Posted by: Frank | January 10, 2009

Giving Palm Its Just Due

The Consumer Electronics Show is nearly over and the big mobile news from the event was the Palm announcement of their device, the Palm Pre. Palm moved PDAs in the mid ’90s from geek-only devices that were the Apple Newton MessagePads, to mass consumer devices. Unfortunately, something happened on their way to the bank. Palm got enamored with milking the cash cow for all it was worth, investing little in new innovations and just scheming on ways to make more money by breaking up and selling parts of itself. (sound familiar to the current economic crisis?) It was not prepared for the improvements that Microsoft made in Windows Mobile that enabled Windows Mobile to start taking market share away from them, and worse, Palm was absolutely not any where near prepared for the broadside from Apple’s iPhone.

Palm announced prior to CES that they would be showing something new, and all the analysis leading up to the event is that this was do or die time for Palm. Most were saying that if Palm didn’t have a hit on their hands, they were done in the market. The good news after their announcement is that they might have a hit, at least there hasn’t been a plethora of articles and blog posts on the Internet claiming that the Pre is a load of crap.

Historically, I have never been a big Palm fan. First off, I disagreed with the premise of Graffiti, which required users to learn a new alphabet for writing on the device rather than having the device learn how users write. (Few will remember that Graffiti was first available for the Newton MessagePad before it came with the first Palm Pilot.) Second, I really disagreed with Palm’s premise that users didn’t need or want expandability. Their initial devices did not support storage cards so you were confined to what was in the box. Later this philosophy became known as the Zen of Palm, and I personally think it’s part of the reason for Palm’s drop in the mobile market. Finally, I have always felt that the screen sizes on their devices were too small and didn’t provide enough space to display information.

The Pre is running a whole new operating system on a whole new device so I think it is interesting to see how Palm has learned from their competition and whether that is incorporated into their device in new ways. After having read several reviews and watched videos, I admit that I am very impressed with the Pre. The OS has similarities with iPhone and Android, but is not exactly the same and has some interesting innovations. From my point of view the two biggest innovations are Synergy and Touchstone.

Synergy is a form of synchronization, but instead of only providing synchronization to one content store like Windows Mobile to Exchange or Outlook and Android to Google, it provides synchronization with multiple social networks like Facebook along with content stores like Exchange. Contacts appears to be smart enough to recognize the same names from say Exchange and Facebook and combines the information that is different from the two content stores rather than providing duplicates. It can combine calendars from Google Calendar and Exchange and overlay them to show business and personal appointments. Synergy is something that I think many people would see useful on desktop computers, let alone a mobile device, and it’s an innovation from Palm that recognizes that today’s “PIM” information is spread across a number of applications and there is a need to consolidate that information.

I have a Sonic toothbrush that recharges every time I drop it into its cradle. Unlike just about every other device I own, I don’t have to plug in the toothbrush I just put it in the cradle and it charges. Touchstone is a small puck-shapped pad that you place the Pre on to recharge it. No plugging in, just set it on the device and it starts charging. It seems so simple, but honestly this is an innovation that I am sure has some folks in Cupertino thinking, “why didn’t we think of that?” Just like Apple has lead the mobile industry to touch interfaces, I think Palm is now leading the mobile industry to wireless charging. And the really smart thing is, Touchstone is not the only way to recharge a Pre, you can also charge it via it’s mini-USB port and it has replaceable batteries, so you don’t have to carry the puck around or buy multiple pucks for the office and at home.

I really feel that Palm does in fact have a potential hit in the Pre, but there are a couple of issues that may prevent this from happening. One is that initially it will only be available on Sprint, taking a bit out of the page from Apple. Palm has done this before with their new Treos, and the problem this time is that Sprint has a smaller user base than in the past and I doubt that many people will drop from Verizon, AT&T or T-Mobile to go to Sprint just for the Pre. Hopefully the exclusivity with Sprint is short and Palm has publically said they will have a GSM/UMTS version, which will be vital for their ability to sell devices outside of the United States. I personally think that with so much riding on the line for Palm, they need a big reboot which would be a launch on as many carriers as possible, even if they had to resort to first launching the GSM/UMTS version in Europe, so only launching on Sprint might be a big mistake if the exclusivity is for anything longer 6 months.

The other big issue that Pre will have to overcome is getting developers to write applications for the operating system. This is a pretty tough call for mobile software developers, who if they want write an application for all mobile platforms have to write for potentially five different operating systems: OS X, Windows Mobile/CE, Symbian, RIM, and now WebOS/Pre. (If there ever is a point when we realize that Java is a failure, it is now because Java was created to address this very issue.) True, the programming requiremenets for WebOS seem low requiring basic web development (HTML, Javascript) skills but it still requires time and resources that many companies don’t have. We have seen this type of challenge before and ultimately what will happen is that ISVs will end up choosing the platform with the largest market for their products and not develop for smaller ones and that will effectively kill the platform. In it’s hay day one of the biggest selling points of the old Palm OS was a huge catalog of applications and now Palm has to start all over getting developers to write applications. The iPhone App Store has taught these companies that users no longer are willing to just live with base software that comes with the device, they want to be add applications. In my opinion, if anything is going to prevent Palm from rising from the ashes it is going to be this issue of applications.

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Responses

  1. I heartily agree with your take on the software. Never before has a mobile company launched a new OS that isnt at least backward compatible. It seems crazy that Palm, in a time of austerity and belt-tightening, is going to ask people to render all their old Palm apps useless to use this new phone (at least until they develop a Style-tap kind of program).

  2. I understand your point, however, I don’t think the old Palm apps would look very good running in the new operating system. I have run Palm OS apps using the Garnet VM on a Nokia N800 and it just doesn’t work. (The run, but to me there was no appeal.) The Palm OS apps were written for a UI that is not the same as the new UI, so I think in the end it makes sense to make the clean break.

    If it is possible I wouldn’t be surprised if someone wrote a VM for the Pre to run the old apps, but if that happens I bet no many will use it.


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