In some respects, I think that I have a good handle on technology. I am not a programmer, though I do some website design. I am not the best IT person, though I am able to maintain a home Wireless Network with four laptops. The weird thing is that, I am still in the minority in terms of the computing knowledge of the general public. For many people, attaching a document to an email from Yahoo Mail is as hard as task as any other. So, with this article, I will raise the question of expectations on technology once again. This time with the mindset that, maybe, PalmOne is a bit smarter than we would give them credit for.
The Tungsten T5 was released by PalmOne (www.palmone.com) on October 4th of this month (see our T5 review here) and has had its share of positive and negative criticism. Comments on many fan boards have ranged from being too expensive, to being a model that will further push the boundaries of the office outside of the workstation. The one thing that people seem to agree on is that PalmOne did not make an attempt to be more innovative with its release. For this writer, the more that I look at fan boards and read reviews of the T5, I am beginning to think that PalmOne made a conscious decision not to cater to the top end of their user base with the T5, but to cater to those who need more specific and simple solutions. Bugs aside, the T5 does represent what many people want in a PDA (i.e. long battery life, a large enough screen, and Drive mode which enables the T5 to become a removable drive for storing documents) and is for them innovative. It seems that with the T5, and even with the new Treo 650, that PalmOne is redefining how they are marketing to consumers. No longer just having features that people want, but they seem to be looking towards solving issues that the end-user can simply apply.
This is not to say that there are end-users that would not like all the bells and whistles. There are many mobile users that would say that marketing specifically to them would be a dual wireless Sony, Dell or HP PDA. There are others that would show that there has been for years a program called Card Export that does exactly what PalmOne’s Drive Mode does in terms of mounting a PDA as a removable drive. And with the price of memory cards, one can have more than enough space without spending the $400 cost of entry on the T5. So what makes the introduction of the T5 and Treo 650 to be so much smarter in my perspective? Name recognition usually leads to a faster adoption of a product feature.
One of the arguments that I keep hearing is that Linux will take over the desktop and Microsoft will bite the proverbial dust. Linux is more stable, less virus prone, and can have a richer user experience than Windows. But the problem is that the causal user does not want to go through the hassle of setting it up and making it usable. When a person has to be the one to setup their computer, they tend to find the experience more rewarding in using it. Unfortunately, with PDAs, this also holds true. Looking for software and hardware that will meet one’s needs is a rewarding experience. The issue is that more people would rather have the solution already crafted for them so that all they have to do is use the tool.
This is why I believe that PalmOne is a bit smarter than some have given them credit for. The casual user sees PDAs as the solution to the problem of staying organized. When they have to add to the tool in order for it to complete its problem solving ability, that increased user interaction (can perceivably) takes away from time that could be spent getting things done. PalmOne seems to be modeling their PDA lines after a philosophy of plug it in and it works. Not taking away from the many PalmOS developers who have made countless programs, PalmOne wants a person who buys their product to believe that this tool will work for you, rather than you having to work for it to work. It seems plenty smart to me, and in some ways, I wish that all companies worked out of that philosophy.
The one drawback to this philosophy is the slowed pace of innovation. There are only so many new features that a device can have before it is looked at as being too complicated. For example, when I had the iPaq rx3715 (see the review here) there were many people who saw it and were impressed with all that it could do. It had both WiFi and Bluetooth connectivity, Pocket Word and Excel, Windows Media Player, a 1.3Mp camera, and was small and light enough to feel comfortable in the front pocket. The problem for many who asked me if they could play with it was that there were just too many features on it. My aunt, for instance, saw that I could use it to be a universal remote control for the TV/VCR/DVD player. She was impressed. But when I also showed that it was a video camera too, she was adverse to even looking at it. Granted, it did everything, but looked too complex in doing so.
For a device manufacturer, it’s a hard choice to balance innovations and profitability. A company has to accurately diagnose the potential and current markets when designing a new product. If they are too conservative, they may garnish sales but not make a profit (think the rounded and not well received Ford Taurus after it was redesigned). Or, if they are too innovative, the market may not respond and they will be forced to resort to incentives in order to make a sale. PalmOne, in my opinion, is taking the road of cautious innovation. They are adding features that may not be exciting and new, but for the general end-user meet a need. I believe that they will be successful in conducting business like this. Hopefully, the market for PDAs and smartphones does not grow to the point that this form of product management is too slow to keep up.
Innovation can only go as far as the majority of people are willing to go with it. If a device is too innovative, where does that leave it (Apple Newton anyone)? If people are really moving so slow, PalmOne and other companies who are slower to innovate may be so smart after all, keeping with the pace of the people instead of technology.