Seniors Take A Shine To New Tech Toys


The first used Palm IIIx Special Edition PDA (above photo) which I bought from a former colleague for $30 over 20 years ago to play with this “toy”.  I did not realise that I became addicted to this “hobby” on a journey of self-discovery to educate me the marvels of communication technology and handheld technology.  It was not just a “toy” only to play games.  There were some PalmOS games (now known as apps) to play on the PDA devices.  I also learned and mastered to write “Graffiti”, an essentially single-stroke shorthand handwriting recognition system used in PDAs based on the PalmOS.

The Palm IIIe is a PDA from Palm Computing released in 1999 briefly after the more expensive and more advanced Palm IIIx.

It shared the same screen as the Palm IIIx, which improved upon the Palm III’s screen by featuring a new enhanced and easier to read LCD. The Palm IIIe had 2MB of RAM, which is the same as the Palm III. It had a 16 MHz Motorola DragonBall EZ CPU, said to be faster and more efficient than the 16 MHz Motorola DragonBall CPU found in all previous Palm models.

The Palm IIIe featured an inverse electroluminescent backlight that illuminated the screen text instead of the screen background. This same feature was found on the Palm IIIx. This feature was an area of controversy as many people disliked it while many others found it to be an improvement.

Later a Special Edition IIIe device was released, which had a translucent clear case.

Here’s a “Retro Palm IIIxe PDA unboxing and teardown” video on YouTube to share here .

I found a 10-year-old newspaper article in The Straits Times published on 30 April 2007 by chance while checking on NewspaperSG resources.  The interview was conducted by journalist Alfred Siew and he then arranged with Stephanie Yeow to take this photo (a memory-aid) a week later to make me remember.


Seniors take a shine to new tech toys
The Straits Times, 30 April 2001

By Alfred Siew

Friends think he is too old for his hobby, and his wife nags him for spending too much time and money on it.

Mr James Seah’s love of personal digital assistants (PDAs) has seen him spend a fortune. The 59-year-old once even worked part-time at a Singtel Hello shop just to get his hands on the latest models. He was a sales promoter, and sold one of the first PDAs that could make phone calls.

“When you put your calls through the speakerphone, you could see how surprised people were to see a ‘talking’ PDA,” he gushed, recalling that period.

The former finance supervisor is among a growing band of silver-haired geeks, who are proving to be as passionate about the latest gizmos as teenagers.

The over-60 seniors with spending power are lapping up the latest PDAs, cellphones and digital cameras.

Some are also wandering everywhere online, joining Internet communities, playing games and connecting with other older netizens.

If they are retired or working part-time, they also have a lot of time to spend on their hobbies.

Mr Seah, for example, was retrenched from his job in 2003 after 28 years, and now works at home on his own business from 6 pm to 10 pm.

He has a daughter who is married and working in Britain, and a son who has completed a polytechnic course and is in national service.
His wife is a retired clerk.

With his children grown up, Mr Seah is able to focus more on his hobby.

The silver-haired tech brigade offers a twist to the typical image of a cellphone-toting teenager or young executive, and its rise in something companies may do well to heed, say experts.

A study by MasterCard last year put computers and mobile phones mong the top five purchases for seniors above 65 in wealthy Asian countries.

All in, this band of consumers in six Asian countries, including Singapore and Japan, will spend US$1,536 billion (S$2,330 billion) on items wuch as travel, cars and computers by 2015, twice more than in 2005. Dr Yuwa Hendrick-Wong, MasterCard’s economic adviser for Asia-Pacific, told The Straits Times.

Dr Yuwa, who published the findings in a book last year, said that in the next 20 years, greying Asian populations will give rise to elderly consumers who will pick up gadgets such as cellphones to stay independent and connected to their families.

Although it is unclear exactly how much seniors in Singapore spend on technology, a visit to Funan the DigitaLife Mall on any weekend shows one thing: Elderly geeks do splurge on tech toys.

Mr Samuel Gan, sales manager at camera retailer John 3:16, said that between 20 per cent and 30 per cent of the purchases at his store were made by seniors.

The 33-year-old said: “Many started on film, but their passion is what drives them to master digital cameras. You have to respect them for that.”

Many seniors who used computers at their jobs were not averse to going digital with their hobbies as well.

Mr Seah, for one, went a step further than using a computer at work. He paid more than $300 for his first Palm IIIe PDA in 2000 to schedule his appointments, and never turned back from tapping on the screen each day.

Today, he has a $1,000 Palm Treo 650 PDA that also let him make phone calls and read e-mail on the go.

He figures that over the years, he has spent thousands of dollars on about a dozen PDAs. He bought some of the older models on the eBay online auction site.

“My wife nags me quite a lot, but it is my only vice,” he said with a grin.

For other seniors, the fascination with technology comes from a need to use it and master all its features.

Remisier Thio Gim Siew, 71, taught himself how to use the free Skype Internet phone service to call one of his two daughters, who is working in the United States.

The service saves him money as it uses the Internet and bypasses more expensive telecom networks.

Said Mr Thio, who is called a “computer freak” at home: “If I do not understand something, I make sure I read the manual and ask my nephew, who is a tech expert, until I understand it.”

He was not always this comfortable with technology.

“I used to be scared to touch a computer because I thought I might damage it, but after accidentally deleting an entire hard disk once, I was okay,” he recalled with a laugh.

Today, he is able to teach his five-year-old grandson and eight-year-old grand-daughter how to use Google and play online games.

He said a lot of seniors do not use technology as much as they should because they are not adventurous.

He said: “At my age, if I can avoid learning stuf that is too complicated, I will avoid it. But if I have to use it, I will learn it because I want to use it.”

With more seniors interested in technology, is it time for a change in attitudes towards this new group of users?

Mr Seah said that when he visits computer shows, he gets the feeling young sales promoters hope he will not approach them.

“They think this old man is going to be troublesome and ask a lot of basic questions,” he said.

Many gadgets are also not friendly to older users, being designed for younger people with sharper eyesight and faster fingers.

Mr Thio said he bought a Motorola Razr V3i phone because it not only plays back his favourite Chinese evergreen MP3 music, but also has a large keypad and an ample screen.

Some phones, he said, come with tiny buttons that are difficult to press and screens with small lettering that he cannot read an SMS message without squinting.

His next purchase will be a PDA phone that will allow him to make Skype calls at free Wi-Fi hotspots around town.

And after he masters that, he will teach his friends how to make free calls as well.

The tech-savvy older crowd may be small today, but it looks likely to expand.

Mr Seah, for example, has a fledgling website called to bring seniors together to share pictures from their younger days. His aim is to share the joys of trying out new things.

So far, the website has only attracted a dozen or so photos from friends, but he is hoping to make it more easily accessible and attract more users.

He said: “The base of elders is growing, so if you tell me that seniors do not know computers, I do not agree any more.”

Many things concerning communication technology have changed over 20 years and the views and opinions which I expressed in that interview are no longer valid.

As a then young, innocent and foolish guy who was “obsessed” with a new tech toy, a Palm PDA, I spent about 10 years with this “love affair”.  It was a learning experience to experiment with the various Palm PDAs, including the special Apple Newton Message Pad with transparent case which was holding in my hand in the above photo.

The YouTube video of the Apple Newton MessagePad 100 (not the one with transparent case) here.

Many years later as I grew older and mellow with wisdom (I hope), I learnt the lessons on the rapid changes on new tech toys over the decades.  The enthusiasm, the childish passion and excitement when I first bought Palm PDA and held it in my hand;  I thought it was like magic and showed it to all my friends to share with them, just like the kids with a new toy.

Palm PDA is now dead; and the PalmOS (Palm Operating System) is obsolete.

Farewell Palm, thanks to Jeff Hawkins (American founder and inventor of Palm Computing and Handspring) for teaching me how to use, play and learn the “old toys” in the old times.  It was fun while it lasted.  Twenty years is a long time for me to enjoy the Palm.  As with my many former PalmOS friends,  we have to move on and keep with the times to use either Apple iPhone, Samsung or other Android smartphones available in the market today.

Back then, Microsoft’s Pocket PC was seen by many as the evil competitor to the Palm devices. However, Palm’s lack of attention to multimedia and pushing innovation forward, along with Microsoft’s efforts to bring the desktop to your hand, resulted in Microsoft overtaking Palm and eventually Palm using Microsoft’s Windows Mobile OS in its Treo line.

Palm OS eventually went away and they reinvented themselves with webOS. This was a revolutionary mobile operating system and we see signs of it today in Apple’s iOS 7, BlackBerry 10, and more. The problem there was the rather poor quality hardware and limited carrier support. No matter how great the operating system was, not enough people were using it and the slide-out keyboard didn’t give you a quality found in competing devices.

HP then took and killed webOS after its Palm purchase and a great operating system failed after three short years. For those of us who started using Palm Pilots, it is sad to look back and see that Palm is no longer with us when they were the ones who brought us into the mobile world in the first place.

It is inevitable that the many brands of smartphone makers are making better features and product designs at competitive prices to satisfy the demands of the consumers today.

The heap of older smartphones are thrown away (photo below) and there are fewer collection hunters to value them.


One thought on “Seniors Take A Shine To New Tech Toys

  1. Hi Mr Seah, hope things are great with you. I am Alfred, the journalist from ST who spoke with you for the story. I came to this page while searching for old articles. Thanks for sharing your experiences. I hope you are still enjoying your gadgets!

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