Ship of Palm Looking for a New Captain — Part II

by Reads (68,266)

Captain on Deck

Ed Colligan is stepping in as interim CEO, and will be considered for the permanent position. Just as I felt when I heard about the re-merger, part of me thinks this is the right thing. These poor guys have been through every possible crazy scenario just to build a decent business around handheld computers, and corporate happenstance has kicked them in the rear the entire time. That one of these three heroes should finally take the helm of the company they worked together to build seems like justice finally served.

And yet, I’m also concerned — the other emotion I felt after hearing about the re-merger. Since the Handspring team’s not-so-triumphal return (coming from a faltering, cash-poor company with a great product doesn’t exactly warrant trumpets), the talk has again been about moving toward converged devices. The same tune that was sung before the Handspring Visor’s demise was heard at a 2003 shareholder’s meeting: “We’re moving our business model toward cellular handhelds.” The first non-cell phone handheld to come out of the new palmOne was the somewhat crippled, not-ready-for-prime-time Tungsten T5 that took more steps backward than forward.

Now, I’m all for converged devices when they make sense, and the Treo 650 is the finest converged cell phone/PDA I’ve seen.

But I don’t want one.

Not just because it’s outrageously expensive. I don’t want one because it’s just not how I like to work. I’m glad they make Treos for those who want to carry only one device, I just like to carry two devices that work together. I want a bigger screen. I want more RAM. I want to be able to bring one device when I don’t want to bring the other. And I don’t want to have to worry about replacing a $500-$600 item when one component of it breaks; I’d rather replace just the $200 phone or $400 PDA. And there are more like me out there, all of whom have also weathered the storms, the loss of Graffiti, the change of connectors, the jumps to new versions of the OS.

Because it was Handspring that chose to kill their Visor PDA — an innovative design that allowed the Visor to function as the base computer for any number of functions with a quick module change — in favor of a converged device, I’m a little leery of a Handspring takeover. Those who’d sunk tons of money, both developers and customers, were badly burned when the Visor died. It was bad for the community of developers and users, and can only be forgiven once. Given the dearth of new peripherals for any handheld, especially sleds, I’m not sure the move has been forgiven, or at least forgotten.

Like them or not, the original Treos were mostly designed to be voice communicators that had the benefit of a full keyboard for looking up phone numbers quickly, firing off emails, and conveniently HotSynced with your computer’s contact manager. Very little about its hardware was designed to be a decent PDA, however. Surely it was out of necessity, but they went from the multi-capable Visor handheld computer that could do anything to a communicator that could handle voice and email. That’s great, a useful business tool for many, but not a sufficient mobile computing platform everyone.

It could be said that it was Handspring’s limited resources that forced the singular focus on the Treo. Its design team, though excellent, could not be called upon to quickly design both PDAs and cell phones while trying to break into the extremely competitive cell phone business. I was told repeatedly that this was a task that required far more effort than they’d anticipated. Here’s hoping that with palmOne’s resources, they can keep multiple teams innovating across the range of handheld computing possibilities, which I submit includes both expensive converged cell phone devices and more dedicated handheld computers, both wireless and not.

Although I’m concerned, I quite honestly would like to see what Ed Colligan can do at the helm of palmOne. While Handspring faltered toward the end, they really were handed a raw deal by 3COM when they asked for a spinoff and were forced to reinvent the handheld to compete against their own company. It’s been nine years since the introduction of the Palm Pilot, wouldn’t it be interesting to see what the original dream team can do actually managing their own company for a change?

Why the Slump?

Today’s handheld market is faltering for the same reason it stagnated in the early 1990’s: it lacked a single visionary to take us to the next level. Any revolution needs a leader. Thomas Jefferson, Bill Gates, Fidel Castro, Steve Jobs, Martin Luther King, Jeff Hawkins. Sometimes the leader is a company. Hawkins is busy leading in another field, realizing his dream of brain research and how man might create thinking machines. Though they don’t lead in marketshare, Apple computer is unquestionably a leader in both design innovation and in how computers can enhance our lives, but it also has Steve Jobs as the continuous revolutionary leader. palmOne needs the same kind of leadership.

Though Todd Bradley was excellent from a product standpoint, truly enthusiastic spiritual leadership for the entire community is what’s needed now. While they were busy cutting off their legs (PalmSource) and sewing on their head (Handspring), there’s been a vacuum of innovation and leadership, probably the longest in their history.

I would like to have seen the Bradley product roadmap out past the T3, because I think Palm, Inc. was really moving to surpass all competitors, however quietly. The bottom line is if you give the Palm Community what it wants, the market for handhelds will improve. It’s pretty simple. Many of us want the Treo, but I don’t think most of us do. Leave the core behind and you’re left with mostly PDA-ignorant cell phone users who just wanted the best looking, shiniest cell phone they could find; and they’re not as likely to be repeat customers unless they discover the PDA power underneath the Contacts list.

What needs Doing

Whomever is chosen as CEO of palmOne needs only make a few key moves to further perk up the profits and both expand and satisfy the existing user base.

1. Buy PalmSource back. Just like Handspring, they’re not going to make it out there by themselves, and if they sink you have no choice. A house divided cannot stand, but a house that has its foundation sucked out from under it shall surely fall.

2. Bring back the business PDA. The T5 wasn’t it, but it has some good aspects. Flash is a good thing, we just need more of it, and a hard drive as well.

3. Stop relying so heavily on third party developers for key technology. I’ve said it before, but palmOne needs to build in the essentials and stop requiring its customers to patch every aspect of the device. They did that when they improved the Date Book and Address Book (a move that should have been made by PalmSource–see item 1), but erred terribly when they released the T5 with no workable backup solution in the event of a hard reset. (Hello, do you USE handheld computers? They all crash, especially when loaded with a ton of programs. It’s a fact of life, and I need those programs to be restored when I’m out and about, not when I get back to my computer.)

4. Develop and brand some affordable Bluetooth hubs. If you’re not going to build Wi-Fi into your handhelds in a stubborn effort to maintain battery life, for goodness sake give us an alternative that works and market it heavily. You’re in with the cellular providers now. T-Mobile’s one of them. Wouldn’t a palmOne Bluetooth logo look great on the window at the local Starbucks? Outfitting all those Starbucks would be quite a sale, and the volume needed to do it would drive down the cost of producing a gaggle of those little palmBluies for my home and office.

5. Two words: Hard Drive. Put one in my next handheld and I’ll pay you $500 for it. 5 to 10 GB, that’s all I ask. In the land of the 40 GB iPod, how long do you think we’re going to carry devices that number their RAM in mere megabytes? I still don’t own an iPod because I’m waiting for YOU. I wonder how many more there are like me?

6. Advertise. I love that palmOne ran short spots, succinct and to the point, to promote the already popular Tungsten E. It only took the fourth time seeing one in particular to realize that you were selling the E on its merits as a $200 gaming device that’s also a mediocre flashlight in a pinch. That notion might have been cute if there were more than two spots prepared, but after awhile it started to send the wrong message. A good mini Maglite fits on my keyring and throws more light for about $8. So do advertise, and when you do, make more spots and save your money by running them less often for poignancy. And keep the naked people out of your ads. If you want to stand out, built in great features that matter and tell me why I need them. Consider bringing back the romantic couple on the train and show their kids, minivan, and two new devices. Leverage your strengths, and remind us why we love our Pilots.

7. Talk to your users. Maybe I missed it, but it does seem like all the focus groups I hear about are built around the people who don’t have a Palm yet. What about the millions of us whose hearts and minds you’ve already won? Most of us are where the majority of your sales come from.

Those are just a few ideas, but I think they’re important to fill in some of the holes in the current strategy.

Just implementing the simple Bluetooth hub program would go miles toward making the devices more useful. Existing software can already reach out and check for email, so wouldn’t it be great if you didn’t have to comb the Web to find homebrewed instructions for using a Bluetooth dongle as a makeshift access point? Although I like to tinker with gadgets, I’d sure rather just plug a $70 device into the back of my router and begin surfing the Web.

It’s a missed opportunity to sell both more handhelds and peripherals that do more than sit on your desk and light up. Hey, how about a Bluetooth charging cradle? Sounds weird, but why not? Innovate, my brothers.

There’s a huge group of people out here anxious for the new palmOne to lead the way. We like mobile computing, and we found our favorite way to do it with the Palm platform. We have followed through all these sea changes and held on for the ride. We like the Treo 650, but many of us await the next dedicated handheld computer with real horsepower and capacity that will help us work, live, and play in ways we haven’t yet considered.

What we need is a leader at the helm of palmOne who enjoys Palm computing as much as we do, whose main goal is to make mobile computing fun again. We need someone like Hobie Alter who enjoyed trimming the sails in tight and tearing across the water well enough that he was willing to find and build faster and better ways of doing it. We’ll keep on sailing our old boats until then.

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