01 Jun 2001
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Q&A: Donna Dubinsky

The Whole World in Her Handheld
by Julia Hanna

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A member of the team that introduced the phenomenally successful PalmPilot, Donna Lee Dubinsky (MBA 1981) has a handle on the handheld computer market. She was one of the brains behind the Pilot, the standard-setting personal digital assistant (or PDA, as it is commonly called) that found a place in the hearts of consumers more quickly than camcorders, personal computers, or cell phones. In the Palm, Dubinsky and her colleagues created a sleek, portable tool that can be “synced” with a desktop computer to store information such as addresses, appointments, and e-mail.

In 1998, after six years as CEO and president of Palm Computing and a decade as a marketing and logistics executive at Apple and its spin-off Claris, Dubinsky cofounded Handspring. As the company’s CEO, she oversees development, production, and marketing of the Visor, a popular PDA that is licensed to use the Palm operating system. Handspring’s Visor quickly distinguished itself from the competition through the addition of an expansion slot that allows users to add a variety of capabilities — digital camera, MP3 player, or cell phone, for example — to their basic handheld device.

With ongoing media coverage of “the war of the handhelds,” Dubinsky is well aware of the challenges facing Handspring. “This is an explosive market,” she says. “We need to create outstanding products, build a great company to deliver those products, and get some lucky breaks on the competitive side.” So far, Handspring appears to be on track. Revenues for the last quarter of 2000 hit $115.6 million, a 600 percent increase from the same period in 1999. Dubinsky, however, remains vigilant: “Many companies are interested in this marketspace,” she observes, “so we have a wide array of competitors to keep an eye on.”

What drew you to the high-tech industry?

Growth. I had learned as a banker [at Philadelphia National Bank] that most career opportunities are presented by areas that are growing quickly, and the personal computer industry fit that description. I was also attracted to the products — I had been doing spreadsheets by hand! Suddenly, there was this incredible tool that could help me (and others) work faster and better.

How do women fare in the high-tech culture?

I have never felt that being a woman has inhibited my career. I see high tech as a meritocracy — it’s been growing so fast over the last twenty years that all talent is welcome, regardless of gender.

You’ve worked with Jeff Hawkins, the creator of the PalmPilot and Visor, for nearly ten years. What makes your working relationship so successful?

We really complement each other. Jeff is focused on product design and marketing issues. I can’t design products, but I appreciate them when they’re well done, so I’m a sounding board for him without being a back-seat driver. At the same time, I “design” businesses. Jeff has great common sense about all business matters, so he serves as a sounding board for me as well. It’s been a great mix and, along with our partnership with Ed Colligan [Handspring’s cofounder and SVP of sales and marketing], one of the most rewarding aspects of the whole Palm/Handspring experience.

Did you have any idea that the PalmPilot would become so ubiquitous and iconic?

We always felt that the original PalmPilot would be successful, but we didn’t know to what degree. We knew that the utility would be universal and that the price point was right. That combination can mean a large market. At the same time, we worried that the product would need revisions in order to achieve a high volume of sales. In the end, we did pretty well on fine-tuning the product, and it took off quickly.

Why do entrepreneurial ventures hold such appeal for you?

I like creating and building things. I’m not much of an administrator, so simply managing something that is running well does not appeal to me. I’ve been involved with four major initiatives — Apple, Claris, Palm, and Handspring — and it’s been rewarding to look back and see all the value and products created, as well as the customers served by those efforts.

The Visor PDA uses the same operating system as the PalmPilot. What are the benefits and drawbacks of licensing technology from a competitor?

We felt the Palm OS was the best platform for a handheld. OK, we were biased on this subject! We knew that we could get a product to market much faster by licensing the operating system rather than creating something new. Palm has also announced the creation of a separate licensing group. We’re pleased about this move because it further clarifies our relationship; it underscores Palm’s commitment to licensing as a business, and puts Handspring in a position of being able to have continuous, open dialogue with our own business partners on the licensing side.

When it debuted in 1996, the PalmPilot was called “the cutest tech hardware invention since the first Macintosh.” How important is visual appeal?

It depends on the product. In the case of a handheld computer, it’s very important. It is almost like a watch, or a car, which is not only functional but also conveys something about your sense of style. I don’t think visual appeal is as important for a desktop computer. But for something you carry all the time, such as a PDA, it is a critical part of the product.

Can you describe what a PDA of the future might look like and what it might do?

If you look ahead five years, I believe you will see a somewhat slimmer device with a rich color display and integrated wireless communications for both voice and data. You will use this product as an organizer and for messaging, Internet access, mobile commerce, and voice communications. All these functions will be beautifully integrated — you’ll be able to dial a phone number from your address book, order a product from a Web site, and charge your account from one device.

What does your own PDA look like?

I’ve just switched to our new Visor Edge product — the blue one — and I use it with our VisorPhone. I love it!

Where would you like to be in ten years?

I expect to be retired, spending time with my family. I adopted my daughter over six years ago and recently married Len Shustek, who is a very active, retired entrepreneur. We like to hike, ski, and just hang out together. I’m also interested in the possibility of teaching what I’ve learned to others.

What do you think are your best accomplishments to date?

I am proud of building companies that endure. I have never wanted a company to be dependent on my being there. I am pleased that I’ve left companies with strong teams and with great products. I can’t promise that they’ll go on forever, of course, but I would like to feel that something enduring has been created as a result of my participation.

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Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 1981, Section I
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