According to numerous internet reports this week, beleagured handset manufaturer Palm is up for sale. The sale of Palm brings back memories of my first experience with their devices, the precursor to the modern day smartphone, that I’d like to share.

Fresh out of school in the early nineties, my employer indoctrinated me into the world of the Franklin Planning system to help me keep my days organized. The system was simple yet brilliant. For those not familiar, an open planner had one page with a calendar, daily schedule, and a to-do list, and the facing page was lined and ready for notes from your events, tasks, and meetings of the day.

I started each morning with 15 minutes of Planning & Solitude where I would laboriously transfer my unfunished to-do tasks and review notes from the prior day, and then plan out my current one. The planner was such an essential part of the company culture I worked in that Franklin classes were given on a regular basis and new employees were given Franklin planner kits.

But then, in 1997, everything changed….

What is that thing?
At the end of an unfinished product development meeting, we needed to schedule a follow-on. As I opened my planner to find open slots in my schedule, the Director of our software group pulled out a little handheld device that grabbed everyone’s attention, the Palm Pilot.

He fascinated us with the functionality of his new toy, but we were skeptical of its claimed capabilities. Empty promises from other failed handheld PDA efforts like the Apple Lisa were fresh in our minds, so no one was quick to give up our day planners. I, for one, could not see how this new breed of gadget could supplant the planning system that had been engrained into my way of working for the last 6 years.

Et tu?
My first boss, Jim, was the poster child for Franklin Planning. He kept copious notes, often written in 3-point font on the pages of his planner. He could locate notes from meetings that took place years in the past and kept a wealth of information in tabs through the back of his planner that he could reference at the drop of a hat.

As Jim and I clung to our planners, we watched around us as more and more of our colleagues adopted the Palm PDAs and touted its virtues. No matter how many times people showed us the device and its capabilities, we were convinced that our planners were the gold standard for organization. These Palms would never become powerful enough to replace the information we could store and collect in our trusty planners. We laughed at those who abandoned the traditional planner for what we considered “fool’s gold.”

And then it happened.

I can still remember that day in late 1999 when Jim walked into my office with the Palm Vx. Like seeing an ex-girlfriend show up at a party with her new date, that feeling of betrayal that you know you shouldn’t feel washed over me. I should have known that one of us would succumb to the lure of the Palm Pilot. It’s attraction had become too great, and now, instead of the gadget handlers being the outcasts, we, the planner hold-outs, had become the ridiculed.

I had held out for 3 years, but it was clear that the time had come to make the transition. As the decade of the nineties came to a close, I, too, decided it was time to convert and purchased the Palm Vx.

Love at first sight
The memories of opening the box, installing the software, and performing the first HotSync still linger in the back of my mind. The device had a look and feel that was as elegant as it was simple. While expansive, the functionality of the device was easy to master. Even learning a new alphabet called graffiti was accomplished in a matter of days, if not hours.

It was exciting to move to the new way of planning and to experience what so many people before me already had – the freedom to leave that bulky planner behind and to use that wonderful piece of plastic, brushed metal and glass to peruse your calendar, take notes, and manage those pesky to-do lists. Yes, those to-do lists. No longer did unfinished tasks need to be transferred day-to-day, they automatically rolled over. What a concept!

In addition to the basics, there were also all the fun pieces. I survived so many meetings sitting in the back playing a good game of Giraffe, the graffiti challenge game were you had to create the letters before they hit the bottom of the screen, or the silly puzzle game where you had to order the numbered tiles from 1-15. When you had your PDA open and were tapping the screen during a meeting, no one could tell if you were taking notes or trying to keep busy for fear of dozing off.

Even with all that functionality, it was the United flight schedule application that made the device truly indispensable for me. I traveled alot, and I mean alot, back in those days, and primarily with United. They had an app that you could download to your device, and then update every few months with their latest flight timetables. I can’t recall the exact number of times that app saved my bacon by finding alternate flights when meetings were canceled or ran over, or when I was stuck in Chicago during one of the numerous thunderstorms or snowstorms that fell upon O’Hare, but lets just say it was a lot.

There’s got to be more to life
As much as I had become attached to my Palm, I came to realize that I needed more. By 2005, carrying a PDA and phone was getting annoying. The time had come to find a device that could combine the two. While Palm was trying to lead the market with their Palm Treo line of devices, their PDA heritage weighed them down. They continued to overinvest in the ever rapidly declining stand alone PDA market at the expense of their smartphones. Upstarts like RIM, who did not have a PDA history, entered the market and quickly surpassed Palm. By 2006, Palm began to lose its mojo, which, unfortunately, it has never regained.

No matter who acquires Palm, it will mark the end of an era. Just as we watch sports stars retire and hand the baton to the next generation, it is time for Palm to do the same in the smartphone market. It tried to make one last comeback with the Palm Pre, just like a prize fighter comes out of retirement for one last shot at the title. While the product was good, the execution was not. It’s clear that Palm has lost a step and can not keep up with the latest generation of smartphone players.

In the end, Palm will always hold a special place in the annals of technology for me. I consider Palm to be one of the forefathers of the modern-day smartphone. Their innovations in the PDA space redefined what was possible, created the market for the electronic handheld PDA, and seeded the market for more advanced devices from Microsoft, RIM (BlackBerry) and Apple. Without Palm’s innovation and advancements, the smartphone as we know it today may have never happened.

Thanks for the memories.

I’d love to hear about your experiences with the Palm line of handhelds. Feel free to leave a comment with your favorite memory, story, game, application or Palm model that you owned over the years.