The Palm Interview

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Recently, I had the distinct pleasure of discussing the world of handheld computers — and Palm specifically — with Michael Mace, Vice President of Product Planning for Palm, Inc. We spoke about everything from the success of the m100 to the impending release of a thin new Palm color device.

Teams working for Mace are responsible for the company’s long-term product planning, and for understanding the competitive environment and predicting its future.

Prior to joining Palm, Mace was Vice President of Marketing for Softbook Press, one of the pioneers in electronic book systems, and Director of Worldwide Marketing for Silicon Graphics’ Windows products division. He also spent ten years in a variety of marketing leadership positions at Apple Computer, and started in the industry as a software developer.

Beyond that, Mace is highly respected within Palm as someone who understands the handheld industry and is willing to discuss Palm’s role in it. His experience, candor and wit are readily apparent in this Brighthand interview.

As Brighthand moves forward this year in its commitment to expanded Palm coverage we hope to continue to bring you exclusive insights into the handheld market leader.

Brighthand: Palm is in a unique position in that it manufactures handheld devices as well as licenses its operating system to its competitors. Will Palm eventually have to drop this dual role and spin off its operating system (a la Psion with EPOC) in order to be most effective in both areas?

Michael Mace: That’s something we have talked about in the past and we might consider in the future, but it’s not in any immediate plans. We’d want to avoid the fate that grabbed Symbian — several very opinionated corporate masters pulling the company in conflicting directions.

In the meantime, we are adding more process separation between the Platform and Solutions sides of our business, so licensees will continue to feel comfortable doing business with us. (By the way, we call the devices team "Solutions" to remind ourselves that we need to think in terms of producing complete solutions for customers’ problems rather than just pushing hardware.)

Brighthand: The reason behind the incredible success of the Palm V is obvious, but what is it about the Palm m100 that’s made it a success as well?

Mace: Price and weight combined with a feature set that appeals to new users. Most people don’t realize it, but the m100 is down pretty close to the weight of a Palm V, and that makes a difference in how comfortably you can carry the product.

It’s funny the lukewarm reviews that the m100 got from many reviewers. To me that kind of validated that we were hitting a new target. Reviewers tend to be technophiles and want the high-end stuff.

Brighthand: The success of the m100 is in sharp contrast to the weak sales of the Palm VIIx. Is Wireless Data access in the U.S. more sizzle than steak?

Mace: I don’t think sales are necessarily weak, wireless is just a new functionality and it takes time for people to understand what it can do. Personally, I think we could do a much better job of marketing what you can do with a Palm VII, and I hope we’re going to fix that in the near future.

And before anyone climbs over me about the subject of wireless access, let me acknowledge that Web Clipping is not the same as browsing, but it lets you get to critical information in 10-20 seconds, which is a heck of a lot better than what you can do with a cellular wireless connection running a full HTML browser. Speed of access sells handhelds. You can also choose from several browsers for the Palm OS platform if you want them, we just don’t feature that in our ads because we think it’s not ready for primetime on any handheld, Palm or Pocket PC.

As an example of the sort of story I’d like to see us tell about the Palm VII, a lot of us at Palm are using the Thin Air client to manage our Outlook e-mail. It’s pretty darned cool if you get a lot of mail.

Brighthand: Do most PDA design issues center around batteries?

Mace: I think three factors matter most, and you have to trade off among them. The shorthand phrase I use is "simple, wearable, and connected."

By simple I mean that the handheld has to be totally intuitive, so dead simple that you can get to your information, or enter new information, with essentially zero wait time or fumbling. You never get all the way there, but it’s the goal, and it’s a much more exacting requirement than ease of use on a PC (I know, I used to work in that world.)

By wearable I mean that the handheld has to be really lightweight and have really long battery life — preferably weeks rather than days. If you miss on either target, people just won’t carry it around all the time the way they should with a handheld. You end up with something you use like a tiny notebook computer instead. The Palm V was the first handheld to thoroughly hit that target, in my opinion.

Connected means getting to your info anytime and anywhere you want it, which is why wireless access is so important.

You can add lots of other features to a handheld, of course, but we’ve found out over the years that you dare not violate simplicity or wearability in the process. If you do, the sales fall off a cliff. Witness the Newton.

People sometimes accuse us of being slow to innovate, but usually what we’re doing is waiting for a technology to fit within the simplicity and wearability envelope. We don’t have unlimited resources, so we try to make products that are ready for adoption by multi-millions of people, rather than just being a cool demo for the techno-elite.

With SD expansion, we’ll be able to add a lot more optional features, so people can customize their Palm systems to do just what they want. Handspring is obviously also doing a great job of this with Springboard, and Sony has big plans for Memorystick.

As our company gets bigger, we may also go back and produce some more exotic "concept car" products aimed at early adopters. If we don’t, I’m sure one or more Palm licensees will.

Brighthand: You mentioned SD, tell us a little about what’s coming in 2001. Specifically, when can we expect the color version of the Palm V?

Mace: In the first half of 2001 you’ll see the release of Palm OS 4, which has a lot of enhancements — built-in telephony (phone control and use of the phone as a modem), short messaging service built in, Bluetooth hooks built in, enhanced security, advanced communications architecture (makes it easier for developers to create all sorts of messaging apps), 16-bit color, USB built in, SD support, and several more things I’m probably forgetting at the moment.

Among the first hardware to ship with Palm OS 4 will be new monochrome and color systems from Palm that will include SD slots and will be roughly the same size and weight as the Palm V. They will come out in the first half of 2001. I also expect some really interesting stuff from several Palm licensees.

There is, of course, a lot of other innovation beyond the OS coming in 2001 from Palm licensees and developers. I can’t name the companies, but some of the developments that I think will come to market in 2001 include:

  • Higher resolution screens
  • Enhanced audio and video
  • Faster processors, and coprocessors (DSPs or other coprocessing chips)
  • Built-in MP3 playback from at least one Palm licensee (there are also MP3 add-ons coming soon for Palm and Handspring systems)
  • Clip-on or integrated wireless modems for most of the world’s major wireless standards, including GSM, GPRS, CDMA, CDPD, Mobitex, 802.11, PDC, and more
  • Bluetooth clip-ons and SD cards
  • Visual Basic and Java support

A lot of this innovation will come from Palm licensees before it’s built into the OS. That’s the way we work with the licensees — it’s almost like open source. They can add features and get an exclusive on them for a while, and then it gets rolled into the OS. We work with them to keep the APIs unified. This means that you can’t judge the future of the Palm platform just by looking at our OS road map — in a lot of cases features will appear first in licensee systems (including Palm branded ones) before they show up formally in the OS. A good example is 16-bit color, which appeared in Handspring Prism systems before it was integrated into Palm OS 4.

Brighthand: Sounds exciting. What is it about the handheld computer industry that has allowed companies like Palm and Handspring to dominate over the major U.S. and Japanese computer manufacturers? Will we see this change as companies like Sony, Toshiba and Dell establish themselves in the PDA market?

Mace: I think every time there’s a new form of computing, the existing companies have a lot of trouble coming to terms with it, because their old reflexes and instincts no longer work in this new world. Think what happened to the minicomputer and word processing companies when the PC came along — DEC, Wang, etc. Not a pretty sight.

Unfortunately, with the PC sales slowdown, a lot of the PC companies are now running for shelter, which may make them even less willing to experiment in new areas. That’s a major mistake — you do not grow by clinging to the past.

Having said that, I think a number of the PC companies are pretty good learners and will do OK in handhelds in the future, as long as they realize that the rules of the game are very, very different from PCs.

Brighthand: It appears that there are two different segments to the handheld computer market: technological neophytes seeking a basic organizer and technologically savvy consumers looking for more features, like wireless and multimedia. How does the Palm road map address these divergent groups? Can both segments be satisfied with a single version of the Palm OS?

Mace: I think there are actually going to be a lot more than two segments; they just haven’t emerged yet. The way we’re trying to deal with all this diversity is to focus on creating a great core and making it really easy for people to add on what they want, both software and hardware. For example, we think it makes no sense to force MP3 into every one of our systems when we know that 85% of our customers don’t want it. You’re just forcing most people to carry extra weight and cost and power drain for no reason. That’s a difference from the PC world, where there’s almost no downside to having more features — who cares if your PC draws more power? It’s plugged into the freakin’ wall. (Well, maybe you care if you live in California, but I hope that will be a temporary thing.)

So with additions like SD and some other changes, we’re trying to make it easy for people to add just the features they want. I think you’ll also see our licensees targeting verticals with added built-in features. Sony is going to work multimedia really heavily, for example.

As we migrate to ARM microprocessors, we’ll get even more flexibility. Because the ARM family is scalable and customizable, we’ll be able to use a single base OS and hardware design and then customize it for everyone from hot rodders to raw beginners. That comes next year.

Brighthand: Will Palm eventually have to forsake backward compatibility in order to make significant technological advances with its OS and devices?

Mace: We intend to maintain backward compatibility — in other words, if your existing applications are properly written, they will continue to run, even when we go to a new microprocessor. I have learned never to say "never" in this industry, but that is a very strong commitment we’ve made.

Brighthand: Thanks for your time, Mike.



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