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Recently our friends at sister site TreoCentral pointed us to this snippet: Apple was seriously interested in purchasing Palm back in 1997.  This is interesting for all sorts of reasons, but chief amongst them for me is this: Had the deal gone through, we might have seen the iPhone not only come to market earlier, but possibly seen it prevent other smartphone manufacturers (like RIM) from being able to compete.  It's an interesting 'what could have been' scenario: just as Apple was killing off their Newton line, it would pick up the Palm Pilot and add functionality to it at presumably a more rapid pace than Palm did.

It's also notable that even back in 1997, the powers-that-be in Apple recognized that they would need to transition from a strictly-computer company to a consumer products company:

A perhaps little known fact: in the Summer of 1997, Steve Jobs called Eric Benhamou, 3Com's CEO (the company owned Palm). "Give me the Palm and come and join my Board of Directors. Only Apple can make Palm a true consumer brand." Nothing happened. Apple's foray into the product segment had to wait ten more years.

Of course, neither Apple nor Palm were in a position to really get things moving quickly at that time.  Palm would have to wait until their first (of many) convoluted ownership shakeups sorted itself out and Apple itself was still in the midst of redefining itself for the Steve Jobs era. The parallels between Palm now and Apple then are also fun to think about -- both in dire need of a turnaround, both written off by much of the industry, and both have/had Jon Rubinstein playing a key role in revitalizing hardware.

I could go on and on playing "What If?" but instead there's something else that this little snippet brings to mind: Palm got something right with the original Palm Pilot way back in 1997 and I really wish Apple would take a closer look at that 1997 tech.

Read on to find out what Palm got right way back in the mid to late 90s.

Pitting the PalmPilot against the Newton was (and is) an interesting exercise. The Newton clearly had aims to become the next major computing platform (the iPhone has similar aims and better chances), it was powerful, networked, and generally ambitious. The PalmPilot: it had aims to replace your organizer and that's about it. It was a simpler device because Palm recognized that it would need to be pocketable and (relatively) inexpensive.

Back then, at least, the PalmPilot won out -- and one lesson that Apple clearly took from that was the simplicity and pocketability trump power in handheld devices. That's not to say that the iPhone isn't powerful (it is), but Apple has taken a strategy of unveiling that power bit-by-bit as they're ready to do so. First and foremost, Apple focused on nailing down the core functionality and a consistent UI.

The PalmPilot was a compelling device for many many people for several years (and continues to be some a smaller group). In the form the the PalmOS Treo and the Central, the PalmOS continues to be a useful, though simple, OS for millions. What about the PalmOS was so compelling then and remains compelling now. I could point to a few things, but for most I think it was simply the ability to create and sync the "Four Pillars of PIM."

The what now? The Four Pillars of PIM are the 4 applications that were given separate buttons on the original PalmPilot. They were the essential core things you would want to do with a pocket organizer. You'd want to be able to enter data both on your computer and on the device itself and have that data seamlessly sync. The Four Pillars of PIM:

  • Calendar
  • Contacts
  • Memos
  • ToDo

On all of these applications on the PalmOS, you can create new entries incredibly quickly and you can enter your data on the desktop and sync it over. You can probably tell where I'm going with this, but I'll come out and say it anyway: the iPhone only gets 2 of the four. Contacts and Calendar sync seamlessly (and now wirelessly!), but Notes on the iPhone lives in its own little world and ToDo/Tasks is nowhere to be seen.

Now, I understand that both of these gaps can be filled with 3rd party applications on the iPhone, but those apps require you to sign up for some 3rd party's website and then further find ways to sync or access your data there. What should happen is that these last two Pillars should sync over -- either through iTunes, Exchange, or MobileMe. Exchange, you might note, fully supports syncing both ToDo and Memos. It does so with Windows Mobile, in fact, just fine.

What's especially frustrating is that there have been signs that we'd see support for these features. Over a year ago we reported on a warning error that popped up in Mail's Notes feature. Here, take a gander for yourself:

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"Rich text notes may not be editable on iPhone and other devices." If you are using a Mac with 10.5, you can go create that error yourself right now.

What's more, when Apple updated OS X's Mail.app client back then they not only added notes but they also integrated ToDos. Whereas previously they had only lived in the Calendar Application, now they were in Mail. In short, Apple seemed to be setting up Mail.app to have similar functionality to Microsoft's Exchange email client. The implication was that they'd be able to sync all four Pillars of PIM on both platforms. The reality is that something is keeping Apple from finishing off these features that they clearly have started.

I wish I could say I knew what's stopping them. I suspect that Apple's more concerned with other issues (like getting push notifications worked out) that they believe are more important than Notes and ToDo.

I'm happy that in addition to the Four Pillars of PIM our devices now have other, equally essential features like Push Email, SMS, Web browsing, and Telephony (the Four Pillars of COM, if you will). I'm equally happy that syncing PIM information is moving to wireless push instead of tethering and manually syncing. All this pleases me and overall we're obviously much much better off now than we were a decade ago. Still...

People used to talk about the "Zen of Palm." It was 1 part minimizing taps, 1 part removing features that weren't necessary, 1 part speed, 1 part intuitive UI, and, well, a lot more. Nowadays people refer to "iPhone-Likeness" in a very similar way. But part of the "Zen of Palm" is that they recognized what the four most important organizer functions were and made those functions seamless, easy, and immediate. Having to sort though 3rd party apps, pick one, then try to re-work your current set of notes and ToDos to fit with some new system is definitely not "iPhone-Like." It's janky, and Apple needs to fix it ASAP.

In other words, yes, I'm already looking forward to iPhone OS 2.3.


One last bit: the PalmPilot also had a feature that's sorely lacking on the iPhone and, in fact, on most non-PalmOS devices: decent device-wide search capabilities. One field that searched through the databases of every core app and many 3rd party apps. If the PalmPilot was able to do this, you'd like to think the iPhone could.