First and foremost, they simply worked. Pop your Palm in the bundled cradle, press the button, and your calendar, contacts and other information were in sync with your desktop, and you had a complete backup.
Secondly, the Palm really was small enough to slip in the pocket. The Psion Series 5, which came along in 1997, was a brick in comparison, though the fact it had a keyboard was sufficient to convince many of its merits. Personally, I found the Palm’s weird, shorthand notation for text entry to be easy to learn and extremely fast.
Thirdly, the bundled software really was very good. Simple, intuitive, and fast. The most interesting part for me, though, was the absence of a file system and a mechanism for saving stuff. The fact that you just entered data, and it was automatically stored, was absolutely revolutionary and really quite disturbing. It began to make you irritated that systems like Microsoft Word assumed by default that you’d be comfortable to throw away all the text you just entered, unless you explicitly saved it. Once started down that route, you really do begin to wonder why software works the way it does and what, for example, a really good “undo” function would support.
I raise this partly as a response to Apple’s recent announcements about Mac OS X Lion, which in itself is a continuation of ideas promoted in the iPad and iPhone. As they move forward, it’s clear that they are eliminating all of those “features” of computing that confuse and intimidate new users, like file systems, and saving and finding stuff, and installing stuff. Interestingly, those same “features” should alienate and annoy experienced users, but the passing of time has quelled resistance and generated acceptance. It’s only when you have to help a novice that you realise how illogical computers are and how difficult it is to explain why they do what they do. What is the disk icon on the desktop, and why is it different from a folder, and how is the desktop a folder too, and why is it a bad idea to put everything you own in life on the desktop, and why do you press save every two minutes, and so on…
The iPad and iPhone are perceived by their owners as devices, or tools, and generally not as the enormously powerful computers that they are. The connection with the Windows PC and the user experience on their desktop is remote, even with the improvements wrought by Windows 7. Apple are confident enough to adopt a completely different mindset.
Mac OS X Lion takes this to the next stage, as features like Versions supports more intelligent undo, and the need for saving gradually disappears. In conjunction with iCloud, managing multiple devices is simpler, and some aspects of backup are handled transparently and automatically. Spotlight remains the fastest way to locate files and applications that are not already in view.
In short, Apple’s goal is not to create a better computer, but to change the nature of the game completely. This is a quiet revolution, but it’s coming, and it does mean that we need to think very carefully about the computing skills we need to teach our children.