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Status Symbols: Palm V

Status Symbols: Palm V


PDAs weren't beautiful until Palm decided to change that

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Palm V
Palm V

Status Symbols are devices that transcend their specs and features, and become something beautiful and luxurious in their own right. They're things that live on after the megapixel and megahertz wars move past them, beacons of timeless design and innovation.

This might come as a surprise to younger readers, but there existed an age before smartphones. The 1990s and early 2000s bore witness to dozens upon dozens of so-called PDAs — personal digital assistants, a term famously coined by ex-Apple CEO John Sculley upon the introduction of the ill-fated Newton — and Palm Computing was one of the PDA Age's superstars.

Today, of course, Palm is little more than a footnote in mobile history, but 1998 was a heady year for founder Jeff Hawkins and his brainchild: the company had already captured throngs of believers with the Pilot and PalmPilot series. In March, the Palm III was introduced, a moderately sleeker incarnation of the PalmPilot Professional with upgraded specs.

But none of these devices were built with design truly in mind. Not Palm's, not anyone's. They were strictly utilitarian, a way for businesspeople to quickly check a phone number before thrusting this impossibly boring, boxy, gray gadget back into their suit pocket. They weren't pretty, they didn't capture the eye. Even Apple, now considered a benchmark for industrial design worldwide, was producing dark gray rectangles.

It was beautiful at a time when gadgets simply weren't

Palm saw an opportunity, collaborating with famed design firm IDEO — which had previously worked with Hawkins during his time at GRiD — on a new PDA that would be viewed as a "desirable accessory." And what a desirable accessory it was: at its launch in 1999, no PDA looked anything like it. It wasn't just functional, it was beautiful — and more importantly, it was beautiful at a time when gadgets simply weren't. It featured ID cues commonly associated with Apple like aluminum construction and an internal sealed battery more than half a decade before they gained widespread popularity. And at roughly 10mm thick, it was reasonably thin even by today's standards.

Palm V hands-on photos


The V was later succeeded by the Vx, the m500 series, and eventually the Tungsten line. By then, though, the smartphone writing was on the wall: the Treo models, which Palm had originally acquired from Palm OS licensee (and Jeff Hawkins startup) Handspring, clearly represented the future of mobility. The PDA's reign was ending just as quickly as it began, but the philosophy pioneered by the Palm V — the idea that a mobile device can be both functional and desirable — lives on.

Sean Hollister contributed to this report.