Smartphones Now: Whither Palm?


My dad is an inveterate pack-rat and when I was home this weekend I was going through a copy of Bon Appetit from 2001. Don’t ask me why. On the back page was an ad for the Handspring Visor. It showed the Visor in four configurations — phone, black and white camera, MP3 player, and I think GPS. Each of these features required a separate piece of hardware along with some software. Seeing these four Palm-powered devices made me tear up a little. I believe I was still using a Palm V back then, adding and deleting contacts with abandon and scribbling my calendar on the Palm V’s dark screen. Palm — and Palm OS — wasn’t just a trademark back then. It was part of the zeitgeist. It was part of our culture.

That, sadly, is no longer the case.

Companies that were once part of the cultural landscape either fade away or flame-out spectacularly. IBM is one of the fade-outs and I think Microsoft is next in line. But Palm went from king of the world to also-ran in a blink of an eye. In the interim they’ve maintained a 10-year-old product, the Treo, and even older OS and over-promised and under-delivered for years. This, friends, is the last year of Palm.

I love Treo and Palm OS. I used to program for it back in the day and considered it a very elegant solution to the thorny problem of creating a smartphone with a usable operating system. Look at Windows Mobile — the Redmond giant couldn’t even create something that worked smoothly and without issues yet a scrappy little group of programmers made one of the most popular smartphone operating systems in the world.

But its day — and Palm’s hour — has passed. With the Foleo sunk and Palm hemmoraging money, things are looking grim. Even their move to WinMo and their new Centro won’t pull them out of this hole. For example, CNBC reported today:

The company will report earnings Tuesday, but we already know the news will be bleak, thanks to a pre-announcement a couple of weeks ago that the company would miss its topline expectations by $30 million; its gross margins have been killed.

This is getting ugly, but it’s leading to a lot of speculation that Palm’s days as a public company may be slipping through the hour-glass. There’s a growing sentiment in the Silicon Valley that Palm may go private; that this was the plan all along and that such a plan is getting far more affordable for the team at Elevation.

So if Palm goes away what happens to the universe of 3rd party apps and the user base? I suspect Palm will be subsumed by a larger company and the OS phased out. The hardware design is still very popular and fairly usable but the OS is definitely showing its age and with a potentially uber-cool WinMo 7 coming up, Palm will have quite a bit of catch-up.

What should Palm do to save itself? It should pull an OS X out of its hat. Take the Linux core, create a killer UI, and have HTC make cool new Treo. The icons we know an love that populate that start screen need to go away. Palm can still win against Symbian — albeit only in the U.S. — and if they don’t amaze us with a full overhaul, they’re dead.

If this doesn’t happen, Palm is finished. I know you like your Treo and I like Treos as well, but this market is too large and too expensive to dabble in. Sybmian has the might of Nokia behind it and WinMo has the might of millions of installed Windows PCs. Apple has a cool factor and Linux and Android, bless their hearts, aren’t even in the race. RIM has business locked up, leaving what for Palm? Sodoku fans?

I might have to eat my hat, but unless Palm stuffs fifty guys in a room with some coffee and danish and tells them to make iPhone 2.0, they’re screwed. If we’re still talking about Palm next year, I’ll be very happy and very surprised but this is not the same company that once held a generation of dot-commers rapt with awe. This is a dying company and only extreme measures — or extreme unction — can save it.