Handspring: the Springboard has served its purpose, and will die.

by Guy Kewney | posted on 25 June 2002

Donna Dubinsky, founder first of Palm, and then of Handspring,showed off the new colour Treo in London this evening - and admitted that the days of the Handspring proprietary plug-in, or "springboard" module, were probably over, in an informal discussion this evening with Newswireless Net.

Guy Kewney

The newest Treo - a combined phone and PDA - arrived in London for a preview last night, clutched in the hands of Handspring founder and CEO, Donna Dubinsky. As promised, this Treo has a nice colour display, and uses even less battery power than its monochrome predecessor. But it still lacks one vital ingredient: expandability.

NewsWireless Net had the opportunity to chat with Dubinsky over a beer in one of Fitzrovia's night-spots this evening, and found her in optimistic good spirits about the future of the hand-held market, and the Palm platform in particular.

<1/> Donna Dubinsky

We found Dubinsky in market-research mood, rather than evangelistic; keen to find out what Europeans thought of the way the company is going. So, rather than asking too many technical questions, we asked her how she saw her role in the enterprise.

"I am the CEO," she chuckled, "and I see that as being the one who runs the company. That means, providing the structure for the people who work in it, making sure they have an environment where they can work - but increasingly, these days I find myself focused on allocating resources."

Hawkins, she says, is the visionary of the company -"though we get less of his time, these days, of course, with his other interests. And of course, Ed Colligan remains part of the visionary side, but not quite as technically biased as Jeff," she added.

We asked why it was that when Hawkins and Dubinsky left Palm/3Com, they left Colligan behind.

"It's all in The Book," she said, "but if you haven't read it, the simple answer is that I left Ed behind because I saw him as my successor as CEO. And basically, 3Com did nothing with him or for him, and he ended up coming and joining us because there was nothing for any of us to do there."

Donna Dubinsky has a reputation as one of the more technically-backed CEOs in Silicon Valley these days, and is currently involved in a real nerd-project - the creation of the Silicon Valley Computer Museum. "It's currently in Mountain View, down at NASA's Moffat Fields, and it's just full of the most amazing bits and pieces of hardware from the history of the industry," she enthuses, looking forward to the day when the Museum finds its own building and premises. And yet, the image of the geek-woman is belied by her background; brought up, neither in Boston nor Palo Alto, but in Michigan, and with a degree in history, not technology.

"I had to give up history, because I had such an awful memory," she jokes; but these days, she knows her way around a silicon chip as well as anybody. What she doesn't do, however, is do the technical thinking for her company.

<1/> At ease with a technical audience

Talking to her, it becomes clear that her style of management is one of those class acts, where the person in charge is concerned with creating the right environment for other specialist workers to shine at their own particular talent. But she rejects the notion that she's a "people person" right out. "No, I'm more concerned with resource management, and the structure of the company, and the framework," she insists. It's a response you'll get from many of the best man-managers; they don't see themselves as focused on their colleagues, and yet their colleagues have a different impression - one of being encouraged to succeed, and of being enabled to perform above themselves.

As for the future, Dubinsky was guarded. Her colleagues were demonstrating the new Model 90 - the Treo without a phone and, more significantly, without a Springboard expansion socket. In its place, the new standard add-in socket, the SD Secure Digital interface.

Inexplicably, this isn't available in the model 180, the colour Treo. Dubinsky isn't giving anything away; but it's easy to read her cautious agreement with the accusation that it was possibly a mistake to leave Bluetooth out of the design. "It may be so," she accepts. "I agree that within a year, we would have to have it. We're thinking about SD as they way to provide it, but we may do it some other way."

What will happen to Handspring, and is it possible that in a couple of years, it will have forgotten the Visor and become Treo Inc?

"Oh, I think the Visor has served its purpose. We needed that expansion module when we started, because that was all there was available, but it probably isn't going to appear on new models, for a number of reasons, she said firmly. "It takes an awful lot of supporting, and there's probably a better way. But as for calling the company Treo, well, that's not something we've considered."

It's no secret that Dubinsky is far, far happier running her own show, without the restrictions of the 3Com corporate culture, where her ability to operate the way her experience dictated was stifled. "It was very hard, telling them on the basis of my own experience in international markets, what we ought to do, and then finding them utterly ignoring it, and going with the judgement of people who had nothing but UK experience, frankly. Here I was, speaking fluent German, and yet being told how to launch the company in Europe by someone who'd never been to Germany and knew nothing about any market except the UK modem business ... "

But it's also clear that she'd like to be a fish in a bigger pond than Handspring is today, and she seemed to pay careful attention to criticism of Palm itself.

"In Palm's defence, I have to say that this year, with the split of the company into the platform and the hardware, we're at last starting to get responses from Palm which mean we can expect the problems to be solved. But we're aware of the problem of the network and at last, we're getting feedback from Palm which says they are aware of it, and are going to fix it, quickly," she predicts.

The problem of the network is that Palm, unlike the rival PocketPC designs from Microsoft, is not a network client device. Software exists which allows the Handspring or Palm family to talk to the server, but the applications built into the device don't have the ability to use this; it's not a native feature of the design. That has to be fixed, if Palm is to have a future in the enterprise computing business - although Dubinsky isn't altogether convinced that Handspring sales into corporates are merely individual purchases.

"We're watching it," is all she says, before being rushed off to their next appointment by her European acolytes.

She is a visionary, probably. Just a company visionary, rather than a technology visionary. And the way she operates, she'll find the right technical vision-bearers to see the company through its struggle against Symbian and PocketPC ... as long as the people at Palm Computing get their act together in time.

It will be an interesting next 12-24 months, we think ...