palmOne Needs a Low-Cost Treo

by Reads (62,001)

Although palmOne has had a great deal of success in the U.S. with its Treo 600, it’s way too early for the company to rest on its laurels. It desperately needs to get a low-cost smartphone on the market.

PalmSource was able to announce recently that the Palm OS dominates smartphone sales in the United States. I find this a bit surprising as every Palm OS smartphone that has ever come out has been priced outside of the reach of the average consumer.

Smartphones running Microsoft’s Windows Mobile are significantly less expensive. Amazon.com will sell you the Motorola MPx200 for $80 if you sign a two-year service contract with AT&T. By signing a two-year contract with Sprint, you can get a Treo 600 from Amazon.com for $400, which makes it five times as expensive.

Handheld sales have been stagnant for years, while smartphone sales are growing by leaps and bounds. If palmOne wants to not just survive but thrive, it needs to keep being successful in this space and reach out to new customers. The best way to do this is make models more people can actually afford.

An Overview of the Treo 500

If I was one of palmOne’s designers, here’s the smartphone I would create. Let’s call it the Treo 500. It should be a number lower than the Treo 600, to properly reflect that it has fewer features.

It should have a standard “candybar” design. Clamshells are nice, but they add too much to the size, complexity, and cost.

On the front should be a screen, a D-pad and some application buttons, the speaker and microphone, and nothing else.

You read me right, no keyboard or numberpad. I’m trying to create the smallest, cheapest smartphone I can, and the best way to do that is leave off all those buttons.

palmOne Treo 500 I rarely use the numberpad on my phone. As long as the software engineers at palmOne are clever at letting people quickly look up numbers with the D-pad and application buttons, there is really no reason for a number pad. About 80 percent of the calls I make are to people on my quick dial list. I’d say 15 percent are to people in my address book. So only about 5 percent of the time I make a call do I use the number keys.

Having a large percentage of the front of device devoted to a number pad seems like a huge waste of space to me. Instead, an on-screen numberpad can take care of dialing the few numbers that aren’t already stored on the Treo.

A built-in keyboard is another luxury that a low-cost device like the Treo 500 simply can’t afford. Instead, people can use an on-screen keyboard.

This model shouldn’t have a dedicated Graffiti area. Instead, it should use a virtual one. This will allow users to either enter text with Graffiti or pick letters out on a small keyboard. This is important, as a lot of new users have no interest in learning Graffiti.

Just because this model will use a virtual Graffiti area doesn’t mean I think it should have a large screen. No, it needs the smallest 160-by-160 pixel display palmOne can find. The Treo 500 as I’m envisioning it is going to be a phone first, a handheld second. A low-resolution screen is all that it needs.

I debated a long time about whether this should be color or monochrome. A color screen takes up a lot of power and is significantly more expensive than a monochrome one. Plus, the original Zire was a huge success with its monochrome screen. However, I eventually decided that the time for monochrome screens is over, and the Treo 500 has to have a color one, even if it does drive up the cost.

Of course this model will run Palm OS Garnet, the operating system PalmSource is tailoring for low-cost smartphones. I see it using one of TI’s OMAP processors, like the entry-level Zire models use.

This would be one of its great strengths over Microsoft smartphones and other mobile phones. While the number of available applications for other mobile platforms is growing, there are already many thousands of software titles available now that the Treo 500 could run. This includes everything from business productivity apps to literally thousands of games.

I don’t see a need for an SD card slot on a device this inexpensive. If we give it 16 MB of RAM, few users looking for a low-cost smartphone will want more Storage space.

Another possible feature I spent a lot of time deliberating over is Bluetooth. I decided that if palmOne wants to sell this model in Europe, Bluetooth is a necessity. I believe the main reason the Treo 600 isn’t doing well in Europe is its lack of Bluetooth.

All of this could be squeezed into a smartphone that’s about 3.0 inches high, 2.4 inches wide, and less than an inch thick. This would make it smaller than a lot of smartphones and even close to regular mobile phones.

Sometimes the Accessories Make the Outfit

While I was coming up with my design for this model, there were some things that were really painful to leave out, but needed to go to save size and cost.

Then I had an idea. palmOne can put out a series of attachable accessories that will add the functions that the user feels he or she can’t live without. Things like clip-on keyboards are hardly a new idea, but I’m talking about something slightly different.

You can’t carry your device around with most clip-on peripherals attached. This means you either have to have some kind of case for all this gear you are toting around or, more likely, you start leaving the darn thing at home a week after you first bought it.

I’m envisioning attachable accessories that are designed to stay on all the time. They can wrap partially around the Treo 500, and the two will be held together with screws.

With semi-permanent accessories, you could make your Treo 500 into the device you want it it be. Unhappy about your lack of a keypad? Just add one. Maybe you’d rather have a thumbpad. You can get one of those instead.

I think a lot of these could be dual purpose. A keyboard or numberpad doesn’t have to be very thick. The remaining space could be taken up with an additional battery or even an SD slot.

Even dual-purpose versions needn’t be very large. If the Treo 500’s attachable keyboard was the size of the Treo 600’s built-in one, it wouldn’t add more than an inch or so to the length of the device.

The Treo 500 as I’m envisioning it would be the best of both worlds. It would be a low-cost smartphone with a real potential for expandability that can make use of the vast library of Palm OS applications. That makes it just the sort of device palmOne needs if it is going to keep up with its competition in the smartphone market.

Thanks to Raul for the images.

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