Meet the ex-Palm visionary

If it wasn't for a block of wood, Jeff Hawkins might never have invented the PalmPilot or the Visor.

Hawkins, the former Palm Computing executive and current head of Handspring, is the Linus Torvalds of the Palm community. He invented the platform, which in turn gave rise to the community. His latest invention, the Visor handheld, is already a hit because it comes with an innovative expansion slot and costs less than most Palm devices.

Here at PalmSource 99, the annual Palm developers conference, Hawkins spent a Wednesday afternoon keynote address explaining the process he goes through to devise new products. "I make models," he said. "The thing I want to do here is to see if a product will feel stupid or feel OK."

According to Hawkins, the price you pay to build a smart product is to risk looking stupid for a while. In the case of the Visor, he imagined a handheld that could become a smart phone by inserting an expansion module. But he wasn't sure holding a PDA up to one's face would feel natural. So he tried it himself, with a block of wood. "I'd go around the office answering phone calls on this block of wood," he said. "It felt OK. That's why the Visor has a microphone."

People had their doubts about the smart phone idea, he said. "But I already knew it would be OK because I tried it." In the same vein, Hawkins believes voice recognition software on handhelds will be a flop. He's played make-believe with that application, too. "I've tried pretending using voice recognition on a handheld and it doesn't feel right," he said.

Believing that what feels good to you will feel good to the masses may be a tad egocentric, but it seems to be working so far for Hawkins. Palm handhelds are outselling all other PDAs hands down. And every time Handspring has shown up at trade show, its booth has been inundated with people wanting to get their hands on a Visor.

Hawkins said he hadn't yet invented the Visor when he and Handspring CEO Donna Dubinsky left Palm in 1998 to start their own company. "We had a little office with, like, one plant," he said. "She was buying the first aid kit and watering the plant, and I was supposed to figure out what to do." To get started, he picked one important function that he wanted in his new product -- the expansion module -- believing it would be good for both customers and software developers.

The user experience is contingent upon his trusty block of wood, he said. As for the developer experience, it's important that writing for the device be as easy as possible. But above all, "I do everything possible to stay out of their way," Hawkins said. "Any time a developer calls or sends me an email it's kind of like a little defeat for me," he said. "I try to remove all legal obstacles. Developers don't want to sign licenses and NDAs [nondisclosure agreements] and all that crap. You can download a developer's kit and disappear to Katmandu, and I don't care."

Currently, many of the developers who design software for the Palm platform are designing "Springboard" expansion modules for the Visor as well. Modules that include GPS functions and Bluetooth wireless communication functions are due next year. During his keynote, Hawkins was pretty possessive of everything that had to do with Palm. He spoke about "my" Visor and "my" Palm platform, even though Palm doesn't belong to him anymore. An audience member called him up on this and asked how it felt to build one thing, then leave it to build something else that competes with it. The Visor runs on the Palm platform, meaning Palm gets a check from Hawkins, but it nevertheless competes against Palm hardware. "It is a little odd, I admit," Hawkins said. "But what the hell."