The PalmOS Effect Part 1: Simplicity and No Maturity

by Reads (7,631)

This article is Part 1 of a two part series.  In this article we discuss the benefit gained through the simple usability of the Palm OS, but also look at if things have been kept too simple with not enough progress made on basic OS features.  In part 2 later this week we talk to a young Palm OS developer and get his thoughts on the state of Palm OS and how it stacks up against Microsoft’s Windows Mobile.

Probably more than the hardware itself, the Palm operating system gets a lot of credit for being an easy to use and intuitive place of interaction. Since version 2.0, the PalmOS has been all about K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple Stupid); and to some degree, that has been a great thing for the platform. Now, dismissing what has happened on the hardware side, the software side of the PalmOS has not seen much in terms of revolutions lately. And probably for a good reason too. As it was designed, the PalmOS was and is effective in doing the basics. Original applications designed for the PalmOS were simple, and as the needs of people increased, so did the scope of the applications. For example, the memo pad was once the default text entry point, but now, you can doodle or do MS Word documents right on the handheld.

This lack of change to the Palm OS hasn’t been without cost though. Some may argue that the Windows Mobile platform is now more advanced and can do more than the Palm OS. I don’t know about more advanced, and if it weren’t for hardware availability I wouldn’t say do more either. What I will say is that the PalmOS hasn’t done as good a job of maturing with its users. And for one reason or another, that has left the perception among mainstream buyers that the PalmOS is only good enough for basic organization. That is not a good place for any company to have its halo product be in.

Let me back track just a bit. One of the reasons for the explosion of the PalmOS platform has been the easily found development tools and enthusiastic developer community. This has made the PalmOS as customizable as a person or organization needs (to the tune of over 20,000 applications available today). Applications have been made for the PalmOS that do an extraordinary amount of things that were probably never even thought of when the OS was conceived. But at the same time, I run back to that point that the base of the OS has not grown to meet the users head on. Items such as limits on how to multitask, file and memory size limits, and the amount of time it takes to develop drivers for networking functions have made the PalmOS a stagnant platform. In other words, developers have wanted to make applications, but within the OS have met limits that cannot be overcome without some maturing of the PalmOS.

So now there are Windows Mobile and Symbian operating systems. Both of which are powerful operating systems in their own right. But both have a problem, they are not as easy to use as the PalmOS. From included applications, to support, to outright development, they have not been as quick to capture the hearts of developers and customers alike. Now, many might point out the there were more Windows Mobile and Symbian smartphones sold over the past year than were PalmOS phones. I will not argue with numbers, only with direction. Within the Treo (hardware), the PalmOS has been exposed to what it really can do given the operating space. And for Windows Mobile and Symbian, they are trying to hit a simple target with a large mallet.

And this is what I mean when I titled this the PalmOS effect. It isn’t just the hardware that has made the Palm platform what it is today. But the simplicity of the operating system has had a helping hand in guiding users into what they want or do not want in a mobile platform. Believe it or not, if you are in the market for a handheld or smartphone, your base of opinion is probably the first Palm Pilot handheld. From both the hardware (size and speed) and software (how many clicks does it take to add an item to the datebook) sides, the PalmOS has been for a while, the established standard of organizational effectiveness. And that is not a bad thing, the PalmOS just now needs to grow up in order to meet people where they are now, and not where they were in 1996.

Stop back later this week when we publish an interview with 17 year old Palm OS developer Dmitry Grinberg (developer of SkinUI application) as to his thoughts on developing for the Palm OS.

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