Hands vs. Palms: Comparing Modern Smartphones and Palm Pilots

Using a Palm Pilot in today’s smartphone-centric world is absurd and idiotic. These are the insults I bore from everyone I talked to as I explained to them why I was carrying a clunky Palm LifeDrive around with me to classes.

Yet for all my peers’ detracting, I’m not so sure that they’re entirely right. The claim that a Palm Pilot can do anything a modern smartphone can do is becoming less and less realistic; however, after using one for a week, I’m very certain that modern smartphone design could still learn a thing or two from Palm OS and its associated features. Let’s explore, shall we?

First, for those who don’t know, the modern smartphone would not exist without the influence of the Palm Pilot. Launched in 1996, the Pilot line of devices powered by the Palm Computing Platform single-handedly brought the Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) into the mainstream market. Previous attempts such as the powerful-but-clunky Apple Newton may have been better, but the Palm Pilot managed to cram a number of extremely useful features into a package cheap enough for Fortune 500 companies, who were riding the 90s dot-com bubble, to justify buying en masse. The original Palm Pilot line was extremely primitive, featuring only a monochrome screen (think original Game Boy), and powered by two off-the-shelf AA batteries, which practically ensured that you would lose all data on the device every time you had to swap them. However, despite its primitive nature, the Palm Pilot introduced some software features that are still in use to this very day. The notion of an application drawer with large, easy-to-tap icons was first introduced in the Pilot line, as well as the idea of having small, single-purpose apps that recorded useful information such as calendar appointments, to-do lists, contact information, and memos. Most importantly, however, the Palm Pilots introduced a new way for humans to interact with their devices: a stylus that could be used to select icons and push buttons without the need for a trackball mouse and keyboard combo.

The general principle of the Palm Pilot improved greatly over the next 20 years of its life. Color screens, thumb keyboards, wireless internet, and, ultimately, cellular data integration were all brought sequentially to the Palm. The first idea of a third-party app store environment was also introduced to the Palm ecosystem, with users able to download applications and synchronize applications to their PDA via a transfer cable, or, later, the Bluetooth standard. However, one thing remained constant for the entirety of Palm’s life: Users interacted with their devices via stylus. This status quo was maintained until 2007, when Steve Jobs contended that we all had a much more intuitive set of styli at the tips of our fingers, and did away with pen-computer interaction on the original iPhone.

However, my role here is to question whether Jobs was really right in this particular instance. Are our fingers easier to use than a stylus? I’m not so sure. Fingers definitely have the advantage that they cannot be lost or broken (as easily), which was the main complaint about styli. However, the pad of the most petite finger is certainly larger than a centimeter, whereas the tip of a stylus can be measured in millimeters. The result is that finger-driven computers are much less exact. Instead of directly accessing information via menus or buttons, finger-driven operating systems rely on broad taps and long, sweeping gestures used to guide the phone in the direction that you want it to go. As far as I observed in my comparisons, this is actually less efficient. The larger relative size of the finger means that less information can be displayed on screen—not because of readability, but because the finger cannot interact consistently with text and buttons smaller than its pad. Menus often require a swipe in from the left or right in order to pull up, and then a fair amount of scrolling to arrive at the option one wants to access. In a pen-driven environment, the same action is contained in two taps: one to bring up the menu, another to select the option.

Additionally, Internet browsing still lends itself more to stylus interaction than finger interaction. With so many links being embedded in “click here” text, it is often very hard to hit textual links with one’s finger, without at least two or three pinches to zoom in. With the added precision of a stylus, it’s as simple as tap-and-go. This is not to say that finger-driven computing is all bad; scrolling by swiping a finger is vastly superior to the stylus-driven equivalent, as is pinch-to-zoom. Thumbing through books and scanning large amounts of visual data is easier with one’s finger, but fine-point manipulation is usually much easier with a stylus.

So, you may well see me using a Palm Pilot around campus for my daily note-taking and task-keeping, just because it’s truly the more efficiently designed device. Certain modern devices such as the Galaxy Note and Surface lines seem to agree with me that pen computing still has its advantages, but for the most part, the stylus has gone the way of the dodo. In my view, that’s really too bad. A stylus will always continue to be more efficient to me than a meaty human digit. Now, if you’ll excuse me … I think I dropped my stylus somewhere around here.

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