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Palm Pilot Requirements Case Study

This page is based on an interview of Jeff Hawkins by Charlie Rose, 3 July 2000.

The Palm Pilot personal digital assistant (PDA) represented an abrupt shift in how small scale computing was implemented. The Palm quickly captured and maintained for many years the lion's share of the market in PDA devices. Microsoft had already tried twice – and failed twice – to develop a device able to beat the Palm Pilot in the market place.

How did Palm, Inc. manage this? It wasn't luck. It was careful attention to design and to understanding the problem they were trying to solve.

Jeff Hawkins, founder of Palm Inc. and one of the creators of the Palm Pilot, attributes the success of Palm against its competitors to his design philosophy: they studied the competition, companies that were trying to cram thousands of functions into their PDAs, and they realized that the real competition was not another PDA, but rather a piece of paper - or, more specifically, the leather-bound agenda.

From this insight, Palm's designers then focused on four key characteristics that would let their product compete against paper notebooks like dayrunners:

  • size: the Palm had to fit into a shirt pocket and be light enough to not seem unweildy when in a pocket.
  • cost: the Palm had to cost less than a luxury paper organizer - at the time, less than 300 USD.
  • “instant on”: users do not have to wait for a notepad and a pen to “boot up”. (The Palm Pilot was the first device to have this feature.)
  • extreme usability: anyone can use a pen and paper.

The key insight was that the designers were not trying to beat other, similar products. If all PDA designers tried to outdesign one another, then you've has entered a vicious circle: how could a PDA have ever come into existence if every PDA's design was a direct result of competing against another PDA? At some point, PDA's must compete with something else. No other company of the time realized this simple fact about design.

design/palm_pilot_requirements_case_study.txt · Last modified: 2020.03.12 13:30 (external edit)