What Is a Palm Pilot?

By Milton Kazmeyer

No modern history of mobile computing would be complete without a mention of the Palm Pilot, a device originally introduced in 1996. The Palm Pilot was a "personal digital assistant," a device designed to let businesspeople easily take notes, store data and swap information while away from their computers. These devices only enjoyed a brief heyday before falling behind other technologies, but their development influenced modern smartphones and tablets in many ways.

Personal Digital Assistants

While personal digital assistant devices originally debuted during the 1980s, it took many years before they became small and user-friendly enough to make serious headway in the business world. The Palm Pilot featured a large (for the time) 160 x 160-pixel LCD touchscreen and as much as one megabyte of memory. Some models featured the ability to transmit data between devices using infrared technology.

Input Method

One of the most distinctive features of the Palm Pilot was its input method. Instead of using a physical or virtual keyboard, the screen featured an input area where you could write with the included stylus. As long as you were careful about the characters you wrote, the system could read your handwriting and convert the characters to text on the screen. Unfortunately, early iterations of the software were not terribly effective, and a common frustration among users involved having to write and re-write the same figures to get the system to accept them. In addition, the resistive touchscreen required some force to register a contact, leading to fatigue when using the device for long periods.

HotSyncing Data

Another revolutionary feature of the Palm Pilot was its HotSync capability. After using your Palm to collect data or take notes during a meeting, you could connect the device to your PC using the included HotSync cable, and the software would automatically download and back up your data. In effect, this allowed the Palm Pilot to be an extension of your PC. HotSync predated the use of USB and other technologies that eventually allowed for much faster data transfer rates.

The Rise of Smartphones

Palm and other companies released several generations of PDAs in the 1990s, but soon the development of advanced smartphones began to eat into their market share. When companies began putting the same features into their cellular phones, users could get the same functionality without having to carry two nearly identical devices. Palm eventually moved into the smartphone market, but PalmOS devices eventually fell by the wayside in favor of iOS and Android-based technologies.