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Jeff Hawkins’ vision of the Palm Pilot

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in Leaders & Managers

It takes skill to imagine something, that is, literally see it in your mind, and then snap apart the components, rotate them, bend them, fold them and scan them from different perspectives.

But that’s exactly the trick vision­aries excel at. Apple CEO Steve Jobs and Virgin Group’s Richard Branson are masters of this spatial-vision skill.

So is Jeff Hawkins.

Hawkins invented the Palm Pilot, the first successful handheld computer.

He grew up on the edge of Jakobson Shipyard in New York, and came from a family who in their spare time enjoyed designing and building boats.

He began his career at a small computer company called GRiD Systems, where he unsuccessfully tried to launch two different versions of a portable pen-based computer. The products were unveiled around the same time as Apple’s humiliating failure with its first tablet computer, the Newton.

Hawkins pondered the reasons for the failure. Eventually, he realized that he’d been trying to add too many features to the product, which made it too heavy and expensive. What consumers really wanted was an inexpensive machine with some features, not a miniature computer.

With that epiphany, he went to his garage and started working with a scrap piece of lumber. He made a few cuts and sanded it, until it fit nicely into his shirt pocket. He put a paper face on the piece of wood, showing where a screen and function keys would go.

For the next several weeks, he carried his wooden prototype around, occasionally pulling it out to make notes using his “pen”—a whittled down chopstick.

“I just walked around, imagining what I might use it for,” Hawkins says.

The Palm Pilot debuted later that year, changing not only pen computing but the entire personal computer industry.

Visionaries don’t just succeed by ­lying in bed with their dreams floating above their heads. They get out into the world—or into their garages—experiencing things and shaping their ideas.

— Adapted from Ten Steps Ahead, Eric Colonius.

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