The Future of Palm

As I’ve mentioned before on this site, I have been a long-time user of Palm OS devices, starting with the Palm V PDA and going all the way up to my current Palm Treo 700p smartphone.  I have a great deal invested in Palm OS software as well as the high comfort level that comes from extensive experience, which makes me very hesitant to move on to another system.

I know find myself very seriously considering just such a move.  The current version of the Palm OS (or "Garnet" as it is now called) is getting very long in the tooth and I’m increasingly coming across applications that I simply can’t get on that platform.  I’m becoming very envious of applications like the mobile versions of Newsgator, OneNote, Opera, and others that are available on other platforms, but not on the Palm.  Such basic functionality as true multitasking or support for wifi and cellular networking on the same device is also becoming conspicuous in absence.

Like many Palm OS users, I’ve long been waiting for a next generation of the OS to come along, but without seeing it materialize.  In recent months, Palm has promised that they are preparing a substantial upgrade to the OS which will shift it to a Linux kernel.  We have seen similar promises from Access, which bought out Palmsource (the OS development spin-off from Palm) a while back.  Those hopes appear to again be getting dashed, though, as Palm is now promising a mid-2009 launch for their updated OS and Access doesn’t seem to be generating any interest in the US for their system.

Clearly, mid-2009 is a very long time in a rapid-growth industry.  By that time, the current leaders in the smartphone industry such as Windows Mobile and Symbian will have continued to advance with new features, devices, and refined user-interfaces.  Apple is also expected to open up the iPhone to 3rd-party developers in early 2008 and it is also pretty likely that they will put out a second-generation device some time next year.  Finally, Google announced today their Android operating system and mobile software platform, which should start to appear on devices towards the end of 2008.  With all that on its way, I suspect that a very large percentage of current Palm OS device users will have moved on to a different platform by the time Palm’s new OS is ready in 2009.

That doesn’t mean that there is no chance that Palm’s next-generation OS might have a chance at success.  It simply means that their focus is going to have to be on building an extremely powerful, next-generation operating system with significant benefits that are not available with the increasingly formidable competitors.  That is certainly a tall order, but not an impossibility.  Clearly, what they need to build really is something new and revolutionary rather than an evolution of the existing Palm OS.  While backward compatibility would be a nice feature, I don’t see it as particularly essential for the release time frame they are suggesting.

In addition to the challenge of building a competitive OS, Palm also has to find a way to survive long enough to complete that new OS.  Obviously, Palm has had an extremely checkered recent history as the standalone PDA business has essentially vanished, the Treo design has started to age, and the company has wasted a time and resources on the ultimately-canceled Foleo thin-client laptop.

The introduction of the Sprint Centro which transfers the full feature set of the most recent Palm OS phones to a smaller, thinner form factor at an entry level price was certainly a smart move.  This phone (and similar ones likely to come out for other carriers) should help to expand the smartphone market overall while also helping to start making Palm a player in the low-end cellular market.  This could be a pretty lucrative market for them.

I think the other key thing that they need to do is to leverage their existing relationship with Microsoft to strengthen their line of Windows Mobile smartphones to include one or more model that will appeal to the power users that have previously been active users of the Palm OS devices.  Like most long-time Palm users, I admit that my first instinct is to be resistant to that, but I think there are a couple very key things that they can do to overcome that.

First and foremost, I believe that Palm should attempt to either outright purchase or build a strong partnership with StyleTap, the maker of an emulator that allows Palm OS applications to run under Windows Mobile.  Palm should make a deal to include this software as a standard, built-in application on their future Windows Mobile devices in order to provide software compatibility for those moving from the Palm OS devices.  I would expect that Palm should be able to leverage their expertise and the long term license for Garnet that they negotiated with Access in order to maximize both the compatibility and ease of use of this software.

Palm should also work to develop a skin for Windows Mobile that will allow their devices to pretty closely match the user experience of the Palm OS.  Obviously, they would have to work out some interface enhancements to accommodate additional features and differing functionality of Windows Mobile, but it should be possible to offer a suitable look and feel that experienced Palm users would find comfortable.  Palm’s existing Windows Mobile Treos already have a pretty strong head-start in this area, so this does seem to be a pretty viable short-term goal.  I would jump at the opportunity to purchase this type of phone.

What I don’t think Palm can afford at this point is to put too much focus on the past.  As sad as it is for those of us that have been long-time Palm users, I think the time has likely come for them to retire the standalone PDA business in order to remove a non-lucrative distraction from the forward facing path that Palm needs to follow.  A recent editorial on 1Src.com, a long-established Palm news and community site, suggested that Palm should make an effort to put out a refreshed replacement for their existing TX handheld. 

While I’m sure this would be appealing to the few holdouts that haven’t moved on to a smartphone, I really think this is exactly the type of distraction that Palm has to avoid.  They need to be looking to the future and not to the past.  At this stage, I simply do not believe that they can afford to spend their resources on trying to hang on to a rapidly fading piece of their heritage.  I see nothing wrong with continuing to offer the couple currently remaining models of PDA as long as there is still a little bit of demand for them, but I do think these models need to be the end of the line.

Palm has a rough road ahead over the next couple years and, to be honest, I feel far from certain of their survival.  I do think that they have a valuable name and some strong experience that could allow them to remain a player in an increasingly competitive business.  They simply have to allow themselves a bit more latitude to break from their past and a focus on innovation.  I do hope that they can find a way to succeed.

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