The PalmPilot keeps building on a successful platform, and now it's time for other vendors to get the message.
I once wrote about the importance of developing a plan to deal with palmtop and other ultraportable computers. Planning is important, I explained, because these tiny platforms are in the process of becoming a very big deal.
Since making that suggestion, I've run across more and more companies and people putting together the tools to turn 3Com's PalmPilot and devices of its ilk into enterprise-capable platforms, and integrators who are using the little devices to create substantial solutions.
The strongest validation of the little palm-computing device comes from Oracle and Sybase. Both of these companies have announced they will support the PalmPilot as a product for workstation applications. When you can write a Sybase application that is built with the PalmPilot in mind, it not only changes the attitude of the technology camp about the little hand-held devices, it dramatically increases the willingness of enterprise customers to deploy PalmPilots. The same is true with a larger customer base when Oracle is the foundation database.
Lotus Notes is another enterprise foundation that is finding a workstation home on the PalmPilot. The ability to give people access to all the Notes PIM and e-mail data, as well as database applications, is changing the way people think about what it means to be connected to the enterprise. The idea that connection can be interleaved with tasks that take place around a customer site, rather than merely being an episodic, at-your-desk activity, marks a radical shift in how and when enterprise information can be useful.
Beyond the products from major vendors, which are crucial because they offer blue-chip validation of the PalmPilot platform, are the thousands of programs now available that extend the capability of the device beyond what the designers intended.
My favourite examples are the Web browser, that splits functionality between the PalmPilot and a proxy server, allowing a reasonable graphical browser to function in a tiny memory footprint, and the terminal emulator that one engineer used to log into NASA computers during the Mars Explorer mission.
Most of us who have been around the industry a while have seen this kind of development, energy and excitement before. It certainly accompanied the early days of the Macintosh. What makes the PalmPilot different is the combination of development energy and corporate acceptance. The combination is pushing the PalmPilot into organisations at an amazingly rapid clip and paving the way for the other very small devices riding on the PalmPilot's coattails.
Now, some people will ask why I'm focusing on the PalmPilot and ignoring the other palmtop devices on the market. The biggest reason is success; the PalmPilot is, by far, the best selling of these devices. The other reason is similar devices fall short of the PalmPilot's success for one (or more) of four reasons: open development environment, physical size, user interface, or cost.
In an enterprise world increasingly driven by the total cost of ownership, it has been difficult to beat the PalmPilot's combination of features. It may be that the machines running Microsoft's Windows CE PalmPC software will be truly superb when they reach the market in quantity, but for now their primary use has been as ammunition in an unsuccessful FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt) campaign.
As I write this, Apple has announced that Newton is dead. The company says that in 1998 there will be a hand-held device based on the Macintosh OS. The Newton was a rich concept, but its early problems, learning curve, size, and (most importantly) cost finally doomed it in an evolving market. If Apple doesn't learn well from the PalmPilot playbook, the hand-held Macintosh will fare no better.
Users have said, quite loudly, that they will embrace a new, low-cost, easy-to-use platform even if it doesn't run Windows. It's a message the industry should be willing to hear and act upon.