Before I begin talking about Palm’s future, I need to talk about it’s past and my personal history with Palm. As someone who used to have a blog about the Treo, Palm holds a very special piece of my technical life and in many ways was my first gadgets that substitutes computer-like activities. But like Scobleizer, I too have been doing a lot of thinking about why Palm didn’t get my money.
I was a huge fan of the original Palm OS, I admit that today the operating system seems rather dated but for the most part it was the operating system that started the mobile SmartPhone devices that we use today. Back in the early days, Palm could do no wrong and was an unstoppable force, it dominated the PDA space against some pretty impressive alternatives such as the Apple Newton. They were also the first to open up there portable platform for third party development which lead to an incredible amount of apps for Palm OS.
Now I liked my original Palm III but it wasn’t until Jeff Hawkins, Donna Dubinsky, and Ed Colligan (the original founders) left Palm due to 3Com politics to for Handspring. When the Visor was originally released, it truly was the best invention that I had ever seen mostly due to the concept of the SpringBoard module. I owned several flavors of the Visor family almost every SpringBoard module that was released (a GPS, OminiRemote, TotalRecall – Voice Recorder, MP3 Player, Bar Code Scanner, 802.11b, etc) including the one that changed it all: The VisorPhone! Looking back at it now, I must have looked like the biggest geek on the Street holding my Visor Prism to my ear plus a dozen other modules but I knew all of this on a portable device was the future. Handspring of course enhanced this concept into the Treo line (which built in most of the SpringBoard modules) as I moved onto the 270 and then the 600.
The Merger Occurs and Things Begin To Blur as a Third element enters “The Treo”
When HandSpring merged back with Palm to form PalmOne in 2003 while the OS division separated to form PalmSource, I had some concerns as Palm never really grew in those years but I still continued to use their products. I moved onto the Treo 650 and then the unthinkable happened, PalmOne gave me the option to buy a Treo with Windows Mobile on it when it released the 700w. This was an interesting point in time that was either going to transform Palm into more of a hardware company as it wasn’t only focused on it’s own Operating System.
I bought the Treo 700W, it took a while to get use to the new OS but I started to like it over time. In the meantime, PalmSource was sold to a company named ACCESS Systems and never really did anything with PalmOS. PalmOne in fact bought full rights to the Palm name and eventually the Palm OS source code again. In that span of two years, the damage was already done as Palm already gave me and many others “the Bridge” to Windows Mobile. When the Centro was released, there was only a Palm OS option with rumors of a Windows Mobile flavor that never materialized and no other hardware roadmap in sight. This allowed many of us to explore other Hardware Providers of Windows Mobile such as HTC and Motorola. I moved onto a UT Starcom XV6700 and never bought another Palm device again BECAUSE THEY LET ME! (NOTE: I use Android today, I’ll get to that later).
When the Palm Pre was released, it obviously caught my attention as I was very loyal to Handspring/Palm once but times had changed and so did Palm. Although Palm allowed me to shift to Windows Mobile and eventually to other hardware providers, there was a part of me that wanted Palm to win me back but they didn’t. Why? Mostly because this wasn’t Palm anymore, this might as well had been called a different company. There was no trace of the company’s past, no familiar form-factor and no backward capability to it’s old OS. Leaving all these great PalmOS Apps behind with no replacements nor a great Development Program at release is just STUPID!
On top of that, as a former (HAND/PALM) shareholder, I knew very well that their financial situation already was betting the House on this device (and the Pixi). Did I want to give my trust to a company that wasn’t the company I knew, pretended the past didn’t exist and was in financial trouble? Not really. On top of that, it was released on Sprint which admittedly I’ve never used but it wasn’t my (or work’s) preferred carrier. They had nothing that really gave me a reason to come back.
Also, everyone is making awesome mobile operating systems these days, so what makes Palm devices special compared to iPhones, Androids, and Windows Mobile? The only major revolutionary thing I saw with the Palm Pre was the Touchstone but that wasn’t a make or break feature decision for me, in fact I believe they spent too much R&D focus on this aspect of the product. The Hardward design for the Pre is indeed somewhat different, Robert Scoble believes that the small screen size was it’s major flaw, some others say it’s the slide-out keyboard. As someone who has used a mixture of form-factors, I never felt the small screen size was a major issue personally and would have no issue going back to one (before I went to my Motorola Droid, I owned a Samsung Saga which has a Treo-like design and enjoyed it very much). I did own a Samsung SCH-i730 for a soft time that had a Slide-Down keyboard absolutely hated that design though which also most likely weighed heavily in my decision to not with the Palm Pre as well. Why I think Palm alienated it’s original customers, allowed us to move and didn’t give us enough reason to come back.
Does the Pre have a Post?
I hope so. I think it would be in Palm’s best interest to port it’s WebOS to a Treo and even Centro form factor immediately while considering a large screen format as well. My personal observation has been that the Pre is used more by Females that I know which certainly was Centro’s demographic. Removing the slide down hassle is a huge win. The Palm Pixi is somewhat similar to the Treo but I believe the 5-way rocker was a strength missing in the current design. A full screen format fills that last void whether it’s designed with (like the Droid) or without a keyboard.
It’s lack of 3rd party software and core secondary platforms is really a huge deal for Palm. This has been the Strategic difference for Android, Microsoft and Apple as they all are much more than a mobile company while having rather strong 3rd development support. I have always felt that both Palm and RIM would eventually be in trouble if they were not bought by a company that can tightly integrate these to other platforms. Android has quickly found it’s niche I believe due to all of the Google products, Microsoft’s Enterprise Apps (Exchange, Office, IM, Sharepoint, etc) have been a key to Windows Mobile and Apple used it’s iPod/iTunes as it’s roots.
I believe Palm’s future will be in someone else’s hands as in it will be acquired. Many will question who the buyer would be but I’m going to go out on a limb that Cisco will buy either Palm or RIM. Why? Cisco has a unique opportunity, they are both in the home with Linksys and in the Office with routers, vpns and desk phones. Buying one of these two companies could really bring Cisco Unity and telepresence to a whole new level for both home and professional consumers.
Can Microsoft Learn from this “Pre”quel?
I see so much of the same story between Palm’s time-line and what is going on with Windows Mobile it’s almost deja vu, the only major difference is that it has staying within Redmond’s walls the whole time. The reason’s why I chose to move to Android is not much different than those of why I left Palm. Microsoft has stalled with it’s mobile platform and it’s internal reorgs have been very much like the Handspring/Palm issues. In the meantime, I had the option of staying with my WinMo 6.0 Samsung Saga, upgrade to something Windows 6.5 or look at alternatives. When I saw the Motorola Droid and it’s push, I knew it was time to experiment. Windows Mobile 6.5 was not much of a jump so I decided to give Android a chance and maybe move back to Windows Mobile when 7.0 was released. Basically, Microsoft gave me a chance to move.
In the meantime, I see that Windows Phone 7 is not going to support it’s past apps and move to be more Zune-like. I have nothing against the Zune, I own one but it’s not Windows Mobile and it’s navigation UI is not very flexible. On top of that, they choose to not support past apps, which once again I believe was a huge mistake for Palm. So like Palm, they have chosen to start over and play catchup on 3rd Party apps when they didn’t really have to. You’ve alienated your past developers while hurting their customer-base which is your customer-base. In the meantime, you’ve positioned your new OS to “wow” the home consumer and downplay your Enterprise strengths. Microsoft, it’s not too late to correct some of your decisions, just look at Palm and see how it has worked for them…