Back when the PDA was all about… nothing much, really.
It may be hard to believe, but there was a time when the term “smartphone” hadn’t yet been in the common vernacular. It was a time when the Personal Digital Assistant was the mark of a high-tech executive – a flashy, portable device that they would frequently pull out, stare at while stabbing at the screen with a plastic stylus, and then quickly pocket it. What were they doing? We didn’t know. To be honest, neither did they – because these devices were all universally fairly limited.
Back in the day, apart from Blackberry (who were still relevant since mobile email was actually a novelty), you had two competing devices that mattered: Windows CE-based devices, and Palm. Palm initially started as a division of US Robotics and later 3Com before becoming independent, and are probably best known for the Palm Pilot PDA (which incidentally wasn’t their first, but is easily their most well known). The long, distinguished line of Palm OS devices were the iPhones of their time in terms of being an iconic representation of the PDA market – so much so that “Palm Pilot” became synonymous with PDA.
I wanted a Palm device. I don’t know why I wanted one, but I did – I’d wanted one ever since I’d seen an advertisement for Windows CE on the back of a magazine while catching a flight as a child. Palm devices tended to be more popular than Windows CE devices because they were generally cheaper, ran better with better battery life, and tended to be easier to use. Microsoft, much like with Windows Phone today, didn’t really seem to know what to do with it. Eventually, for Christmas 2001, I finally got my first device: a Palm m105.
What was it?
The m Series were a new line of devices released around that time, with the m100 series being the budget, affordable devices, aimed at general consumers.
The m105 cost about $400 back in the day. It was chunky by today’s standards – about 386 grams, 12cm tall, 8cm wide, and 2cm deep – an absolute monster. It had 8GB of memory with a 2MB ROM designed to hold the OS, and a 20Mhz processor. The screen was a terrible LCD greyscale display, with a bright green blacklight. It ran on 2 AAA batteries, and had a little capacitor that was supposed to stop the RAM from losing its data while you changed the batteries. This capacitor had a habit of failing though, meaning that more often than not you’d lose your data as soon as the batteries died.
On the face of the device is a few buttons: one for the Calendar, Contacts, ToDo and Notes applications, with two scroll buttons in the centre. The power button sites on the top – holding it down would activate the blacklight. On the back was a little hole that acted as a reset button (and to allow the device to beep and play terrible piezo speaker sounds), and the battery door. The stylus had a silo at the top of the device.
You’ll notice the bottom of the screen has a silkscreen area – this was used mostly as an input device. The Palm series couldn’t do proper handwriting recognition (at least not until the end of their life), and this area allowed you to write in things using a simplified alphabet – letters input on the left (one at a time) and numbers on the right. It also had options for Home, Menu, Calculator, and a search function. There were also options for the clock and contrast, if I remember correctly.
The bottom had a proprietary connector that allowed you to connect the m105 to your computer via serial port – it came with a docking cradle. It could also be used to connect to a few accessories, including an “internet connection kit” which I never got to work. Incidentally, the front panel could also come off and you could change the face plate into a different colour.
What was it like?
To be honest, I didn’t have a whole lot of use for the m105. It’s not like I was a business executive, I was just a dumb kid. But I used the shit out of mine all the same. I used to take notes for my homework, read early eBooks, and play a few very simple games. One of my friends had one too and we used to beam dumb shit between the devices (they had an IR port too – it was absolutely useless). I can remember staying up all night once with my m105 for company, reading scary stories I’d downloaded from somewhere.
The m105 did have some internet capabilities but the only way I ever managed to use it was with it docked in its cradle. Once, when I was sick in bed, I daisy chained a bunch of serial cables together, plugged it into my computer (which connected to the internet via a cable modem by that time), and used some long-forgotten software to bridge the connection to the m105, letting me surf the web from my bed! It was absolutely pointless on such a tiny, tiny screen… but man, I felt pretty damn awesome!
There was also a web service called AvantGo that allowed you to “synchronise web content” to your device. They had a bunch of “channels” which were basically selections of websites that were fetched and downloaded to your device. You could even instruct it to fetch sites you specified along with a particular number of links from the specified page. This was actually pretty clever for the time and something I used quite a bit. Sadly AvantGo is now focused on SMS advertisement, but it was a great service back then.
There was also a load of software for the Palm devices back in the day – it was easily the most prolific platform for app development. TeanPoint Software were my favourite developers and had a bunch of great little apps that I used quite a bit. My favourite was TealPaint, a very basic graphics manipulation program. It looked like total arse on my little m105, but I was astounded that it could even meet Windows Paint level of tools. Amazingly, TealPoint were still working on stuff in 2013.
I also remember installing an app that let me convert and view movies on my device. They looked atrocious and the refresh rate made it hard to see what (if anything) was going on, but to my friends and I, that was pretty friggin’ incredible. We could watch videos in the palm of our hands! They looked terrible and could only go for a few minutes at most, but it was a video! On a mobile device! The future was now!
There were lots of issues with it though. Firstly, and most annoyingly, the device’s OS was stored in ROM – thus there was no way to upgrade the OS, making it a dead end from a software perspective. It also used Palm OS 3.5 – which was already out of date. The screen was tiny and low-res, even for the time. Also the nasty habit of the backup power capacitor failing (a very common issue) meant that if the batteries in any way couldn’t power the device, and you hadn’t synchronised recently, you were screwed. But it was a budget PDA – what did you expect? For the time, its massive 8MB of internal storage was pretty damn special.
What happened to it?
My Palm m105 is still floating around my parents’ house, somewhere. I moved on to Windows Mobile devices, but it still holds a special place in my heart. It’s sort of quaint looking back on it now, but at the time it was pretty incredible. It’s something most people have forgotten now – much like Palm itself.
So what happened to Palm? Really, the m Series was the beginning of the end. The company took a big hit with the Dot Com Bubble, which coincided with the m Series release. By that time, Windows Mobile devices were becoming a lot more attractive, and Smartphones were starting to become a thing – a mostly useless thing, but a thing nonetheless. Palm split up into a hardware and software business – palmOne and PalmSource, respectively. They then merged again in 2005, returning to the Palm name. They later released a few forgettable devices, including a Windows Mobile device.
Then the iPhone happened, and the world was never the same again. Overnight the smartphone became a true consumer device, and it arrived at just the right time when mobile internet was an actual thing that people saw a true use for. Palm had peaked well before that point and their devices looked old compared to the iPhone’s all-touchscreen UI. Was the iPhone the first smartphone? No. But it was the first one that wasn’t a compromise.
In 2009 Palm displayed webOS and a new Palm smartphone to the world, which generated a lot of hype – but the iPhone-Android Axis had by now well and truly been established. Blackberry was basically dead by this point, so what hope did Palm have? Absolutely none – and Palm was acquired by HP in 2010, and was dead not long afterwards, with webOS going along with it.
But thanks, little m105! You were my first PDA, and I’ll always remember you. Just wish I could find you again…