Piloted to the Promised Land
The Palm Pilot Cut

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in Paper on 1 June 1998

I never thought I was the type of person who would join a cult, but I did. It’s not a cult of personality, but one of technology. It’s the cult of the Palm Pilot–a simple hand-held computer and operating system that accounts for over 60 percent of the global “personal digital assistant”–or PDA–market.

Most religious cults attract the disgruntled, disillusioned members of more organized religions. Alienated by the institutionalization of spirituality, they flock to smaller groups where their relationship to God seems more direct and the nature of the universe demystified.

Likewise, the members of my cult had become disenchanted with the increasingly inscrutable world of the PC. Many of us have already sold our souls to the devil, surrendering our Macintoshes for the seemingly global compatibility of Windows. Quickly caught up in an endless cycle of upgrades, we became slaves to our machines. Colossal programs ate our RAM and our paychecks. They seemed “easier” to use, but distanced us from the workings of our machines. And the more opaque they got, the less we understood about what we were doing. We were lost.

The tiny Palm Pilot, reminiscent of the Nintendo Gameboy, is essentially a text-only computer with, at best, two megs of RAM. There’s no hard drive, nor even a place for a floppy disk. You enter text by writing or tapping a little picture of a keyboard with a stylus. It’s not nearly as convenient as a genuine laptop, nor as featured, or as ergonomic. So why the cult?

I didn’t understand it myself until I put my demo unit into its cradle so it could “synchronize” its data with the records and files on my huge desktop PC. With a friendly bleep, the Palm Pilot wrestled my entire computer to the mat, sucked out the data and bleeped its thanks.

Better still, the Palm Pilot’s simple and transparent operating system has encouraged thousands of young software developers to create programs for it–often distributed for free. They are pushing the Palm Pilot to its limits, creating Web browsers, guitar tuners, alarm clocks and hundreds of other applications for the platform–all available in an easy download from the Internet (at sites like www.pilot-gear.com or www.pilotfaq.com).

It was while downloading a Palm Pilot e-mail program, in fact, that the essence of the cult made itself apparent to my unworthy senses. The whole program downloaded in less than two seconds. I was sure I had made a mistake, but no. And, frankly, it does just about everything that the latest version of Microsoft’s gargantuan e-mail program does.

That’s when it hit me: I’ve been spending thousands of dollars and hours nursing and upgrading a monstrosity that doesn’t really do anything more for me than a hand-held PDA. Sure, it’s nice to have a keyboard, and I like a big monitor, but the machine and its operating system have gotten so unwieldy that no layperson knows how to program for it anymore–only the high priests do. The Palm Pilot exposed the inefficiency of my desktop and the nightmare that Windows has become.

Now, hundreds of thousands of people are waking up from the same dream and forming grassroots communities around this new, accessible platform with the passion and zealotry of the original Mac-heads. Many Web-site designers have begun the process of simplifying their interfaces so that they can be accessed from the primitive but spunky little browsers that run on the Pilot. In short, the Palm Pilot is forcing us to reassess our priorities in computing and networking. I, for one, am better for it.

Microsoft, however, is aware of this new threat and is releasing its own version of a palm computer. Though it may look and feel like a Palm Pilot, I say it’s time we draw our line in the sand. If its track record is any indication, Microsoft’s entry into the palm computing market will only serve to increase our dependence on the Windows system.

But keep the faith. If we demonstrate our commitment to the Palm Pilot, Microsoft will have to submit to our bidding. Get ready for the onslaught of standardization assaults. Even if we lose and the Palm Pilot is wiped out by what will surely be a smore colorful and better-marketed PDA, let us not forget this brief moment in computing history when real people understood the code. And remember: every great cult gains strength through its very persecution.