The Next Big Thing?

I can think back to about 8 or 10 years ago, when somebody gave me a handheld electronic phonebook. It had a tiny screen at the top, and a qwerty-style keyboard for input. I tried using the thing, but beyond a brief novelty phase, stopped, because it was just too cumbersome to use. It gave you fields for entering a name, an address, and two phone numbers. For alphabetization, I entered names as “Lastname, Firstname” which worked well enough, but most people I knew, even before the days of ubiquitous cell phones, had more than two numbers. Many people also have multiple addresses. Further, the thing didn’t let me label a number, which made it even harder to use. Cel phone? fax? email address? work? home? Yeah right.

I started imagining such a device that would actually be something I would want to use. It would have more number fields, for one. I would have to be able to label them individually. Give me room for multiple addresses. An easier input method. Room for notes or other “flexible” information. Since this was basically a “dream device”, I went wild and came up with a laundry list of features that this device would have to have.

Not too long after this, U.S. Robotics released the Pilot 1000* and hit it out of the park. This was almost precisely the device I had described in my technological musings. If I had had the chance to invest in this company before they had released it, I would have bet a lot of money on it (and as history has shown, I would have made a lot more.) Almost ten years later I use a device that in its basic design is fundamentally unchanged from that original model Palm. (Better screen, more memory, new programs… basic upgrades, but the function of the address book and calendar is virtually the same as that original model). Reportedly the man who invented it, in the process of designing that first PalmPilot, carried a small block of wood around with him. He would pull it out and pretend to type on it. He would talk to it. He was playacting using a device that didn’t yet exist, to figure out how people would want to use such a thing.

Over time, or course, the Palm grew into something that does a lot more than hold addresses. The reason that was able to happen, was that in creating that initial device, he created a technological Blank Slate on which other developers were free to “draw”. Before long there were over 10,000 programs available for the thing, made by developers all over the world. The blank screen, the intuitive and flexible input methodology, combined with portability, cross-platform communication, and a relatively cheap price all combined in a way that revolutionized computing. In the “elegant design” department, these guys beat Apple at their own game, which is really saying something. (Apple of course had attempted a similar device with its Newton, which was way too big and lacked an intuitive input method…)

Some very large companies today are trying to create that same technological “lightning strike” — Microsoft with their Tablet PCs (which are… what… really big PalmPilots? See “Newton”, above.) Microsoft and several others with TV set-top do-it-all devices.

Proving that the idea and execution is more important than the money you throw at it.

I recently had the opportunity to invest in a company that has created what I believe is a “blank slate” environment very similar to what Palm created in the 90s. They have taken a very simple concept — the type of thing that computer geeks for years have been talking about in the sense of “Somebody ought to do this…”, but nobody actually did — and found a way to make it very workable. They have developed it in a way that, much like the Palm Pilot, can be picked up by the independent developer and made to do new things far beyond what the originating company ever imagined.

I feel almost as though I own part of the patent for the original Palm. I might even take it so far as to say that it’s like owning the rights to the computer mouse itself. It’s potentially very, very big.

I’ll say no more, except that I’m very happy to have invested with these guys. Go check it out. (And if you’re puzzled as to why I’m so excited about DJ software… I’m not. That’s just the superficial trimmings.)

Update: A friend asked why I don’t further discuss what specifically I like about the software, after tossing out the link. The three word answer is: “Non-Disclosure Agreement”. Obviously a good portion of the cat was let out of the bag when they put up the website, but I know things that are not revealed there, and choose the better part of valor when weighing the choice between letting their site speak for itself or possibly saying more than I should. I actually wrote most of this post a month or two back, but did not post it until confirming it was okay to do so.

*Correction — originally I said it was the “Palm Pilot 1000”, but the first models were the Pilot 1000 and (I think) the Pilot 5000. Later models were called PalmPilot, and after being sued by Pilot Pens, the company went with Palm.

Comments are invited and encouraged

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