The Palm Pilot Story

Alberto Savoia
5 min readMar 3, 2019

On this day (March 2nd) in 2000, Palm Inc. went public. The stock more than doubled on its first day, valuing the company more than $50B. That’s real money, even these days.

Many loved Palm’s first product, the Palm Pilot (I certainly did), but few know the unusual and clever way of how Palm co-founder Jeff Hawkins originally tested the idea. I write about this story in my book The Right It, and here’s a short version of that story:

The Pinocchio Pretotype — An Example

In the mid-1990s, brilliant innovator and entrepreneur Jeff Hawkins had an idea for the personal digital assistant (PDA) that would eventually become the Palm Pilot. But before committing to it, and investing in building an expensive prototype (which would have required a full team of engineers and a lot of time and money), he wanted to validate some of his assumptions about the device. He knew he could build it, but would he use it? What would he use it for? And how often would he use it?

His solution was to carve a block of wood to match the intended size of the device, whittle down a chopstick to make a stylus, and use paper sleeves to simulate various user screens and functionality. He carried the block of wood in his pocket for several weeks and pretended that it was a functional device in order to get insights into how he would use it. If someone asked for a meeting, for example, he’d pull out his wooden block and tap on it to simulate checking his calendar and scheduling a meeting reminder.

Here’s the wooden Palm Pilot (on display at The Computer History Museum in Mountain View, CA):

With the help of his mockup, Hawkins collected valuable usage data. He learned that he would actually carry such a device with him, and that he would be using it mostly for four functions: address book, calendar, memo, and to-do lists. His simple experiment provided him with enough first-hand data to convince him that he would love to have a working version of the device. He knew, of course, that a sample size of one (himself) was not sufficient to determine if other people would respond to the Pilot the same way he did — he would have to follow up this test with additional experiments to validate the rest of the market. But the idea passed an important first test: its own inventor found it useful. This may seem a trivial threshold to pass, but you’d be surprised how many people bring to market a product without first validating that they themselves would use it.

The data collected from the simple wood and paper pretotype, helped to guide and justify the much greater investment needed to develop a proper working prototype, shown below:

Working prototype for the Palm Pilot (The Computer History Museum)

Not only did Palm Pilot became incredibly successful, but it also paved the way for smartphones and established a form factor (i.e., shape and size) for most portable electronic devices that continues to this day. Here’s the final product next to the wooden version:

Pinocchio was a wooden puppet who dreamed of becoming a real boy. The Palm Pilot was a wooden PDA that Jeff Hawkins dreamed might one day become a real product.

The Palm Pilot story illustrates some of the key concepts I emphasize in my book The Right It. Below is how Time magazine reported the Palm Pilot story in March 1998. I’ve marked some of the key points in bold:

“Hawkins, 40, Palm’s chief technologist and Pilot’s creator, designed one of the first handheld computers, the GRiDPad, a decade ago. It was an engineering marvel but a market failure because, he says, it was still too big. Determined not to make the same mistake twice, he had a ready answer when his colleagues asked him how small their new device should be: ‘Let’s try the shirt pocket.’

Retreating to his garage, he cut a block of wood to fit his shirt pocket. Then he carried it around for months, pretending it was a computer. Was he free for lunch on Wednesday? Hawkins would haul out the block and tap on it as if he were checking his schedule. If he needed a phone number, he would pretend to look it up on the wood. Occasionally he would try out different design faces with various button configurations, using paper printouts glued to the block.”

This story embodies many of the core ideas, principles, and tools I write about in my book:

  • The painful experience of spending years and millions to produce the GRiDPad, a product that turned out to be “… an engineering marvel but a market failure.”
  • The painful realization that the mistake was not that he built It wrong, but that he had built The Wrong It.
  • A commitment to “… not to make the same mistake twice.” In other words, he told himself something along the lines of: Next time, make sure that you are building The Right It before you build It right.
  • The creation of a basic, non-functional prototype — not to test if the Pilot could be built — but to test if, how, and how much one would actually use it, by collecting first-hand data to inform design decisions for the actual prototype and eventual product.
  • Using his imagination (i.e., pretending) to fill in the missing functionality using a dummy of the envisioned product as a prop.

While mock-ups and non-functional prototypes are quite common in innovation, the act of pretending that the mock-ups are functional and using them as such (especially for an extended period of time as Jeff Hawkins did) is rare.

Alberto Savoia, March 2, 2019

If you have enjoyed this brief look at how one of our most brilliant innovators, Jeff Hawkins, cleverly validated his idea for a PDA, please check out my new book, The Right It, where you will find many other inspiring, and applicable examples of how to make sure that your idea is The Right It — and idea that, if competently executed, will succeed in the market.

Get your copy of The Right It today at any of the following retailers:
Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound | Apple Books | 800-CEO-READ