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Interview with the Treo Team

Fri Aug 16, 2002 - 2:41 PM EDT - By J. Kevin Wolfe

In researching my article on the Treo 90 for Palm Tipsheet, I did an email interview with two of Handspring's product managers, Will Rees and Jenny Faubion. Will is also a core member of the Treo thumboard design team. Due to a tight deadline schedule I put on myself by suggesting this article to Editor Mike Rohde two weeks before publication, there was no time for follow-up questions. The interview here appears as conducted with a few comment notes added.

WR = Will Rees, Handspring, Inc.
JF = Jenny Faubion, Handspring, Inc.

Okay here are the rules of engagement in this interview: Shoot from the hip, but no punches below the belt. No personal stuff. I won't ask about your mama and you don't ask about mine. Okay? Break and go to your respective corners. Ding.

Will, what was your assigned mission for an input device when the Treo project came up?

Will: The Treo originated as a device with a keyboard, so our mission was to make a keyboard from scratch that would be a great user experience and to make software changes to enable elegant keyboard navigation.

The keyboard is very practical for a 1 inch by 2.5 inch cluster of 34 buttons. What thought went into layout?

Will: We went through many iterations of the layout and the behavior of the shift and option modifiers. Several months were spent focusing on making a keyboard that was fast and comfortable for two thumbs and for one-handed use. Notice also that the numbers are laid out in their traditional phone configuration to make dialing a familiar experience.

Any members of the keyboard design team on the original Graffiti design team?

Will: Jeff Hawkins.

The"List" button puts a vast amount of key options within 2 to 3 logical button presses. Who came up with that?

Will: The core Treo keyboard team were all involved in coming up with List Type: Jeff Hawkins, Rob Haitani, Will Rees and Debbie Chyi.

Is there anything you can't access from the keys that you can from Graffiti?

Will:The entire Palm font set is available via the List Type button. We even threw in some fun extras like emoticons (look under the : ). There are also some special characters like the Graffiti Shortcut character that are also available. The command stroke was so important that it was actually given its own button, the Menu button.

Using just the shift and option keys, what's the percentage of characters the average writer can access in a document?

Will: Well, that depends on if you're writing in a Nordic language or not! Seriously though, we never calculated a percentage, although character frequency analysis in several languages was used in designing the layout. We also optimized the layout for the types of text that customers will most frequently use on a communicator: emails, short messages, internet-related data (url's, etc.).

Have you clocked average thumboard speed and compared it to average Graffiti speed?

Will: We haven't done any formal benchmarking, because after the first month or so of using our early keyboard prototypes it was clear that the majority of people were having a much better input experience with the keyboard than with Graffiti. While there may be some real Graffiti wizards out there, the average user reported noticeably faster speeds and increased accuracy.

I know I'm about to get in a touchy area here. If I ask a question you don't want to answer, or feel you need corporate approval for, you're free to say no comment. It'll be dropped, I won't accuse you of being chicken. It's over. And if I start clucking, just ignore it. Is Graffiti a thing of the past for the OS5 Handsprings of the future?

Will: As a policy we do not comment on future, unannounced products.

(Note: Bwaak.) Any thought of voice recognition software for data entry in the future?

Will: As a policy we do not comment on future, unannounced products.

(Note: Bwaak. Bwaak. Change partners to Jenny Faubion.)

The Treo 90 is cute in an elegant way. That smacks of a high feminine appeal (like the Mazda Miata or the Palm V). Was that intentional?

Jenny: The Treo 90 was designed to be a sleek, elegant product that would appeal to both men and women so it was intentional in the sense that we wanted to create a universally appealing product.

The Treo 90 doesn't seem like it was planned. It was just 7 months ago that Donna Dubinsky told investors that Handspring would be phasing out PDA's. I'm not accusing Handspring of having to eat words, but either the Treo 90 was a sneak attack or this was the fastest development of a PDA ever.

Jenny: Though Donna said that Handspring would eventually transition from organizers to communicators, many people did not understand that this is a long term plan. Donna was talking more about the focus of Handspring moving forward rather than an absolute shift to communicators away from the PDAs. We have always said that we will continue selling our Visor family products as long as there is customer demand for those products. Treo 90 was in the works well before that earnings call when Donna's statements may have been misinterpreted.

Why SD and not CF?

Jenny: We chose SD expansion technology for the Treo 90 because our goal was to develop the smallest, most elegant PDA possible, and SD best met that goal.

What's Jeff Hawkins cell number? Honestly I won't call him at 3am with support questions.

(Note: Question ignored by both. I don't know why. I'm sure they get that request all the time.)

My thanks to Will and Jenny for their time. And sincere appreciation to Holly McDermott of Handspring PR for arranging the interview on short notice.

This interview was originally published in Palm Tipsheet. J. Kevin Wolfe is a writer who lives in Cincinnati. He's just released his first apps called Thots, a journaling application and DingPad, a sketchpad with alarms. They're Treo-friendly, as well as Graffiti friendly and both are freeware:


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