Monday, January 5, 2009

Editorial: Palm's At Bat

This week, contributing writer, Richard Cartwright shares with us some of his thoughts about Palm as we get ready for their CES press event on Thursday.

Palm's At Bat

The blogosphere is buzzing with Palm’s upcoming CES announcement regarding the new Nova OS and new hardware. I for one am just glad that Palm bit the bullet and is announcing at CES. The timing could not have been much better as it was during a slow tech news time and has generated a lot of buzz for Palm. Most of it is of the “last chance” sports metaphor variety but buzz is buzz and frankly, it’s the truth. This is Palm’s last chance to get back into the mobile smart phone game. The bases are loaded, bottom of the 9th, two outs and Palm is three runs behind, the “runs” being iPhone, RIM and Android.

Palm, like a lot of other vendors, never saw the iPhone coming, as evidenced by Collagen’s infamous quote about how hard it is to put a smart phone together. I strongly suspect that a large part of the Nova OS delay was based on a realization that the bar had been raised by the iPhone and Nova had to clear the higher bar. Nova has to have a better ease of use than the iPhone. Nova has to have a full set of apps working out of the box, especially PIM apps, multimedia and a browser. Nova also has to be open to third party developers with a clear process as to what it takes to get to play on Nova and a willingness to allow those apps to directly compete with the Palm produced apps. Finally, Nova has to have cut and paste. If Palm does this, they will address both many of the sore points iPhone users have and the things people like about the iPhone.

Palm has to provide a rich multimedia experience that is not tied to a proprietary standard. I am betting that Palm is going to use Active Sync in a big way for the Windows side and probably Missing Sync on the Mac side. This would let Palm tie into existing Windows and Mac programs such as Media Player or third party solutions using existing standards rather than shoehorning into a proprietary solution. If Palm felt the need to partner with somebody, Amazon is sitting out there with its cheap DRM -free music and videos. At this stage, I frankly doubt it, given the Amazon/Android relationship, but one never knows. Supporting the experience needs to be a iphone-sized touch screen, removable storage, and A2DP Bluetooth support, along with a standard headphone jack that does not take a dongle to use.

Palm could also turn Apple’s PIMphobia to its advantage by offering a strong PIM solution out of the box, another source of discomfort with the iPhone. The solution needs to be fully Outlook and Google compatible and fully capable of importing legacy data from prior versions of the Palm OS. Additionally there needs to be a strong email program. Visual voice mail and the dedicated ringer switch would be winners as well. The browser experience has to be at least equal to the iPhone with flash support. The new phone must support GPS and a Bluetooth wireless keyboard. Speaking of keyboards, Palm could go far with the idea of a swivel touch screen that exposes a Treo standard keypad that would both allow for screen real estate and capitalize on the one handed ease of use and two thumb typing that many Treo and RIM users are comfortable with.

A lot of the issues Palm needs to address with the iPhone users will also seduce at least a few Blackberry users. Decent push email, multimedia and a browser worth having should lure those who went to RIM because they needed good email and a keyboard and were willing to overlook the abysmal browser experience and lack of third party apps. It goes without saying that the Nova hardware will have to have Wi-Fi and a 3-5 megapixel camera along with this usual 3g phone suspects. WiMax and LTE support would be nice, but I do not see it in the product yet, particularly as I suspect the hardware spec was frozen before the WiMax deal was firmed up. However, I am almost certain that Nova will be able to support multiple radio standards or Palm learned nothing from Garnet and its inability to support 3g GSM standards. Palm is also positioned to capitalize on the RIM problems with the Storm and the lack of Wi-Fi.

Android is the current darling of the mobile technoratti but even its strongest supporters freely admit that it’s not ready for prime time. In addition to being open source, Android has the backing of Goggle, a somewhat larger company than Palm. That said, if Palm can deliver a rock solid program with a good out of box experience, Android could become the victim of its own flexibility. Why? To paraphrase a Nokia corporate leader, Palm in the end has four customers in the US: AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile. For better or worse, the North American mobile phone market runs on subsidized contracts. For Palm to make the revenue it needs, it has to get love from at least two and ideally all four carriers. The iPhone has plowed the field for Wi-Fi and some openness. While the carriers are not fans of third-party applications, I suspect that if Nova is a hit, the carriers might well prefer it to the open and easily hacked Android system. Embracing Palm would give the carriers a closed OS in the sense it could not be easily hacked for VoIP, for example, but open to useful programs. Further, it would give the carriers something to counterbalance Apple on one end and RIM on the other.

Palm needs to have outstanding syncing capability both to the cloud and the desktop. As stated before, I suspect Palm will use existing Windows and Apple systems as much as possible both to minimize conflicts and to stick with standards. Finally, the question everyone probably has: how do you power this prodigy? I predict a removable battery for starters coupled with some outstanding power management. Again, as long as Palm battery life is at least as good as the current iPhone, that should be enough, particularly since the Android phone by all reports can’t get through a single day without recharging. I would say an OLED screen could address power consumption, but that brings us to cost. Palm has to undercut the iPhone cost yet still have decent profit margins. I would do this via removable storage. The Palm phone could have 4 or even 8GB on board and removable storage to the user’s content. This not only reduces cost but gives the user the freedom to increase storage as much as the media allows.

As Palm goes to bat, it has to have rock steady useful software and hardware that addresses the dissatisfaction of iPhone, Blackberry and Android users if it’s going to hit to the “fat middle”. Here is hoping the users in Palm’s outfield stands get a chance to catch the home run ball.

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2 Comments:

Blogger jpMotu said...

I recently gave up my Palm 800W for an iPhone. The primary reason: 16GB of storage. Now I am puzzled, if iPhone can do it why can't Palm? It kills me to use this iPhone device for my email.

I liked how the 800w seamlessly integrated with my email, but it lacked the capacity to hold most of my important emails. When will Palm ever get off the butts and deliver a product that can be used by sophisticated technologists.

January 7, 2009 10:16 AM  
Blogger rickcart said...

jpMotu,

I agree that the more memory the better, but Palm has to balance the price vs. features. If they offer removable storage, they can let the user decide what they want. I don't quite follow that the 800w lacked capacity as you could buy a bigger memory card.

January 7, 2009 10:37 AM  

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