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Remembering Palm's Magic Days

Pilot 1000A gray plastic box, green screens and magical times are what I remember in my first years as a Palm user. Ah, what wonderful days those were. Every day seemed exciting and full of promise for a cool new application or hardware or way to use a Palm that nobody thought of.

It was a discussion last night with Sammy McLoughlin got us both thinking of the "good ol' days" as Palm users and just how magical those times really seem compared to today.

Sammy wrote this on his weblog last night:

"Mike Rohde and I were chatting tonight about the magic of Palm and what we miss and we both agreed the magical early days of Palm were great..."

"I secretly loved the green screen on my old 3x and yesterday in fact I added some AAA batteries and switched it on and behold there was the green screen it was a marvel. It looked the full works and it took me back to the exciting first days of Palm. Well my exciting first days with a Palm."

Now, I must admit that today there is a bit of a crackle in the Palm community nowadays, especially with all of the exciting new devices being released in the last few months. Still, the Palm community is more mature and refined now, with many more legit businesses writing the applications today than home-grown users and many "experts" around with years of experience. I suppose the Palm community is just a different place. Maybe it's unrealistic of me to expect that the excitement of the early days can be recaptured.

Whatever the case, It is enjoyable to recall the golden days, remembering how exciting the times really were. So, for today's post I thought it would be fun to share my impressions of those days, to spark the memories of fellow old timers and to give new Palm users and idea what those days were like.

My Palm experience started in 1997, in Germany, when my friend Matt came to visit me as I stayed with my friend Andi, near Stuttgart. Matt really intended to show me his new Powerbook 3400, but had also brought along his new Pilot 1000. I had a no idea what a Pilot was, so when Matt produced it, it was quite a surprise for me. The Pilot was this boxy chunk of gray plastic with a matching gray stylus and a green screen. Like a VW Beetle, a little ugly, but cute.

From Matt's description of how he used it daily, his Pilot sounded a wonderful tool for tracking a schedule and keeping loads of contact information handy. I had a chance to play with Matt's Pilot for a while and hear how popular they had become at the European Space Agency where he worked at the time.

That positive first impression stayed with me, When I got back to the States, I saw Pilot 1000s being liquidated for $99 at MacWarehouse. On a whim, I decided to buy one, reasoning that the 30 day money-back gurantee it came with would allow me to get my $99 back if things didn't work out. Needless to say, within a few days I'd fallen in love with my little gray hunk of plastic, using it for all sorts of things. There was no way my Pilot was going back.

From that humble Pilot 1000 with 128k of RAM, I added the Pilot 5000 upgrade board myself (that was a great upgrade), then moved to a PalmPilot Personal for myself and my then girlfriend (now wife) Gail, because of a great closeout deal I found. I was always amazed that these little devices had about the same amount of power as the original Macintosh and even ran on similar Motorola processors. I loved that I could do so much with my Pilot, that it could easily go a month on a set of AAA cells and that it was incredibly portable.

I can remember buying a Palm Modem and how exciting it was to grab my email on the PalmPilot, using SmartCode's Handstamp email client at work. I had a spare phone line at the design firm where I worked, so it was easy to plug in at lunch and grab my emails, or send a little love note to Gail using the PalmPilot and modem. I also loved the feeling of sitting in bed on a Saturday morning with my PalmPilot and modem, surfing the web in text mode with good ol' Palmscape. Ok, so this sounds really geeky and low-tech now that I have a WiFi network, but at that time (1998) it was way cool! :-)

I also remember one hardware hack quite fondly: converting a Newton keyboard to work with my PalmPilot. Someone on the net had figured out the pinouts of the Newt keyboard's cable and had posted a schematic on their site and links to a home-brewed keyboard driver. I bought a Newton keyboard and a spare Palm Sync cable and with my electrically-inclined father's help we built our own PalmPilot keyboard. I loved that thing! I wrote many emails and a few travelgoues using that rig. In fact, it may still be in use today.

The late 90's were an exciting time to be a Palm user. It seemed that weekly, if not daily, new applictions would appear at PilotGearHQ (later to become PalmGear) that provided some new groundbreaking step forward. MemoWare offered hundreds of e-texts for Palm users, and the Pilot-PDA mailing list was born by the Palm community. That amazing list (which still runs today, with many original members) enabled users around the world to comminicate with each other, share new apps and solve Palm-related problems.

As for software, I still remember some of the more amazing software titles, like Hackmaster, a watershed app because it unleashed many amazing hacks to the basic Palm OS. Rich Bram's Doc enabled Palm users to read full e-books on any PalmPilot in compressed form. C.E. Stewart Dewar's Datebk blew away the stock Datebook app with more features that anyone could ever use in a lifetime of use. Handyshopper made grocery shopping a breeze. Smartdoc opened a new door to editing Doc texts right on my Palm (a great compliment to the Newt keyboard). Brainforest let me organize my projects in trees, with tasks and sub-tasks.

There were so many applications, many of which have now faded and are forgotten, but at the time were another magical part to the Palm community. It seemed that each time a new app arrived on the scene, the Pilot-PDA list would explode with comments and suggestions from people trying it out. It was very enjoyable to see the list infused with excitement like that, whether it was a new groundbreaking app, a new bit of hardware or even someone realizing how a combination of the two improved their lives. What great times!

So, what memories of the "olden days" do you have? Do you recall any applications that were groundbreaking to you that might have since faded or might be going strong? I'd love to read your comments and remember those days again from your perspective.

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