I Miss the Handspring Visor

Photo: Andrew Liszewski (Gizmodo)

As many reasons as there are for loving my smartphone, there are just as many reasons I hate it, but they all boil down to how dependent I am on this device that devours my attention. I’m bombarded by annoying notifications, and then when the phone dies because I’ve been futzing with it all day, I’m helpless to do much of the business of modern life. It makes me miss my Handspring Visor, the first PDA I ever owned, and the first gadget I carried everywhere I went. It couldn’t do anywhere near as much as my iPhone can, and that’s probably why I miss it.

Although released well after devices like the Apple Newton or Casio’s digital organizers, Palm, Inc.’s PalmPilot was the first personal digital assistant—or PDA—to endear itself to consumers. Like modern smartphones, it featured a touchscreen, downloadable apps, and a unique handwriting recognition system called Graffiti that made it easy to enter information without having to tap away at a tiny keyboard. The PalmPilot was a massive hit, and eventually, the company was acquired by US Robotics in 1995, which was later acquired by 3Com in 1997.

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The founders of Palm, Inc., and the Palm Pilot’s creators—Jeff Hawkins, Donna Dubinsky, and Ed Colligan—soon left 3Com. But instead of going off and starting new ventures, the trio decided to reinvent the PalmPilot and compete with the device they had invented a few years prior. In 1998, they founded Handspring, Inc., and soon after that, the company introduced the Visor.

On a technical level, the Handspring Visor offered a few features that even more expensive PalmPilot models didn’t. It ran a modified version of Palm OS that included improved functionality like a more advanced calculator and datebook, and its docking cradle used USB instead of the PalmPilot’s ancient RS232 serial port. Before wifi, syncing your PDA to your computer was the easiest way to get email on the go, and the Visor’s USB cradle made those syncs significantly faster. But the Visor’s most touted feature was its Springboard expansion slot which worked similar to Nintendo’s Game Boy. Instead of loading games, the cartridges introduced additional functionality like GPS, digital cameras, cellular capabilities, and one even turned the Visor into an MP3 player.

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The PalmPilot’s heyday came while I was in college and couldn’t justify spending well over $200 on a PDA when a $10 paper day planner worked just fine for tracking assignments and projects. One of the biggest appeals of the Visor, however, was that Handspring managed to get the base model’s price tag down to $150—undercutting the PalmPilot while offering more features in a device that had far more potential. For someone who had just graduated from college and found a job, the cheaper price tag was all I needed to justify my first PDA.

Years later, my Handspring Visor works as reliably as the day I bought it.
Photo: Andrew Liszewski (Gizmodo)
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Even today, when powering up my Visor again with a pair of AAA batteries, I’m reminded why it was so appealing. I don’t have to charge it, connect it to a wifi network, agree to endless EULAs, explicitly ask it to respect my privacy, create online accounts, or dig out the passwords for countless apps. After a brief tutorial and stylus calibration, its app-filled home screen pops open in an instant. Its monochrome display looks dated, but it also looks streamlined and efficient. Apps open quickly, and I’m surprised how much Graffiti, which required users to memorize a special single-stroke alphabet for accurate handwriting recognition, I’m still able to remember.

There were games available for the Visor, including staples like Solitaire, but it was never an entertainment device, and, as a result, never really a distraction. It did provide the occasional break from work, but it wasn’t constantly demanding my attention. As for those Springboard modules, I never had a chance to try them out. The MP3 player cartridge was tempting, but I went with the pricier iPod, which offered loads more storage, and I wasn’t alone. The expansion modules were an innovative idea, but it was one feature that never really caught on with consumers.

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So what happened to Handspring? The company released several models of the Visor over the span of a few years, including pricier models with full-color LCDs. In 2002, it introduced the Handspring Treo, one of the first smartphones that integrated a cellphone and a PDA into a single device. It was also the first Handspring product to omit the Springboard expansion slot, as by that point most of the added functionality could be integrated into the device itself. The company was facing stiff competition from 3Com at that point, who had spun Palm back off into its own company, as well as from companies like Nokia and Sony Ericsson whose cellphones had finally gained comparable PDA features. In a weird twist to the story, Handspring eventually merged with Palm, Inc.’s hardware division in 2003.

In the years following, the smartphone slowly evolved through weird and innovative iterations as companies strived to find a device that could appeal to a broad audience. As with countless other portable devices, the final nail in the coffin came on June 29, 2007, when Apple’s original iPhone went on sale. The PDA officially died that day, replaced by keyboard-less touchscreen devices that have conquered the world over the last decade. Could I survive with just a Handspring Visor in my pocket today? Not a chance, as modern smartphones offer loads of genuinely useful functionality that’s all but essential now. But occasionally pulling it out of the closet lets me fondly remember a time when we were all a little less connected.

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