Previous DemocratizerNext Democratizer
Donna Dubinsky

Born:   1955, Cleveland, OH
Died:   -

Did You Know?

The prototype for the Palm Pilot was made of bits of mahogany and cardboard glued together in Jeff Hawkins' garage.

Photos: (left) Getty Images; (right) palmOne, Inc.

Personal Digital Assistants

This Silicon Valley executive brought a transformative technology -- the hand-held digital assistant -- to market. By making information portable, the device has changed the way we live.

The Future of Business
Fresh from Harvard's M.B.A. program, Donna Dubinsky arrived in Silicon Valley in 1981 to work in marketing for Apple. She had little technical knowledge of personal computers, but she believed they represented the future of business. Dubinsky had grown up in Benton Harbor, Michigan, the daughter of a scrap-metal broker, and was pleased to be working in manufacturing. Her experiences at Apple, and then Claris, gave her formidable experience in operations and strategy.

Raising Cash
In 1992, Dubinsky co-founded Palm Inc. Her partner, Jeff Hawkins, had shown her a hand-held electronic organizer he had prototyped, and she saw the future, though many others had dismissed such a product. Apple's Newton, an early hand-held assistant, had been a cult favorite but a market dud. While Hawkins engineered Palm's new device, Dubinsky's hard task was to think strategically about the company, raise the cash to develop the product, and bring it to market. She succeeded: ultimately, she and Hawkins sold Palm to U.S. Robotics in 1995, for $44 million. Two years later U.S. Robotics was swallowed up by 3Com Corporation. In the meantime, the first PalmPilot had debuted in spring 1996, immediately racking up sales that rivaled the launches of the Walkman, the VCR, and cell phones.

Innovating with Expansion
Unhappy at 3Com, Dubinsky and Hawkins split off to found Handspring in June of 1998. As co-founder and chief executive officer of the new company, Dubinsky oversaw a boom in hand-held computing devices and became one of the most important businesswomen in the United States. In a matter of months, Handspring's Visor had grabbed 14% of the hand-held market, and more importantly, pointed to the future by building in expansion. Most hand-helds had limited memory, and were used as self-contained appointment books, with a few games thrown in. But a slot on the versatile Visor could accommodate small disks with reference works, like Shakespeare's plays or physician's manuals; mini devices like cameras or MP3 players; or even a global positioning system. The product stimulated third-party businesses and lent itself to dozens of uses, giving people the power to access many types of information on the go.

Uses for Portables
A second Handspring product, the Treo, added cell phone and e-mail capabilities to the mix. In June 2003, Handspring merged with Palm Inc, which had been spun off by 3Com, to form PalmOne, Inc. Dubinsky sits on its board. The personal digital assistant has grown into a $7.2 billion business, and enabled millions of people to use data on the go: scientists collecting information in the low-oxygen environment of Mount Everest; salespeople trading spreadsheets while on the road; hikers accessing maps or plotting routes; or couples looking up movie times and making dinner reservations.

Previous DemocratizerNext Democratizer