STEPHEN CURRY SLIDESTHE GAD­GET

Fast Company - - R. - HMCCRACKEN@FAST­COM­PANY.COM

onto his arm. En­cased in a span­dex sleeve, it goes up past the New Tes­ta­ment quote tat­tooed on his right wrist—“love never fails,” in He­brew—and lands on his fore­arm be­low the short sleeve of his gray linen shirt. Curry breaks into an ap­prov­ing grin. “I can see I’m go­ing to wear this when the time is right,” he says of the ac­ces­sory. He’s got­ten into road cy­cling lately, and he ex­u­ber­antly mimes the act of glanc­ing at the de­vice while chug­ging from a wa­ter bot­tle.

Den­nis Milos­eski and Howard Nuk smile, too. The Sil­i­con Val­ley de­sign vet­er­ans, who look the part with neatly trimmed beards and head-to-toe black wardrobes, have in­vited Curry to their San Fran­cisco of­fice on this July af­ter­noon to so­licit his opin­ion. Curry isn’t merely a one-man fo­cus group; the Golden State War­riors point guard and two-time NBA MVP is an in­vestor in Palm, the com­pany they co­founded. Be­sides cap­i­tal, he’s pro­vid­ing them with ad­vice and—as Palm’s pub­lic face—pro­mo­tional value, which might be worth mil­lions in it­self.

Hold on—palm? The once-mighty, now-de­funct maker of the pi­o­neer­ing 1990s per­sonal dig­i­tal as­sis­tants and, later, smart­phones? Not ex­actly. This is a brand-new startup, which has bor­rowed the orig­i­nal com­pany’s name and at least some of its ethos. Its de­but prod­uct, the de­vice Curry has af­fixed to him­self, is it­self known as the Palm. It re­sem­bles a smart­phone, makes calls, and runs An­droid apps, but it’s re­mark­ably diminu­tive—more like a few stacked credit cards than the Her­shey bar–size hand­sets of to­day.

De­spite its nos­tal­gia-in­duc­ing moniker, the Palm— sched­uled to ar­rive in Novem­ber at 1,500 Ver­i­zon-owned stores plus re­sellers—is a new kind of gad­get. (“We call the cat­e­gory ‘Palm,’ ” Milos­eski de­clares when I ask, though he and Nuk also bandy about the term “ul­tra­mo­bile.”) Un­like a full-blown smart­phone—which it aims to com­ple­ment rather than re­place—the Palm is small enough that you can eas­ily strap it on like Curry is do­ing, tuck it into a yoga-pants pocket, or drape it around your neck on a lan­yard. The soft­ware strives to be sim­i­larly min­i­mal, safe­guard­ing you against be­ing pelted with no­ti­fi­ca­tions or se­duced by In­sta­gram, Candy Crush Saga, or other dis­trac­tions. At press time, a price had not been set, but Palm en­vi­sions it as an al­ter­na­tive to wear­ables such as the $399 Ap­ple Watch Se­ries 4.

With a hand­ful of full-time em­ploy­ees, Palm, the com­pany, is based in a his­toric San Fran­cisco build­ing that once housed a lithog­ra­pher of fruit-crate la­bels. Its brick-walled, lofty space over­looks a tran­quil court­yard and feels more like a home than a head­quar­ters. So it doesn’t seem odd that Curry, who is fa­mously a fam­ily man, has brought a cou­ple mem­bers of his with him to this meet­ing. His fa­ther, Dell, him­self a 16-sea­son NBA vet­eran, min­gles with staffers, while his 6-year-old daugh­ter, Ri­ley, oc­cu­pies her­self with an ipad in a pink case. (Curry’s wife, Aye­sha, a Food Net­work host and restau­ra­teur, is at home with their son, Canon, who was born the pre­vi­ous week; 3-year-old Ryan is at school.)

At 6-foot-3, the 30-year-old Curry doesn’t come off as a colos­sus in per­son, and he’s even more ap­proach­able once he slouches into a chair to chat about why he got into the con­sumer elec­tron­ics busi­ness. Though his en­dorse­ment deals—un­der Ar­mour, In­finiti, Brita, and oth­ers—added up to, by one es­ti­mate, $42 mil­lion in 2018 alone, he’s in­ter­ested in pur­su­ing more mean­ing­ful col­lab­o­ra­tions that will help pre­pare him for the day when he’s no longer on an NBA ros­ter. It’s not about “just pick­ing part­ners based around fi­nan­cial gain,” he says, “but be­ing part of the de­vel­op­ment process.” He’s cho­sen this par­tic­u­lar project be­cause he be­lieves in its po­ten­tial to make peo­ple—in­clud­ing him­self—“more present, more en­er­getic, more en­gaged with fam­ily.”

On the court, where Curry has turned the seem­ingly mun­dane three-pointer into the trendi­est shot in bas­ket­ball, he’s used to thriv­ing by do­ing the un­ex­pected. “Play­ers tend to un­der­es­ti­mate him be­cause he’s al­ways been small, and the game was al­ways about size,” says Mar­cus Thomp­son, the au­thor of Golden: The Mirac­u­lous Rise of Steph Curry. In an era of ever more gar­gan­tuan, im­mer­sive smart­phones, Palm is try­ing to con­vince con­sumers that they want some­thing smaller and more sub­dued. It’s also in­trud­ing on the ter­ri­tory of gi­ants such as Ap­ple and Sam­sung, car­ry­ing the ban­ner of a seem­ingly mori­bund brand. And even in the best of cir­cum­stances, hard­ware is—as con­ven­tional wis­dom says—hard. If Milos­eski and Nuk’s lit­tle com­pany de­feats the odds, there will be po­etry in the fact that Steph Curry helped make it hap­pen.

The seed for the new Palm was planted at Sam­sung,

where Milos­eski and Nuk met, in 2012. Milos­eski, who spent five years at Google, had roots in soft­ware; Nuk, who’d pre­vi­ously worked for in­dus­trial-de­sign ti­tans Frog and Am­mu­ni­tion, was a hard­ware guy. The gad­gets they cranked out from Sam­sung’s San Fran­cisco de­sign stu­dio—fit­ness bands, smart­watches, head­phones, and more—helped the com­pany over­come a fes­ter­ing rep­u­ta­tion for know­ing only how to knock off Ap­ple.

Weary­ing of the big-com­pany grind, the pair quit Sam­sung to­ward the end of 2016. “We did a bit of soulsearch­ing,” says Milos­eski. “We’d spent the greater part of 20 years ad­dict­ing peo­ple to tech­nol­ogy.” Rather than cre­at­ing some­thing de­signed to lure hu­mans into spend­ing even more time star­ing at screens, they won­dered if they might find a way to lib­er­ate peo­ple.

See­ing the smart­phone’s ad­dic­tive na­ture as a prob­lem to be solved was an idea that was just be­gin­ning to gain cul­tural cur­rency, and it’s achieved only more trac­tion since. Tris­tan Har­ris, a de­sign ethi­cist at Google, had grown in­creas­ingly con­cerned that tech com­pa­nies were will­fully en­gi­neer­ing their apps to make them com­pul­sive habits, as if they were slot ma­chines; he left the com­pany in Jan­uary 2016 to cru­sade full time against this trend, later turn­ing his Time Well Spent move­ment into a non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion called the Cen­ter for Hu­mane Tech­nol­ogy.

Psy­chother­a­pist Nancy Colier’s book The Power of Off had just come out when Milos­eski and Nuk were de­vis­ing their plans. “As soon as we show up for a meal with a friend, we’ve got the phone right there in be­tween us,” she says. “We’re say­ing, ‘You’re not enough. Some­thing bet­ter might come in.’ ” Even soli­tude has been cor­rupted by dig­i­tal dis­trac­tion, she laments: “Peo­ple see their own com­pany as some­thing they dread.”

Milos­eski and Nuk are, of course, tech­nol­o­gists. So it’s not a shocker that the cure they landed on for screen ad­dic­tion was . . . an­other screen. But theirs would be a less at­ten­tion-hog­ging one. Some­thing you might take to the gym or night­club, while your pri­mary phone stayed at home.

The vi­sion, in its ini­tial in­car­na­tion, was hy­per­min­i­mal­ist. “We stripped it down to noth­ing,” ex­plains Nuk. “We took the cam­eras off, no but­tons, no any­thing. [We thought] it should just be a black peb­ble, and mag­i­cally light up and re­spond to your voice. From there, we started to put the fea­tures back in that we be­lieved were ab­so­lutely crit­i­cal.” When that process con­cluded, their de­vice did look more like a smart­phone again, and could per­form ev­ery ma­jor smart­phone task ex­cept re­plac­ing a credit card for in-per­son pay­ments. (Don’t call it a smart­phone around them, though: “We never call it a phone—it’s some­thing new,” Nuk stresses.) But it was tiny, with a touch screen mea­sur­ing only 3.3 inches from cor­ner to cor­ner—lil­liputian in an era when smart­phone dis­plays rou­tinely sprawl to 5.8 inches and be­yond.

On the soft­ware end, Milos­eski and Nuk took Google’s An­droid—de­signed to per­mit cus­tomiza­tion by hard­ware mak­ers—and re­tooled it for a sim­pler ex­pe­ri­ence. A fea­ture known as Life Mode, for in­stance, en­sures that the Palm will never de­mand your at­ten­tion when you’re oth­er­wise oc­cu­pied. When the screen is off, Life Mode shuts down in­com­ing calls, no­ti­fi­ca­tions, and ev­ery other form of dis­trac­tion. You can flip Life Mode off and on at will, or set it on a timer to run for one, two, or three hours at a time as you be­gin an ex­er­cise ses­sion, a fam­ily meal, or other ac­tiv­ity you want to sa­vor with­out in­ter­rup­tion. Ad­di­tional el­e­ments in­clude a vastly stream­lined home screen and short­cuts to let you ac­com­plish tasks—such as play­ing a Spo­tify playlist—with a min­i­mum of taps.

Like nearly all con­sumer elec­tron­ics, the new de­vice was bound to be as­sem­bled in a fac­tory in Asia, which led the co­founders to ap­proach TCL, a man­u­fac­tur­ing be­he­moth head­quar­tered in Huizhou, in China’s Guang­dong Prov­ince. As it turned out, the com­pany wasn’t just happy to help Milos­eski and Nuk with their man­u­fac­tur­ing needs; it also quickly made a strate­gic seed in­vest­ment, which per­mit­ted them to ramp up their still-nascent en­ter­prise. It even of­fered a name for the still-stealthy startup: Palm.

That moniker, though a head-snap­per at first, had an un­de­ni­able logic. The orig­i­nal Palm Pi­lot took off in 1996 be­cause it didn’t try to do too much. At the time, “a lot of the folks who ap­proached the [hand­held] space had tried to cre­ate minia­tur­ized per­sonal com­put­ers,” says Michael Mace, who served in sev­eral ex­ec­u­tive po­si­tions at Palm and its soft­ware spin-off, Palm­source, from 2000 to 2005. “The Palm Pi­lot was an ac­ces­sory. It was about your

and your ad­dress book, and that was about it. But it made those things su­per, su­per easy to carry with you.”

From those hum­ble be­gin­nings, Palm’s hand­helds grew in­creas­ingly ca­pa­ble, help­ing to set the stage for smart­phones, such as the com­pany’s own Treo. Palm sold more than 30 mil­lion per­sonal dig­i­tal as­sis­tants and smart­phones dur­ing its first decade, but also made more than its share of strate­gic blun­ders—and strug­gled for rel­e­vance in the iphone era. Hewlett-packard bought the com­pany in 2010 and an­nounced grandiose plans to build an ecosys­tem around its next-gen­er­a­tion WEBOS soft­ware. Four­teen months later, how­ever, the CEO who had cham­pi­oned the ac­qui­si­tion was gone, and his suc­ces­sor killed all of HP’S WEBOS prod­ucts, in­clud­ing a tablet that had been in­tro­duced, with Ap­ple-es­que hoopla, just seven weeks ear­lier. With that, Palm’s his­tory came to an ig­no­min­ious end.

But not quite. Three years later, the Palm trade­mark, though dor­mant, re­tained enough value that HP was able to off-load it to TCL, which had a long-stand­ing in­ter­est in sell­ing gear to Western­ers us­ing names they know. (TCL struck a deal in 2003 to mar­ket TVS un­der the 99-year-old RCA brand, and in 2016 li­censed the rights to make Black­berry phones as Black­berry it­self fo­cused on soft­ware and ser­vices.) When Milos­eski and Nuk came call­ing, TCL still “didn’t know what they were go­ing to do with the brand,” says Nuk.

From West­ing­house to Mys­pace, old name­plates have been af­fixed to new prod­ucts for years, sim­ply to wring out any resid­ual eq­uity. But Milos­eski and Nuk in­sist that they have some­thing more am­bi­tious in mind. “This is not about say­ing, ‘Look at this great brand, and it’s back,’ ” says Milos­eski. “It had to be an in­ven­tion story.” Their model is BMW’S re­boot of the Mini Cooper as a modern, sporty car: “You have a 25-year-old driv­ing right now who may not have known that the Mini ex­isted in the ’60s, yet they still love that Mini.”

With dry-erase marker in hand, Stephen Curry stands

at a white­board in Palm’s of­fice. With him are Milos­eski, Nuk, and Bryant Barr, Curry’s best friend, col­lege room­mate and team­mate, and the cur­rent pres­i­dent of SC30, the com­pany re­spon­si­ble for man­ag­ing Curry’s in­vest­ments, phil­an­thropic ef­forts, and more. The four are plot­ting a pro­mo­tional plan for the de­vice’s re­lease, and their chat­ter has a guer­rilla as­pect to it, with dis­cus­sions of un­re­lated Curry me­dia tours and TV ap­pear­ances that Palm might be able to pig­gy­back on. Then there are the in­flu­encers who may be reach­able with his as­sis­tance; when a boxer’s name comes up, Curry notes that he was at the sec­ond game of the War­riors’ NBA Fi­nals this year.

By the time this brain­storm­ing ses­sion hap­pens, the Palm/sc30 team has been work­ing to­gether for months. It’s easy to for­get, at least fleet­ingly, that that’s Stephen Curry up there. Prod­uct-man­age­ment head David Wood­land, Milos­eski and Nuk’s first hire, was the one who’d first thought to ap­proach the bas­ket­ball icon to in­vest in Palm, dur­ing the sum­mer of 2017. It was a wild idea—but not com­pletely nuts. Like his War­riors team­mates An­dre Iguo­dala and Kevin Du­rant, Curry had strong ties to the Sil­i­con Val­ley–startup ecosys­tem. He had even co­founded a tech com­pany with Barr, called Slyce, which built so­cial me­dia tools for ath­letes be­fore shut­ting down last sum­mer. (“There were a lot of learn­ing mo­ments,” says Barr.)

“We had no idea how you get hold of Steph Curry,” re­counts Wood­land, a Bay Area na­tive and War­riors fa­natic who Googled for leads. An earnest pitch to Curry’s agent and fi­nance chief led to face time with the NBA star him­self over La­bor Day week­end at his gym. He was prac­tic­cal­en­dar

I WAS LIKE,‘WHATIS THAT? DOES IT WORK NOW? CAN I HAVE IT?’” SAYS CURRY OF FIRST GLIMPSING THE NEW PALM.

ing shoot­ing when the en­trepreneurs ar­rived with a slide deck and a non­func­tion­ing model of their de­vice, which they’d code-named Pepito af­ter a French brand of cookie.

Curry had a plane to catch and had blocked out half an hour for Palm. But he found the gad­get so in­trigu­ing that he blew right past that win­dow and had to scram­ble to make his flight. (For­tu­nately, they held the plane for him.) “From the jump, I fell in love with [it],” he re­mem­bers, and en­vi­sioned “how I could use this prod­uct in my own life. I was like, ‘What is that? Does it work now? Can I have it?’ ”

Turn­ing Curry’s en­thu­si­asm into an in­vest­ment still took a few months. Dur­ing that time, Palm was also talk­ing with Ver­i­zon. Both deals fell into place in early 2018, with Ver­i­zon se­cur­ing ex­clu­sive rights to sell the Palm. Ver­i­zon is also pro­duc­ing its own line of ac­ces­sories, such as a sparkly Kate Spade wrist­let case. It also pro­vided the tech­nol­ogy that lets you share one phone num­ber be­tween the Palm and your main smart­phone, so you can call and text on whichever one you have with you.

Some of the value Curry brings to Palm comes from the fact that he’s ac­tive, fam­ily-ori­ented, and, while dig­i­tally savvy, prefers liv­ing in the mo­ment: “He is the per­sona we’re try­ing to make this for,” says Wood­land. Milos­eski and Nuk take his opin­ions se­ri­ously when he chimes in about the fit of an ac­ces­sory or the look of a prod­uct’s pack­ag­ing. For in­stance, they made the span­dex sleeve grip­pier af­ter Curry found that it tended to slip on his arm as he threw three­p­oint­ers—300 of them per set—dur­ing train­ing ses­sions.

Though Curry doesn’t claim to call the shots at Palm, he’s not a fig­ure­head, ei­ther. For any celebrity, “it’s a mis­take to think, ‘I’m go­ing to put my name on it, and it’ll be suc­cess­ful,’” says Am­mu­ni­tion founder Robert Brun­ner, whose de­sign firm worked with Dr. Dre and Lebron James on Beats head­phones and Lady Gaga on a line of Po­laroid prod­ucts, among other col­lab­o­ra­tions. “Peo­ple see through that. They can un­der­stand when there’s a lack of au­then­tic­ity in some­thing, and they’ll leave it be­hind very quickly.”

Curry’s ex­tracur­ric­u­lar ac­tiv­i­ties be­yond Palm are man­i­fold. In April, he signed a de­vel­op­ment deal with Sony that spans movies, TV, games, and VR. Then there’s his phil­an­thropic work, such as the bas­ket­ball camp he hosted for 200 girls, ages 9 to 16, in Au­gust—to help “close the op­por­tu­nity gap,” he has said. Still, his vis­its to the startup of­ten stretch well past their of­fi­cial end time. In one case, his in­put proved piv­otal. Palm had planned to call its gad­get the Copi­lot. Along with con­vey­ing the sense that it was de­signed to be a com­pan­ion to a big smart­phone, the name fur­ther linked the new Palm with the Palm Pi­lot le­gacy. But it “didn’t roll off the tongue very well,” sniffs Curry, who per­suaded the founders to go all in on the Palm brand. He likens the con­tri­bu­tion to the scene in The So­cial Net­work when Sean Parker ca­su­ally in­forms Mark Zucker­berg that “The­face­book” should re­move “The” from its name. “That was my mo­ment,” he says, chuck­ling at the mem­ory.

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team is con­gre­gated around the ta­ble where Milos­eski and Nuk work each day, edit­ing the on-screen text that Life Mode will use to ex­plain it­self to users. (“Life Mode is off,” they agree, beats “Life Mode has been turned off.”) Mar­ket­ing head Collin Wil­lard­son—a re­cruit from un­der­wear pur­veyor Mack Wel­don—walks ev­ery­one through the sto­ry­boards he’s sketched for a promo video, with stick fig­ures of Curry and oth­ers in­te­grat­ing the Palm into their lives.

Ear­lier in the month, sev­eral gad­get blogs had got­ten wind of a few pho­tos and de­tails re­lat­ing to the Palm de­vice and strained to suss out what, ex­actly, it was. (The Verge: “Al­leged new Palm smart­phone is tiny, strange, and has low-end specs.”) No one, Nuk em­pha­sizes to me, grasped that Palm is at­tempt­ing to cre­ate a new, less dis­tract­ing piece of per­sonal tech­nol­ogy. But at least they were in­trigued.

The con­fu­sion un­der­scores how dif­fi­cult it is to an­tic­i­pate how the pub­lic will re­act to the Palm—one more de­vice, prob­a­bly on top of a pricey smart­phone!—un­til it’s in the wild. Milos­eski and Nuk have iden­ti­fied an ac­tual prob­lem that needs ad­dress­ing: dig­i­tal dis­trac­tion. But as with any new piece of hard­ware from an un­proven com­pany, ex­e­cu­tion is ev­ery­thing, and the mar­gin for er­ror is small. “We think about it ev­ery day, a thou­sand times a day, how hard it is,” says Nuk.

Then again, even if the Palm is a gamechang­ing tri­umph, it could still end up be­ing tram­pled by gi­ants. “Tech com­pa­nies, thank­fully, are wak­ing up and say­ing, ‘Wait a minute—if we’re mak­ing this hap­pen, and ben­e­fit­ing from it fi­nan­cially, we have to take some re­spon­si­bil­ity for this crack co­caine for the mind,’ ” says psy­chother­a­pist Colier. At their 2018 de­vel­oper con­fer­ences, both Ap­ple and Google un­veiled dig­i­tal well-be­ing fea­tures for their re­spec­tive op­er­at­ing sys­tems, pro­vid­ing tighter con­trol over in­ter­rup­tions as well as stats on daily phone use.

Smart­phone king­pins such as Ap­ple, Google, and Milos­eski and Nuk’s for­mer em­ployer, Sam­sung, could eas­ily down­size their cur­rent de­signs into some­thing at least su­per­fi­cially sim­i­lar to the Palm. If the de­vice sells well, at least some of them prob­a­bly will. When asked about com­peti­tors, Milos­eski gives the tra­di­tional bring-it-on re­sponse: “We’re ex­pect­ing them, and we’re wel­com­ing them, be­cause what it does is val­i­date our cat­e­gory.”

By then, Palm might be ex­plor­ing new ter­ri­tory. “Ob­vi­ously, we’re fo­cused on this first ver­sion and mak­ing it a huge hit,” Curry tells me dur­ing our July en­counter. “But we’ve al­ready talked about dif­fer­ent cat­e­gories that Palm could go into.” His de­ter­mi­na­tion and op­ti­mism feel ab­so­lutely real. And when he leaves the loft—with his fa­ther at his side and his daugh­ter in his arms—he has once again stayed longer than he in­tended.

“We did a bit of soul-search­ing,” says Palm co­founder Den­nis Milos­eski, which led to the pared-down prod­uct.

“We never call it a phone—it’s some­thing new,” co­founder Howard Nuk says of the Palm de­vice.

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