Handspring Visor
Palm IIIc
Two different approaches to advancing the Palm OS

Palm IIIc
Palm Inc.
I remember when I got my first Palm handheld. It was the original US Robotics PalmPilot, barely a month after they had started to appear on the covers of some bleeding-edge magazines. This meant that I spent considerable time justifying its existence to skeptics: why spend hundreds of dollars on a gadget when I could use an inexpensive agenda?

The amazing thing was, as a busy and constantly mobile freelancer, the PalmPilot was a wonderful replacement for my overworked Day-Timer and its innumerable Post-It Note addenda. Unlike many other gadgets I could name, the PalmPilot and its Palm descendants are actually very useful. Even the souped-up Palm V and VII series handhelds fulfill honest needs aside from just technophilia.

This is why I was so interested when Handspring announced their Visor handheld at roughly the same time as Palm announced the Palm IIIc. It seemed to me that as Microsoft began pushing its latest iteration of Windows CE and the new Pocket PC handhelds, the Palm platform was at a critical juncture. Of course, Palms have long dominated the market they pretty much created, but then, so did Netscape.

Interesting times, indeed.

Handspring, founded by Palm creators Jeff Hawkins, Donna Dubinsky, and Ed Colligan, are employing the tactic buzzword mavens used to call "coopetition"—working with Palm by licensing their operating system (the Visor uses a slightly modified PalmOS 3.1) while releasing a device that directly competes with them.

The Handspring Visor only recently became available in Canada (directly from their Web site), but it's been selling like gangbusters in the States. That's because for all intents and purposes, the Visor is a Palm IIIe (the Visor Deluxe is a Palm IIIxe)—lurking at the low end with the same ease of use that makes the Palm series so popular, but offering a bit more to sweeten the deal.

"A bit more" means improved Calculator and Date Book applications, a built-in microphone, a shade less width and weight, and—for Visor Deluxe owners—a choice of four iMac-like colors as an alternative to plain old graphite. The synchronization cradle uses a USB connection for easy (and speedy) PC or Macintosh connectivity, and, most intriguing of all, there's the slot for Springboard expansion modules, which can be used for... well, anything. The press kit lists such expansion modules as a modem, removable media, games, an MP3 player, and even one for analyzing soil samples.

After using the Visor Deluxe for some time, I came to the conclusion that it was just as pleasurable to use as a Palm IIIxe. Considering it has pretty much the same specs (8 MB of memory, approximately two months of battery life from 2 AAA batteries, an infrared port) and they both list at the same price, the only deciding factor would be the extras—the included USB cradle (serial is optional) and perhaps the selection of Springboard modules. The only downside is the hard protective cover, which is less convenient than the Palm's flip-top.

As for the Palm IIIc, I have to admit that I was a little biased. The IIIc is also a variation on the IIIxe, but the only difference is that it has an active-matrix color display and consequently costs 80% more.

I confess that my gut reaction to the news of a color Palm was less than open-minded; reminiscent of the prickly Harry M. Warner's reaction to the advent of movies with synchronized sound ("Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?"), I thought, "Why would anyone want a color Palm?"

So I used it for some time, hoping to find a reason. Instead, I found myself wanting to go back to the Visor, the Palm IIIc's flip-top and slightly more advanced operating system (PalmOS 3.5) notwithstanding. Simply put, the color offends my sense of what the Palm is all about. Although the icons are more attractive, color doesn't make the Palm IIIc any easier to use; quite the opposite, in fact, since the two-month battery life has now been cut down to a mere two weeks. (That's actually not as bad as it sounds. The Palm IIIc uses a lithium-ion rechargeable battery, which doesn't have to be completely exhausted before charging. Leave the Palm in its cradle for a little while every day and you'll have nothing to worry about. I'd like to see this become standard issue on all handhelds.) None of the applications take any particular advantage of color, and I could only find a handful of color applications on the Internet—most of them games.

So where's the practicality I've always loved about the Palm? It's still there, it's just buried under the Technicolor and the bigger price tag. By adding color, Palm was able to knock one more item off the list of features the Pocket PCs could claim as their own, and I suppose that at some point developers will make better use of it. But for now, there doesn't seem to be any advantage to the Palm IIIc except bragging rights. For those of us who like to get things done, the Visor fits the bill very nicely.

Originally appeared on (September 2000)
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