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The First Smartphone

By Heidi Hackford

The Story of Handspring

A decade before Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone, a tiny team of renegades attempted to build the modern smartphone. On May 6, 2022, CHM Live shared the story of Handspring with a 30-minute documentary called Springboard: The Secret History of the First Real Smartphone followed by a discussion with cofounders Donna Dubinsky and Ed Colligan. Moderated by Dieter Bohn, the film’s executive producer, an engaged crowd cheered them on as they revisited the ups and downs of the early smartphone journey and their pioneering product.

Nilay Patel, editor-in-chief of The Verge, noted in his introduction to the film that “Making new things is hard. It is joyful. It is terrifying. It is risky. It often ends in disaster.” The Handspring story is a cautionary tale about how new things are fragile and must be nurtured to succeed.

“I was off by 5 billion units”

Dieter Bohn kicked off the conversation by asking what has surprised the cofounders the most about how the smartphone market has turned out. For Donna Dubinsky, it’s how the big players in the industry, like Motorola, Nokia, and Sharpe, didn’t end up having a major role in the sector.

For Ed Colligan, what was most surprising was that the market for smartphones was bigger than their wildest dreams. Despite his “hyperbolic nature,” he says, he was off by five billion units.

“We were there, and it was ready”

Looking back, the cofounders considered what it was that sunk them. Donna believes it wasn’t competition with Blackberry and others but rather corporate machinations. Ed agrees that 3Com, which acquired Palm and Handspring, was the culprit.

Cofounders Donna Dubinsky and Ed Colligan explain what sunk Handspring.

“Our Timing Wasn’t Excellent”

The cofounders offered insightful details about the decisions they made around what products to focus on and how that played out in market and investment conditions of the mid-1990s. They couldn’t win because investors had been burned.

Handspring cofounders Donna Dubinsky and Ed Colligan describe the investment landscape they faced.

“Everyone thinks Apple killed us”

Ed says he’s proud of the period of time after the Handspring team reunited with Palm. They built a beautiful smartphone called the Palm Pre with a multi-touch screen and sliding keyboard that launched in 2009 and did an incredible job on the web OS that was ten years ahead of its time. Although the popular narrative is that the Apple iPhone killed the company, he disagrees. He lays the blame on Google.

Handspring cofounder Ed Colligan explains Google’s undermining business model.

Ultimately, only a few smartphone companies were ever going to win out. It’s very hard to get national coverage and capital investment in terms of carrier relationships, stores, etc. in such a hands-on, high-touch market was high, notes Donna.

Ed agrees. But knowing the difficulties doesn’t take away the sting of failure. He was so mad after Google and Apple crushed them that he used a Windows mobile phone for quite a while. And liked it.

Creating the Future

Ed and Donna have both moved on. Donna joined the third Handspring cofounder (and founder of Palm), Jeff Hawkins, at Numenta. It’s a company that’s trying to figure out how the brain works and applying what they learn to computing and true machine intelligence. Ed is working on renewable energy to help make an impact on climate change.

They’re focusing on big things that have the potential to change the world for the better. One might wonder if they’d still be contributing their considerable talents to these efforts if Handspring were the dominant smartphone.

Watch the full conversation

The Handspring Story: Renegades, Aspirations, and Disasters | CHM Live, May 6, 2022

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About the Author

Heidi Hackford is the content and curriculum director for the Exponential Center at the Computer History Museum. She is responsible for leading the development of educational materials focused on innovation and entrepreneurship. Heidi previously worked at Monticello, where she edited Thomas Jefferson’s family letters. At the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library, she established a digital archive and conducted teacher workshops on incorporating digital history resources in the classroom. After moving to Silicon Valley, Heidi directed the start-up of a new foundation promoting wilderness conservation through art.

Originally published at https://computerhistory.org on May 13, 2022.

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