Palm’s Future Mobile Managers and the UMPC

Originally published 3/21/06 on Bigbeaks Blog

Since the recent announcement of Microsoft’s new standards and software for what they call an Ultra-mobile PC (UMPC), which I discussed in an earlier post, there has been a fair amount of speculation in the online Palm OS user community about what this means for the future of the Mobile Manager line. I touched on this topic a bit in my previous essay, but I thought the subject deserved a more lengthy discussion.

A recent editorial by Ed Hardy at 1src.com focused quite a bit on steps that Palm could take to make the Mobile Manager line more of a direct alternative to a UMPC. I think he is largely coming at this from the wrong angle. Instead of focusing on how to compete with the UMPC as a PDA, I think that Palm needs to understand that Microsoft’s announcement essentially validates the whole concept that Palm introduced with the Mobile Managers. Instead of trying to present the LifeDrive and its successors as alternatives to the UMPC, Palm should work to help the public understand that they are versions of the same idea. If Palm intends to continue with the Mobile Manager line, within a year or so I would expect them to be able to do essentially anything that a UMPC can do.

In the short term, I do think Palm is reasonably well positioned to bill the LifeDrive as a stepping stone to a more full-featured UMPC or future Mobile Manager. Current reports are indicating that the first round of UMPCs to come out will likely be priced around $1,000 or higher. With the LifeDrive’s recent price reduction to $400 suggested retail, it clearly is a substantially lower priced option. If the price reduction is foretelling an upcoming LifeDrive-2 that will offer increased storage and, hopefully, improved performance and stability with a cost that is still around half the price of the early UMPCs, they should find that there is still a market for the product, at least for another year or so. I think the key will be not to promote the devices as a more capable option than a UMPC, but instead as a way to get much of the power of a UMPC in a less-expensive and smaller package.

It is very likely that the second-generation UMPC models will see the prices coming down substantially. Based on the goals that Microsoft has discussed, it appears likely that the price gap between the current price category for the Mobile Managers and the expected pricing for the next UMPCs will be much smaller. I think it is pretty clear that any device running the current Palm OS Garnett is likely to be so substantially reduced in capability compared to a UMPC running a full version of Windows (likely Windows Vista in the second-generation models), that the extra cost of the UMPC will be pretty easy for most people looking for this kind of device to justify.

Once the cost of a UMPC comes down, I see a couple options available to Palm, if they want to continue the Mobile Manager line. One obvious option would be to simply continue the relationship with Microsoft that they established with the Windows Mobile based Treo 700w and license Windows Vista for use on the Mobile Managers. Essentially, this would make the Mobile Manager into Palm’s own brand name for a UMPC, as an official Microsoft licensee.

If Palm applied their existing expertise with building easy-to-use interfaces for mobile devices, they could become a very competitive player in the Windows-based UMPC market. One of the biggest challenges to the success of the UMPC is going to be to successfully adapt for mobile use an operating environment that is primarily designed to be controlled with a mouse and keyboard and displayed on a good-sized screen. Palm has been quite adept at building mobile user interfaces that are logical and easy to use. The Treo 700w has already given them some experience at overlaying their UI approach on a Windows-derived OS and the fairly wide permission that Microsoft gave them to customize Windows Mobile shows that they are fairly well trusted in this area.

Another possible approach that Palm could take would be to direct their Mobile Manager line at users that want the capabilities of a UMPC, but prefer to avoid using Windows. Palm OS based PDAs are already pretty popular with those that prefer to use Apple’s Mac OS or some variation of Linux on their desktop and/or laptop computers. Certainly, those that have made the decision not to use Windows on their primary systems aren’t going to be overly anxious to get a Windows-based UMPC.

If they went this route, the aging and increasingly limited “Garnet” edition of Palm OS used on most current Palm devices (including the LifeDrive) simply isn’t going to cut it. The most recent devices have really been pushing the limits of the OS, resulting in noticeable reductions in performance and stability. Nowhere has that been quite as evident as on the current LifeDrive, a unit that is already seen as being limited more by the OS than by the hardware. If it is even possible at all, it is very unlikely that the current Palm OS could sustain such mandatory features as true multitasking or high-resolution display support without becoming completely unstable. It is also very unlikely that the type of full-featured software that would be needed (full office suites, browsers with the entire complement of plug-ins, etc.) will ever be designed for Palm OS.

If they don’t go with Windows, Palm will most likely need to focus their attention on some form of Linux (or another UNIX variant), whether it be Access/PalmSource’s successor to the Palm OS (expected in 2007) or some other form of Linux. Such a device could run office suites like OpenOffice and use other key software like the Firefox browser and the Thunderbird email package, both from Mozilla. There is a pretty wide range of software in all categories that would likely work on a Linux-based UMPC with little or no modifications. In addition, the open source nature of the OS would easily allow Palm to fully customize the UI as needed as well as develop any needed device drivers.

The biggest risk involved with Palm using a non-Windows OS for their next generation Mobile Manager is the possibility that Apple could decide to create a Mac OS based device in the UMPC form factor. With Apple’s traditional refusal to license their OS to others along with the overwhelming loyalty that Mac users show towards Apple products, it is pretty much a certainty that Apple would almost immediately grab the vast majority of the audience for a non-Windows device in this category. While Linux enthusiasts and others that simply decide that something other than Windows is better suited for this kind of device could leave a bit of a market for Palm, it would be a pretty small, niche audience.

The one other obvious option that Palm would have to at least give some consideration to is to simply abandon this segment of the market in favor of an exclusive focus on smartphones like the Treo and, possibly, entry-level organizers like the Z22. Palm could be vastly more competitive with these types of products than they are likely to be once the UMPC market is dominated by companies like HP, Dell, Sony, and Lenovo instead of the first-generation UMPC makers like Samsung, Asus, and Founder.

Smartphones and basic PDAs are not likely to be replaced by UMPCs, but instead are more likely to complement them. The UMPC concept does assume a tilt towards power in the ever-present compromise between power and convenience in portable devices. Most professionals that use an UMPC for power on the road are also going to want a smaller smartphone or PDA for managing calendar, contacts, email, and other basic data that really does need to be accessible from a truly pocketable device, a form factor that isn’t likely to really be practical with a true UMPC.

As I have learned more about the first generation UMPCs, I strongly suspect it won’t be too long before I buy one. In fact, I expect to take a close look at the Samsung Q1 once it hits the market in the next month or two. I do expect that even once I get a UMPC, I will continue to use my LifeDrive for situations where I need a more portable device for a while, probably eventually moving on to a Treo as my primary cell phone and PDA. Still, I will keep watching Palm’s next moves in this product line very closely and do not dismiss the possibility of owning another Palm Mobile Manager in the future.

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