the Nokia Corp. Communicator 9000, IBM Corp.'s Simon and AT&T Corp.'s EO440, Hawkins noted.

The problem is that developers often follow conventional thinking, and "conventional thinking is often wrong." Hawkins said. "Often what makes a successful new product is something entirely different."

One product of conventional thinking that Hawkins was quick to debunk was the idea that faster CPUs (central processing units) are better and that "products with faster CPUs tend to sell more."

What Hawkins has found, though, is that a "faster user experience is better" than having more processing power. The Handspring still uses a 16-bit processor, he pointed out. But features like one button access to basic features that people want -- such as calendaring -- make a handheld interface easier and faster to use, and this type of design is not connected to CPU power.

With product designers, "everybody and his brother wants to add features," Hawkins said. But especially with a new product category, manufacturers would be better off if they focus on a few important features, designing them so that they are simple to use.

Hawkins predicted that winners in the "smart phone" or "wirelessly enabled handheld" category would be companies that focus on the basics. These include, in order of importance:

1. Making voice calling easier, with easier-to-program speed-dialing, call history, and conference calling functions;2. Better integration of PIMs (personal information managers), so users can dial from their address books and look up numbers faster;3. Easier messaging features -- right now it's difficult to type out simple messages onto a handheld keyboard.

A lot of manufacturers of handhelds are focusing on Internet browsing and transaction functions, which will become more important as time goes on, but which at the moment are not the most important issues for most users, Hawkins said. The network infrastructure right now does not support a "great user experience" for browsing and doing transactions on the Internet, Hawkins said.

"Right now there is no support for a persistent connection" to the Internet from mobile devices, he said.

However, once this happens, the already high growth rate in the handheld device market will explode, he said.

Handhelds are the latest in a long line of transitions in the computer industry -- from mainframes to minicomputers to PCs -- in which, at every transition point, the devices have become smaller, simpler, and easier to use. The result has been that each time the industry transitions to a smaller form of computing technology, the number of users of the new technology rises above the number of users of older technologies, Hawkins said.

But handheld devices are still, for the most part, stand-alone devices.

"When standalone devices get networked, the number of applications and users take off," Hawkins pointed out.

The handheld market will jump from millions of users to tens or hundreds of millions of users when "wireless telephone networks provide a consistent network connection to let users send and receive data all the time. This will be a major event in our industry," he said.

Until then, Hawkins said, stick to the basics.