01 Jun 2001
Q&A: Donna Dubinsky
The Whole World in Her Handheldby Julia HannaTopics:
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 companys CEO, she oversees
development, production, and marketing of the Visor, a popular PDA that is
licensed to use the Palm operating system. Handsprings 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
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
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
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 its been growing so fast over the last
twenty years that all talent is welcome, regardless of gender.
Youve worked with Jeff Hawkins, the creator of the PalmPilot and
Visor, for nearly ten years. What makes your working relationship so
We really complement each other. Jeff is focused on product design and
marketing issues. I cant design products, but I appreciate them when
theyre well done, so Im 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. Its been a great mix and, along with
our partnership with Ed Colligan [Handsprings cofounder and SVP of
sales and marketing], one of the most rewarding aspects of the whole
Did you have any idea that the PalmPilot would become so ubiquitous and
We always felt that the original PalmPilot would be successful, but we
didnt 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. Im not much of an administrator,
so simply managing something that is running well does not appeal to me.
Ive been involved with four major initiatives Apple, Claris,
Palm, and Handspring and its been rewarding to look back and
see all the value and products created, as well as the customers served by
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. Were
pleased about this move because it further clarifies our relationship; it
underscores Palms 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
It depends on the product. In the case of a handheld computer, its
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
dont 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
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 youll 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?
Ive 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.
Im also interested in the possibility of teaching what Ive
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 Ive left
companies with strong teams and with great products. I cant promise
that theyll go on forever, of course, but I would like to feel that
something enduring has been created as a result of my participation.
Class of MBA 1981, Section I