My First... NOT Phone? A look back on (and inside!) the Palm Vx


It's the year 2019. Let that sink in. You could be younger than the iPod and be a legal adult by now. In less than 365 days, we'll be closing out the second decade of the current century. And the tech revolution? Yeah, that's old-hat. Microsoft's goal of "putting a computer on every desk" has gone one giant leap further and put one in every pocket, on every wrist, in every car, and just about anywhere else you can imagine. To put things in perspective, Microsoft as a company officially revised that mantra way back in 2013 to the broader, and yet more personal, "[creating] a family of devices and services for individuals and businesses that empower people around the globe at home, at work and on the go, for the activities they value most". That was only one year before Windows 10 entered public beta, by the way. Yup, it's already five years old.

The world of today is a very different place thanks to advancements in technology. But those advancements didn't happen overnight, and it's easy to forget the awkward adolescent years despite only putting them behind us relatively recently. But for many of us, those were the most exciting times of all—an unrepeatable in-between period of history where tech was just good enough to taste the future while also leaving enough unfulfilled desires to keep each new iteration fresh and exciting. Anything seemed possible.

For me, no other line of products better represents this feeling than Palm.


It didn't take long after the advent of modern computers for folks to start dreaming of the day they would fit in our pockets, and that day arrived sooner and more quietly than you might expect. Tablets and PDAs started hitting the market as early as the 1980s, but it was the mid '90s that saw the industry really come into its own. While there were certainly competitors, Palm arguably stood at the forefront for a solid decade. Though initially branded as business devices, thanks to a user-friendly interface and simple app model, the Palm software market erupted with all manner of games and multimedia—my main draw to the platform.

I wasn't alone, either. When I first entered my highschool years, I was the only person I knew who carried a computer in their pockets. That quickly changed, the more people I showed it to. In today's smartphone-dominated society the appeal is instantly obvious, but back then the concept was new and a little mysterious. Remember, YouTube was only getting its start at the time, and Facebook was the private service of Harvard students. Then there was Palm, which enabled more localized 'social networks' through its IR and Bluetooth content sharing capabilities. Finding an exciting new app, amazing video, or funny photo was like digging up buried treasure, and out in public, only other Palm users could share in the spoils.

There was truly nothing else like it, and even as I embraced the smartphone revolution of the late '00s like everyone else, I immediately sensed the loss of something special as the iPhone took the world by storm. ARM chips with their fast processors and integrated 3D graphics were the holy grail of everything Palm ever stood for, but when they finally arrived, Palm was seemingly nowhere to be found. A comeback was attempted with the Palm Pre running WebOS in 2009 (10 years ago!) but by that point it was already too little, too late. While WebOS pioneered much of what we now accept as the standard mobile interface, the Palm brand was never a household name like Apple, Google, and Microsoft. Android took over as the dominating force in mobile computing, and Palm was proverbially ripped to shreds in a series of acquisitions that left its legacy largely underappreciated and, dare I say, even forgotten by mainstream consumers.

If you can't tell, I'm a pretty big fan of Palm. So it's only appropriate that now, on the 20th anniversary of the device that started it all for me, I go back to my roots with a nod to the Palm Vx, first released all the way back in 1999.

Actually, my first device was a Palm V, but I always wanted a Vx. What's the difference, you ask? The Palm V only had 2MB of storage, you see, while the Vx had a whopping 8MB. Imagine what you could do with all that space!

As it turns out, quite a lot.


The Palm Vx was equipped with a 20 MHz Motorola DragonBall EZ CPU (yes, really) seen here under the yellow film just above the battery (red). That 8MB of storage is the Samsung chip directly to the right. One of the many unique things about Palm devices is how storage was handled. There was a ROM that contained the OS itself (the Toshiba chip one step further to the right) and a single RAM chip for both applications and actual random access data. Though effective at saving physical space and cost, this did present a bit of a problem since RAM memory is volatile. In other words, you better hope you never ran your battery down to zero, because without a charge, all your files and applications would be lost! Hiding beneath the black ribbon is the audio synthesizer, with the neighboring ribbon cables handling hardware buttons (the Vx had seven of them), pressure-sensitive digitizer, and 160x160 16-shade grayscale LCD, respectively. The screen was not backlit by default, but holding the power button would activate "night mode", turning the screen into glowing shades of green instead, handled by the tiny H826 seen below the LCD ribbon. At the bottom of the device are some gold pins used for charging and transferring data between the Palm Vx and a Windows or Mac PC. Not visible in this image is the Vx's other means of communication: an IR port in the top-center used to transfer data directly between Palm devices-or anything else equipped with an IR blaster. This meant you could, for example, use your Palm as a programmable TV remote!

And that's just one example of a creative use-case for such limited hardware. The utility value was just endless for the time. You could keep an alarm clock with as many distinct tunes and tones as you had space to install, take hand-written notes and doodles, cheat on math homework with a full-blown graphing calculator, or play a catalog of surprisingly robust puzzle and arcade games. If you had the cash for some expensive addons, you could even manage your email remotely and browse stripped-down versions of late '90s web pages. Otherwise, you could sync emails locally with your PC, as well as Microsoft Office documents, memos, addresses, to-do lists, and more.

It's kind of amusing how convenient all that sounds when you list it out like that, isn't it? Not only do we take such services for granted today, but virtually all of it is stored in the cloud so we can switch devices without even the hassle of a sync operation.

Such details aside, however, it's impressive how similar the services offered by Palm PDAs of the late '90s are to modern smartphones 20 years later. Sure, our hardware and software may be vastly more powerful, but it really goes to show just how far ahead Palm was thinking—and why I say the adolescent years of this kind of technology were so exciting. I got to experience smartphones ten years before smartphones as we know them even existed, and that's a privilege I don't take for granted. Palm could only exist in the exact time that it did—no earlier and no later—and looking back, I'm glad I got to be a part of it.

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