The secrets of the first real smartphone, with Dieter Bohn

It is possible that you have seen on the Verge website that Dieter Bohn, the executive editor of Verge, has been working on a documentary called Springboard. This is the secret history behind the first smartphone. It's about Handspring, a company that was working on a very early smartphone. This is a story I believe will resonate with Decoder audiences, so I decided to sit down and chat with Dieter about it. Even brought an exclusive clip, which didn't make it into film.
The Verges' new streaming apps allow you to stream the documentary right now from your TV or set top box. They are available for Android, Roku and Amazon Fire TV. These have been in the works for quite some time. It's not as simple as you might think. You have to create these apps, make them great, and then distribute them in all the app stores. While we learned a lot about the usage rights of rival closed caption formats, we also encountered real Decoder problems.

Apps are great, and you can view your videos in 4K. This podcast can be listened to on one of our streaming apps, which you can use on your TV for stunning surround sound. We will also start making exclusive videos on the platform. This includes the one I mentioned above: Springboard, a documentary Dieter and his video team created over many months.

This transcript was lightly edited to improve clarity.

You are the executive editor of The Verge. Tell me about Springboard.

Springboard is the story behind Handspring. One of the first companies to attempt making the first smartphone was Handspring. It was a well-respected legacy with genius founders. However, there were many corporate disasters that kept it from becoming a success. It was a story about innovation and a startup that tried to achieve something ambitious. But there were many reasons it failed.

It is called a scrappy start-up, and was mostly a scrappy start-up. However, at one time, it was one the most successful and fastest growing tech companies in America.

It's true. That's right. Donna Dubinsky was the CEO and the couple had just launched the Palm Pilot. You may have heard of it. Through a series corporate acquisitions, they eventually ended up stuck at 3Com, a modem company. They spun off and founded Handspring, convincing 3Com to license Palm OS. They launched the Visor, which was a PDA. It was extremely successful relative to other PDAs. They had a tremendous, massive initial rush of sales and interest, and things started to rock and roll pretty quickly for them.

They were very early on the idea of a phone, and they knew exactly what they wanted. It was difficult to build a smartphone so early. Their biggest challenges seemed to be finding a market and finding the right people to sell their product.

What was really fascinating about this technical challenge is that the parts weren't available. They wanted to create a smartphone with a radio capable of handling data. But they couldn't find it. It didn't exist. It didn't have the entire infrastructure of factories or supply chains that is now in Shenzhen, Vietnam and elsewhere. They ended up finding one company in France that made the radios they needed. They just had to put it together.

Because there were so many different pager networks and data networks, they had to bet on which radio networks would actually exist. They got over those issues, but now the question is: How can we sell this thing to consumers? All transactions went through the carriers. The carriers were in complete control of phones before the iPhone. They could decide which phones to sell and not sell. But they also controlled how the phones worked and what capabilities they were allowed to use.

This is what I talk about on Decoder a lot. The best products don't always win. There are often gatekeepers that shape the market, invisible or visible. Although they had the best phones in this early category, they were still gatekept from the market in many ways. It was still being covered by people. John Fort, who was on Decoder, is now an anchor at CNBC. He was previously a cub reporter for the San Jose Mercury News. Springboard has many clips that show his work as a newspaper reporter. This company was getting a lot of attention. They were unable to get past those gatekeepers.

It was because these gatekeepers were stronger than they actually were. Although it is not possible to do so today, there was a time after the iPhone when you could sell something on the market without too much interference from the carriers. Handspring didn't live in such a world. Because the phone didn't have a 10-key keyboard, it was difficult to get the phone sold in certain European markets. QWERTY keyboards were not popular enough to sell, according to the carriers. Sprint didn't believe anyone would want to send pictures from their phones. Because other phones could not do it, Sprint didn't want this to happen.

Handspring had to deal with a lot of external issues. After the crash, they made a big deal to purchase a large office building. The market crash created many other problems for them. They had an excessive inventory problem from Palm which led to a drop in prices for all PDAs. Their cash cow, which was funding the launch this phone, vanished. They were constantly at the brink of running out cash and running out of resources. They were at the precipice of running out of cash and resources, while everyone around them was fighting for this success.

These ideas were part of Handspring's acquisition by Palm. Palm then did some other stuff. Where are the people? After the collapse of Handspring, many people had long careers.

Several key players, Jeff Hawkins, and Donna Dubinsky, left to do what Jeff had always wanted to do. Smartphones and PDAs were always an side hustle for Jeff. His true passion is brain research, and trying to understand how neuroscience and brain work. He has his own theories. Because they all enjoyed working together, he finally founded Numenta. They're still doing this. Others players traveled to other countries.

This is not a Handspring thing. However, you can trace some of Palm's software history to Palm Source and some of the founders of Android. It wasn't just the Sidekicks that made the move to Android; there were also some expats from Palm Source who originally tried to bring Palm OS into the future and ended up creating some of the foundations of Android.

To be clear, Google's acquisition of the Android project was a merger. The team behind the Sidekick at T-Mobile created a company called Android. Google purchased that company and brought in a few ex-Palm employees.


That was the start of Android. The idea that you have ideas but get them wrong and you continue to work at them until some combination of wireless carriers defeats you is a repeatable pattern. You can see that the lineage is there. Some of the core ideas for how to operate a phone connected to a network was also developed at Palm.

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Rob Haitani was one of our interviewees. He was the interface designer at Palm OS and later at Handspring. He wanted to convince the software engineers that this is how you create mobile software. He would need to be very strict about saying, "No, no, less tabs and bigger buttons." It must be easy to understand. It must be able to fit within 160x160 pixels.

He was so tired of explaining mobile to people that he decided to write a book based on his ideas. He had all these cones, which he called the Zen of Palm. One example is how to fit a mountain in a cup of tea. Software engineers might say, "I don't know, you have something, some thing, or something." The diamond is what you just found. It's the one that goes in your teacup. This is the only thing that matters to you. This is what you should put in your mobile app. You can hide everything else in a menu.

I am very confident that many product managers listen to this show. This world is based on our systems and competing methods of product design. They were still very young at that time. This was the beginning of thinking about designing computing systems and interfaces. [Palm] and Handspring invented a lot of it.

To be precise, there were many competing visions. Pocket PC was technically a thing. WIN CE was, however, what we were referring to was an interface very Windows-esque. It had a tiny start button at the bottom left-hand corner. Apple made the Newton. It didn't work out so well because it was a little too overloaded. Everyone has heard of General Magic. This was also too much.

Palm realized that the best app should only do what you want. They were open to saying no and were among the first companies to make consumer tech products that evangelized that app simplicity is key to your product's ability to achieve the specific tasks you desire. Then you can grow your product and make it a more universal platform.

You mentioned Apple. The idea of saying no is indelibly linked to Apple and Steve Jobs now. There is some connection between Apple and Palm.

Donna Dubinsky worked for Steve Jobs. Ed Colligan, who was later named CEO of Palm and ran marketing, worked briefly for Apple. They had a relationship with Steve Jobs. There would be many times when they would call and ask if Apple was interested in buying Palm or Handspring. The pivotal point of the Springboard documentary's Springboard documentary is the meeting in which Donna, Jeff, and Ed met with Steve Jobs to discuss getting their Visor PDA to work on the Mac. Steve Jobs did not believe in the PDA. Their vision was not something he believed in. Steve Jobs presented his vision of the digital hub.

This is a phone call from Apple about Palm or Handspring being purchased by Apple.

He had his Mac in the middle of the chart, and he believed everything would circle around it. Jeff Hawkins replied, "No, Steve, I think you are wrong." He also created his own chart, with a smartphone at the center. This was before Apple even started talking about the iPhone. It is possible that this was what convinced Apple and Steve Jobs to get back to mobile after abandoning the Newton.

Ed Colligan, the Palm's founder, famously said: The PC guys aren't just going to walk into and figure it out. I also know that you tried unsuccessfully to get this audio.

Apple introduced the iPhone at the same time as other large companies. He told you about this quote.


It turned out that at least one computer company had figured it out. You spoke to him about the quote, while the other companies did not. Although it is not included in the documentary, I find this little extra fascinating. When you asked him about the quote, what did he answer?

The PC guys don't just walk in and figure it out.

It was correct. The documentary didn't include the quote because it was too difficult to explain the context. Although he said it before the iPhone's announcement, everyone knew that the iPhone was coming. He said it at a Churchill Club breakfast. His contention was that he was talking about the PC industry as a whole and that making phones was difficult. Because they were trying to make a phone before there was a supply chain, he knew as much as anyone. Based on his experience with Palm, he knew that many people had tried to make PC interfaces smaller for mobile devices for quite some time. That was a bad idea.

His contention was that he wasn't talking about Apple specifically. He was speaking about PC people trying to make phones. Here's his famous quote from when I interviewed him.

Ed Colligan: That is absurd. If people go back and actually look at the interview, they'll find that it was almost an hour long. It was great. That is the only thing that I liked about it. You know what I meant when I said that [quote]? I believe it was taken outof context. First, Apple has been a part of my life all my life. Apple products have been the foundation of my entire career. My first company was an accessory business for Apple. My second company was an Apple accessory company. Radius was an accessory business for Apple. So I'm a big Apple guy, and have been for a long time. I wont be disparaging them. If I used the phrase PC guys, it was probably about HP, Compact and Dell. Even though Apple is in the grouping, I was referring to the fact that these devices are difficult to make. It will take a lot of effort to nail it, especially on the radio side. It wasn't impossible, I just said it. It won't be easy, I said. In fact, the original iPhone was a terrible phone from day one. It took some time to get it right. They had so many other compelling elements that it was hard to miss that they were able to make the point. They did a great job. In my wildest dreams, I would never say that Apple couldn't make a product for this market. That would have been something I would never say and that I would never feel. But, I was probably saying, "This is a difficult business."

It's up to you to decide if he was correct, but I believe that Apple was the only PC company to have figured this out.

Several of them did not. They didn't. Microsoft didnt. This is what I think is the main lesson: You can have an idea early and even copy it, but actually executing it is very difficult. Springboard's theme is that these ideas are fragile, especially early on. The success might not necessarily be market success.

Springboard's subtitle is "The secret history of the first smartphone." Sidekick existed, we were aware. We knew Symbian existed. Handspring was aware that Symbian was out there. Although it was the most clear vision, it wasn't enough. Understanding the forces that can prevent your vision from coming to fruition is crucial. You need to understand what the forces are that will prevent your vision from coming true. Product fit is what we talk about. This is a shorthand to describe a larger conversation about what might prevent your great idea becoming a reality.

This seems like a great place to stop and tell others to watch the documentary. It was premiered at The Verges' 10th-anniversary celebration to rapturous applause. You can go visit You can see the trailer and get information about all apps.

Just to remind everyone, Verge has new streaming TV apps for Android, Amazon Fire TV and Roku. Simply type The Verge into the search box and watch Springboard.

Dieter, congratulations. It's a wonderful documentary.

Thanks, Hey! We will be in touch with you shortly.