The evolution of the smartphone has been rapid. In recent years we have seen high performance software, outstanding camera quality, and even greater displays. Not least because of the growing size of hardware. But where most continue to go big, Palm has decided to go small. Really small. In fact, the phone is the size of a credit card and is aptly named to reflect the smartphone’s dimensions, measuring just 2 x 3.8 inches.
Palm is a phone that is designed to enable your life, not distract from it. At launch, Palm was released as a companion phone, acting as a secondary phone; a device that encourages you to turn down the noise and rebalance your attention. Since then, Palm has released a standalone phone which can act as your main driver. We spoke to Palm’s cofounders Howard Nuk and Dennis Miloseski to discuss the philosophy behind the brand, some of the design decisions behind the phone’s hardware and software, and what they have learned since the launch of the Palm phone.
We are at a tipping point, voice is revolutionising the interface in the same way the touch screen revolutionised the mouse and keyboard. As this technology evolves, we can further minimise the objects we carry around and emphasise more voice-first experiences.
— Dennis Miloseski
To give us a clearer picture of the design concept and inspiration, what is the fundamental problem that you are looking to solve with the Palm phone?
Dennis: Our ethos at Palm is to keep people connected but not consumed with technology. In the early days of developing Palm, we envisioned a future where quick actions and voice would save us seven or eight taps every time we wanted to unlock our smartphones and perform a task, hence keeping people out of screens and more engaged in the real world. Our theory was that a majority of the things we did on the go could be done simply with a voice command or a few simple taps. Fast forward to over a year since our launch and applying our research, the behavioural data from the vast number of Palm devices out in the wild is eye-opening. On average, our customers use voice assistants five times more than a standard smartphone. What’s just as interesting is what customers do far less of; we found out they spend 50% less time on social media and 84% less time on long-form consumption, and they perform 40% less email and work-related tasks on their Palm.
Howard: The concept for Palm was actually inspired by the somewhat dystopian movie Her, where the lead in the film falls in love with his artificially intelligent phone OS. The device he used was about the size of a credit card which he controlled with his voice. Though there was a screen, it was only used for minimal feedback. What we are finding today, is that the modern cell phone has grown in size to where it has become a catch-all device; too big to be used with one hand, and too large to fit in your pocket. Palm’s screen is bright, crisp, and legible, but at only 3.3 inches, voice interaction becomes so much more useful. Just like in Her, users begin to use voice commands more with Palm, 5x more in fact. Texting your friends, asking Google Assistant for directions, or even calling a rideshare—all with your voice, so you can stay in the moment when life comes calling.
Why does size matter?
Dennis: It was important for Palm to go everywhere, from fitting into a coin pocket to the tiny sleeve in yoga pants to a small fold in a wallet. We started by carving out small credit card-sized blocks of wood, sizing and shaping them to fit in our everyday wear. We ventured into the world with tiny blocks of wood and pencils, leaving our smartphones behind, and jotted down every action we wanted to perform as we navigated our day. Our goal was to rethink the smartphone experience to drive a new type of behaviour away from heavier screen use. Our research showed that by putting emphasis on accessing features that were quick and action-oriented and less on heavier screen consumption, other activities like social feed scrolling, long-form reading, and heavy productivity could wait, which made smartphone use on the go quick and more utilitarian rather than all-consuming.
What type of consumer is the Palm phone designed for?
Howard: One of our largest user groups are what we call Modern Minimalists. We describe a Modern Minimalist as a personality type who values simplicity in life, to be free of excess, but isn’t willing to give up all the modern services and features our connected world has to offer. Palm delivers a full Android experience with access to every app in the app store, unlike some of the other minimalist phones who can only make calls and send texts over T9. We believe that certain apps and services deliver conveniences too important to give up. We made sure to retain all of the most important features, like quality cameras, because let’s face it, we communicate with our social circles as much with photos and videos as we do words, emojis, and gifs.
Owning a secondary device might seem contradictory to the principle of minimalism. Can Palm function as a standalone device as well? Is this something you actively support?
Dennis: Palm is widely used as both a primary and secondary phone for many of our customers. As a secondary device, many have turned to Palm as their go-to while they are active, for example activities like running or cycling, allowing them to access their streaming music, fitness apps, calls/messaging in a form factor that can go anywhere without the inconvenience or distraction of carrying around a tablet sized smartphone. Other secondary phone customers use Palm for leisure, where their large smartphones are parked for work and deeper productivity while Palm becomes a much more personal device which is with them when they’re away from their work life.
As a primary standalone phone, we’ve found a home with modern minimalists that use Palm as their main smartphone. We’ve also seen standalone Palm as a smartphone for new emerging markets like families and kids. Parents love that they can connect kids with essentials of calls, messaging, and parental peace of mind apps. It encourages healthier habits with a phone that is more purpose driven rather than giving them yet another gaming or social media screen.
How do you envision the Palm phone evolving over the next 5 years or so? How far ahead do you look considering the rate of technological developments?
Dennis: Our mission is to continue driving how technology fits more seamlessly into our daily lives, allowing us to live our best life with a focus on our personal well-being while strengthening our relationships in real life. We’re excited about the developments and trends in voice based technologies, we see this as a game changer in how we get things done. We are at a tipping point, voice is revolutionising the interface in the same way the touch screen revolutionised the mouse and keyboard. As this technology evolves, we can further minimise the objects we carry around and emphasise more voice-first experiences. Our theory is that a majority of the things we do on the go could be done simply with a voice command and that will only grow over time. This also provides an opportunity for us to take control of technology again, rather than have technology control us.
Howard: In five years from now, I would love to imagine a world where billions of people are choosing to not carry around a 6” slab in their pockets wherever they go. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to never have to wade through a sea of people aimlessly walking down the sidewalk, all staring down at their devices? What if we could stay connected, but still be able to look up? In 5 years, could we be seeing people living with augmented reality glasses as the norm? What we do know for certain is that the mobile industry is trending toward larger and larger screens and will hit an upper limit—an upper limit not just in size, but also digital distraction from what really matters most. Being present.
Connectivity is important, but how do you visualise the ideal level of connectivity from a behavioural perspective? Particularly when it comes to the younger generations.
Dennis: For younger generations, devices like smartphones have evolved into an always on, always connected mentality, giving access to entertainment, gaming, and social media all at any moment’s notice. Many also assume that having access to everything, anytime, anywhere means that it’s also socially acceptable to do so. These behaviours are rewiring our brains, creating dopamine dependencies similar to drugs, and taking a heavy toll on our well-being and relationships inside and outside of those screens. Ultimately, there is a time and place for certain behaviours. However, since smartphones have evolved into supercomputers in our pockets, we’ve blurred those lines.
Howard: Digital addiction is much like any other addiction, whether it be a substance or obsessive-compulsive. If you take a step back and look at your behaviour, and how it has trended or changed over the past month, 6 months, even one year, that data is important information. We are living in unprecedented times, where a global pandemic has abruptly affected the way we connect with friends, family, and our network. Screen time has been on an upward trend over the past several years, and has spiked an additional 14% in 2020, particularly with social media and entertainment consumption. It’s also an opportune time to self-reflect and ask ourselves, is my behaviour affecting work? Is my digital addiction putting a strain on my relationships? Is my screen time adversely affecting my health and well-being? If the answer is yes to any of these, it’s time to take action and make a change.
Presumably you use the Palm phone on a daily basis. So how has this device made you re-evaluate your relationship with smartphones and your attitude towards seemingly addictive technologies? And what have you learned from your existing customers?
Dennis: Palm has helped me realise there is a time and place for how I’m connected. Design has a fundamental ability to shift behaviour. It starts with a different mindset, similar to how wearing certain clothes makes you feel differently, a different kind of smartphone changes how you prioritise your attention. I would say that my overall relationships with family and friends have improved significantly, allowing me to be more in tune with things around me. In the past, petty notifications or trivial phone distractions had a tendency to take me out of those moments, diverting my attention away from things that really mattered. Aside from relationships with others, I think it’s also important for us to have time back with ourselves. When we’re bored, we tend to fill those voids with mindless app scrolling, when in reality it’s the best time to truly think, be creative, and be more productive.
Howard: We originally designed Palm as a secondary device, for when you didn’t need a huge screen for productivity, and this is exactly how I use Palm everyday. I have been an avid gym-goer for over 20 years, and for the past 5+ years, I have had to leave my phone beside the bench or even at times in the locker room due not only it’s size, but because I would sit on the bench checking Instagram rather than actually training. Exercising is the way I de-stress, and whenever I brought my phone to the gym, I would leave with higher stress levels than when I came in. Since we created Palm, everything has changed for me. I now have a tool to help me consciously separate my work from play.
Let’s talk about the software. Palm runs on Android and you can download any app from the Play Store, and have you have built your own Palm launcher. Are there other bespoke features you have made?
Dennis: We’ve designed a very popular software feature called Life Mode. Life Mode isn’t just a feature, it’s our ethos. It helps you control what can get your attention, rather than having your phone control you. For example, you can enable Life Mode to silence antennas, background apps, incoming calls, and notifications when the screen is off. When you wake Palm it becomes fully connected again and syncs with your essential apps. Think of it like a smart airplane mode, however we do this while understanding the activity you are in, so we don’t interrupt music that you are streaming over bluetooth, or GPS while running or cycling.
Howard: Palm is a new category device, through and through. Yes, it has the underlying functions of a phone, but the way it’s positioned, used, and even worn, Palm is also equally a super-wearable. We wanted the user experience to feel fresh and new, and unlike anything you have ever seen on a phone. We designed our launcher to function like a carousel, and as you scroll through your minimal number of apps, we wanted the interface to come alive. The animation we created makes the apps appear as though they are emerging and disappearing from and into the background, while enlarging at the centre of the display to become larger tap targets. Our carousel not only doesn’t feel monotonous like typical phone launchers, but has also become the iconic face of our product.
You live in San Francisco, which is known as the tech hub of the US. In what ways has SF influenced your ideas about creativity, connectivity, and consumerism with regards to tech?
Howard: San Francisco is a very forward-thinking environment—fast paced, innovation minded, and melting pot of artistic culture. An entrepreneurial mind set fills the air, whether you are in product development, venture, hospitality, you name it. No matter where you go, whether it’s a Michelin rated restaurant or a local coffee shop, people are always talking about the latest unicorn startups, sharing fresh ideas, all in search of the next big thing. All of this concentrated energy contrasts intensely with the artistic, free-spirited side of San Francisco which is what drew many of us to the area in the first place; a place where you are not only safe to express your ideas, but encouraged; a place that embraces new ideas and fosters inclusiveness.
At this moment in your career, do you feel satisfied with where you’re at; creatively or otherwise?
Dennis: I’ve had the opportunity to work for some of the biggest brands in the world and introduced many products that millions of people have used in their everyday lives. When I put products in the hands of people; I often ask, does it make them happy and significantly improve their lives? How does it become a part of their daily routine? Does our brand evoke joy? Looking back, I’ve spent a large part of my career making people quite addicted to technology. However as my career evolved I did more soul searching with a deeper understanding of how the products I create impact the overall well being of others. Regarding creativity, it’s essential to keep learning, growing, and expressing yourself in new ways. Above anything else, when driving innovation I strongly believe in staying curious. Challenge what is possible. Drive how things could be better. I find inspiration in the ‘what if’. It’s curiosity that brings you to see the world through fresh eyes and what ultimately helps you solve problems in new creative ways.
Howard: It’s human nature to adapt through change, and become wiser with age and experience. This ever-present curiosity is what drives me to keep exploring, push myself to the edge of comfort, and then some. Am I able to look back at my career and appreciate the impact of my work on millions of people over two decades? Yes. Will I ever be satisfied? Never.
Does the principle of minimalism apply to your life outside of the Palm office? If so, how?
Dennis: Minimalism to me is the art of having purpose in the objects, people, and relationships I keep in my life. Living more with less can be quite cleansing and spiritually opening. What I also choose to include in my life carries more intent, attention, and fulfilment. The same can be said for how I create. A focus around minimalism and simplicity can deliver the most beautiful solutions to some of the most complex problems.
Howard: I have learned to curate most objects in my life around function and joy—if it doesn’t provide either, it’s gone. An even larger influence on my minimalist ways of living, is my father. He grew up in a post WW2 era where the abundance of “stuff” we live with today just did not exist for him. He immigrated from Austria to Canada at age 14 with nothing but a pair of lederhosen. Every toy I ever received from him, I coveted and studied, and no doubt those experiences shaped why I hold so much value with physical products today. It has taken a long time for me to adapt to living with the Konmari method of elimination, but I do know that an uncluttered life does help free up mental space for creative expansion.
What are 3 things you value most in design?
What are 3 things you value most in life?