Son of Palm - cheaper, faster, expandable
September 14, 1999
By Robin Lloyd
(CNN) -- The duo that brought the world the PalmPilot and recently formed their own company debuted on Tuesday a faster, cheaper and far more versatile competitor -- a handheld computer called Visor.
Visor, the first product released by Handspring, will run the latest Palm operating system but cost about half as much. The cheapest version, the Visor Solo, will sell for $149, although that comes without a cradle for transferring files to and from a desktop machine, also known as syncing.
The middle-tier model, simply called the Visor, includes a synchronization cradle and 2 MB of memory and retails for $179. This version, with its low price point and standard features, is targeted to consumers.
Business and power users may opt for the $249 Visor Deluxe with its 8 MB of RAM, a cradle and a leather case.
The Visor runs from 10 to 20 percent faster than the Palm III and V, but speed was not the goal in designing Visor, Handspring co-founder Jeff Hawkins said. Expandability was -- with miniature modules the size of two stacked Wheat Thins that snap into the back of the Visor to eventually run peripherals ranging from MP3 players to voice recorders.
"The real story is about how these modules work," said Hawkins, who co-founded Handspring with Donna Dubinsky. "It's a subtle one because people don't understand how they work. I think what we've done here is created the first true plug-and-play expansion capability."
The so-called Springboard modules instantaneously install their software. A cell phone module is planned for release in the first half of 2000, Hawkins said.
Orders will be taken by phone and filled in October.
The cheapest Palm sold by 3Com, the Palm IIIe, retails for $229. 3Com announced Monday that it plans to spin off its popular PalmPilot hand-held computer business early next year. . The concept behind the Visor Solo is to target those who already own another Visor and want a second hand-held and avoid the cost of the cradle, Hawkins said.
Also, some of the Visor applications have no need for syncing, such as the back-up memory card.
It remains to be seen if Handspring can promptly fill the orders it receives.
"We are in limited production," Hawkins said. "We will not have a lot of units. That's why we're not in broad distribution today." He declined to disclose exactly how many units have been made so far.
Despite positive advance gossip on the product, Hawkins, a veteran of designing, developing and releasing new computer products, said he was taking a cautious approach to preparing for possible demand for the product.
"It's not like we have channel orders that we are fulfilling," he said.
The production process ramps up slowly. "You can't go from start-up to millions of units right away," he adds.
The Visors will run on AAA alkaline batteries and are 100 percent compatible with existing Palm products, Hawkins said.
The screen quality is roughly the same as the newer Palm IIIe and V products.
All the visor models come with a built-in microphone, but it works only when a module is inserted that makes use of it, such as a cell phone or voice recorder.
Hawkins says he is not in competition with 3Com, his former employer, and its PalmPilot lines. In fact, the two companies have partnered, with Handspring paying a royalty to 3Com for every unit it ships.
"We are not going to take market away from Palm," he said. "We are going to grow this market. Their market is growing. Our market is growing."
The Palm Pilot has become one of the fastest-selling high-tech devices of the decade.
After stints with Intel and GriD Systems, where he designed laptops, Hawkins took a leave and developed an algorithm that allowed computers to recognize patterns and, hence, handwriting.
Returning to GRiD, Hawkins applied some of these ideas to the GRiDPad, a reasonably successful pen-based computer. "About this time, I had an epiphany," Hawkins says. "Someday, everybody is going to own something like this. But it's got to be a lot smaller and sell for under $ 300."
To chase that dream, he started Palm Computing in 1992.
The hand-held computer market seemed doomed after Apple introduced its now-infamous Newton, but Hawkins kept going with the help of Donna Dubinsky, a Harvard MBA with a great Silicon Valley track record.
Hawkins insisted that the computer be small enough to slip into a pocket. They worked out the technical issues, then turned to the financial ones.
After being rejected repeatedly (by investors who are now kicking themselves), they found an angel in U.S. Robotics, which not only agreed to fund the Palm Pilot but offered to buy the whole company. 3Com later took over U.S. Robotics.
Despite the founders’ strong work ethic, several Handspring employees, including Dubinsky, Hawkins and Rob Haitani, Handspring’s director of product marketing, have been out of town or taking vacations lately – somewhat odd considering they’re so close to their first product launch.
Some might think they’re ducking the press, trying to keep the heat low on their new baby before the release. Not so, says Hawkins.
“This is not an Internet start-up,” Hawkins said. “We’re building a consumer electronics company. We're building hardware. You start it going and a year later you got a product. We've been doing the same thing for like a year. We're experienced at this. We've done this before.”
Hawkins says the product has been done for some time, and Handspring has spent the last few weeks dealing with the press.
After releasing three initial modules available in October, the more jazzy and complex modules will dribble out, Hawkins said. Scheduled modules include an MP3 player, GPS receiver and cell modem as well as productivity software and games.
Most modules will use the Visor’s power supply. For the few that need more juice – such as the cell modem – the module itself will have a separate battery compartment.
Hawkins is particularly proud of the modules’ plug-and-play capability. After sliding the module into its slot, the module automatically installs its software and begins running – no matter what the Visor is doing at the time. Once you’re done with the module, just take it out. The program uninstalls itself instantly and disappears.
“Adding hardware to any computer is hard,” Hawkins said. “The reality is, you're sticking in disks, trying to run installers. We do a very sophisticated installation and de-install but it's invisible to the user and happens almost instantaneously.”
The Springboard exemplifies a goal of the Visor: simplicity.
“The reason the Palm is so successful is the simplicity of using them,” Hawkins said. “They kind of just work.”
A year from now, the Springboard capability will have sparked a wide variety of modules, he said.
"There is going to be a whole economy built around them,” he said. “It seems to have hit a nerve with developers. They're saying, 'We've been waiting for something like this.'"
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