As I write this, the countdown has long since begun for the press conference announcing the Windows Mobile 5.0–powered Palm Treo 700w device. For some, this day serves as a sort of “VP Day” (“Victory Over Palm”) in the Windows Mobile world. As someone who once used and developed for the Palm platform and subsequently followed the “long and winding Palm road” for a number of years, it does give an opportunity for reflection.
I first started using the Palm OS back in the 3com days with a Palm Pilot Professional. I owned several models before making the switch in 2000. I was very interested in Palm development, but the options at that time were either expensive (CodeWarrior) or complicated (GCC development). As someone interested in use for the enterprise, I ended up limiting myself in those days to PQA-oriented applications. I saw these early obstacles to enterprise development as being a potential pitfall over time, and to some extent, I think I was right. While the Palm did eventually open opportunities for web-based development in a more standardized fashion, serious enterprise application development was limited by tools and technologies.
I really think that some of Palm’s issues relate to the age-old business problem of what you do when you’re “Number 1”. As any sports franchise (and most businesses) will tell you, it’s difficult enough to get to Number 1, and immensely more difficult to stay there. I found the attitude of Palm executives in the first couple of years after the Pocket PC’s launch to be somewhat arrogant and static. The OS went through no innovation for a long period of time, while hardware innovation was mostly evolutionary. As a side note, people who lament over issues with upgradability of Windows Mobile devices typically never went through the period of “zero upgradeability” over several Palm OS releases. It was as bad, and usually worse.
By the time Palm started to react to diminishing marketshare, the responses were just that – reactionary. It seemed to me to lead to another mistake that has a sports analogy. Any coach will tell you that the last thing you ever want your team to do is to play someone else’s style of game rather than your own. Palm truly lost one of its differentiators when it lost “The Zen of Palm” (despite what Palm execs proclaimed). Palm devices and the OS did basic PDA tasks well, and the move towards more features and functionalities created complexities for users. At that point, it became a matter of who did the complex better; this was not Palm’s strong point.
So – what does the future hold? Well, those that proclaim another Microsoft monopoly forget that it has not been a “two-horse race” for a while now. While many work hard to discredit the viability of the Linux OS on PDAs and Smartphones, it is still a definite player. One cannot in any way avoid the prominence of the Symbian OS in the Smartphone world, either. That is, of course, if you do not want to repeat Palm’s mistakes. As for the Palm OS – the acquisition of PalmSource by ACCESS Japan still leaves a lot of questions. Do they continue the traditional OS route? Do they focus on PalmSource’s work in the Linux space? Do they simply want intellectual property? We will simply have to wait and see.
One thing is for certain today; another major change in the PDA and Smartphone space is occurring. I (like many others) never thought I would see the day when Bill Gates and Ed Colligan would stand shoulder-to-shoulder at a public press event. The world is ever-changing; while we think some things could never happen, well… “never say never”.