Where are PalmSource and palmOne Going?

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In the past month or so, the PalmOS world has been rocked by a couple of different news stories. Being in the news in sometimes a good thing for a company, as increased coverage can bring some short-term visibility and sales gains. In the case of the two major PalmOS companies, palmOne and PalmSource, being in the news as they have lately does bring up a very important issue of direction for PalmOS, and mobile computing in general. This article will look at a few of those themes shown in recent articles, and look for solutions or consequences of those.


Issue 1: palmOne and other OS’s

On 11/6, we reported on a CNET report (view here) that stated that palmOne has been evaluating versions of Windows Mobile and Linux for use it their devices. While that is not bad in the sense of keeping one’s options open as a hardware vendor, it does speak to the lack of confidence that palmOne has in PalmSource and its ability to deliver Cobalt in an acceptable (read: profitable) timeframe. This was mildly rebuffed by palmOne, which leads me to believe that it was not only true, but that we should expect a palmOne device to be using Linux or Windows Mobile in the near future.


In my opinion, this is a good thing for palmOne in that it enables them to be profitable and more competitive. The problem with a multi-OS model is that you are stretching your internal developers. And in this case, if it were to be a cost cutting decision between PalmOS and Linux or Windows Mobile, either of the latter would win, as they are easiest to deploy because of the little effort needed in getting programs and hardware compatible to mainstream desktop operating systems. The other reason this would be good for palmOne is it will effectively stretch their user base and may give more competitive fuel to the platform wars (PalmOS versus Windows Mobile versus Symbian versus Linux).


The biggest reason that I can see this being a bad move for palmOne is that people see “palm” when they look at palmOne. To see another OS, especially Windows Mobile, would confuse the market and most possibly drive people away from palmOne toward other more familiar “Windows” marks. The perception being that they are trying to be like Windows, which could make the uninformed consumer just choose other. Though with brand recognition and the name “palm,” it could very well be just want the market needs.


Issue 2: PalmSource and other OS’s

On 12/9, reports flooded the Internet with PalmSource’s acquisition of China MobileSoft (CMS). Though it at first seems like your normal “one company buys another in an untapped market story,” the acquisition held a special significance in that it included an announcement that PalmSource was looking to create a Linux based, PalmOS enhanced operating system. With PalmSource not seeing any devices yet running its latest Cobalt OS even though it has been released (I use that term loosely), this move is another that seems to denote some lack of confidence in their own ability to deliver on making Cobalt the next great move in mobile computing.


From the perspective of the consumer, this means that a small company will be further extending itself to support two platforms, and that I (the consumer) should have more choices when I next look to get a PDA. For the developer it means that he or she would have one more option in terms of creating a program, but also one more headache if I choose to support more than one platform. For PalmSource, the possibility of being on more devices and therefore being able to pilot the mobile computing ship (all little ships that mobile phones haven’t already taken).


The key, of course, will be in making Linux attractive to hardware vendors. If the previous track record is any indication, PalmSource moves slow but makes quality decisions. In the more brisk pace of embedded devices and the quickening pace of mobile computing, PalmSource will have to successfully convince others that they are willing to take chances, and at the same time keep the hallmark of quality that people are used to. If they can do this, they will be very successful. If not, we will note PalmSource in our economic history books as one of the don’ts of holding onto segment leadership.


Issue 3: PalmOne Tungsten T5 and Treo 650 Issues

In late October palmOne released the Tungsten T5, and then followed up a month later with the Treo 650 (there was also the release of a special edition Zire 72 that was just made silver instead of blue). These two devices were a return to the Palm-paradigm of specific solutions and simplicity. Unfortunately, the many early run issues with memory structure and program compatibility made for more than just a simple mess.


Upon the release of the T5, message board and news outlets had reserved praise for the new top dog from palmOne. For one, it was a $400 device that did not have WiFi (a wireless networking technology). Dell, though using a different operating system, had set the low bar with their $250 dual wireless X30 series handhelds. For palmOne to release a PDA at that price without WiFi (though it did have more RAM than any other handheld before it) gave palmOne a tarnished release.



The second issue that palmOne’s T5 faced was the change to non-volatile memory and an OS upgrade from previous palmOne handhelds. The PalmOS has been flexible in the past in that many times, most programs did not need to be recompiled for the new release. In the cases that programs did need to be, it was a simple matter (as long as the programs were written correctly). With Garnet 5.4 present in the T5 and Treo 650, users faced the issue of programs just plain not working. Especially with the T5 and its three-fold memory structure (10MB of RAM for a program buffer, 55MB of NAND RAM for PalmOS programs, the 161 Flash area that acts an internal memory card, and the SD card slot), developers really questioned if they wanted to stay with a platform where the licensees can so easily “break” the simple functionality that was promised by PalmSource. Though many programs have been upgraded, this is a hassle that the PalmOS platform has generally avoided.



The other issue also has to do with the new memory that palmOne is using. As many Treo 600 owners who upgraded to a Treo 650 found out, the design of the memory actually makes programs bigger than if they were in the usually used SRAM. Due to this, programs ballooned nearly twice their actual size. The reason for this lies in the fact that the NAND memory that palmOne (and GSPDA in Asia) uses allocates space differently. In simple terms, for each byte of data has to occupy a larger room than before. Making things tight for those who load up their devices to the gills. PalmOne has said they are looking into some kind of solution, but in the meantime have begun offering 128MB SD cards for free to those that have purchased the Treo 650 (though a new offer by palmOne gives you a 128MB SD card free with any new handheld).


To me, this is a situation similar to that of the NY Giants and Tiki Barber. PalmOne has a good model lineup with much potential. But they decide to bring on a new player (the Treo smartphone line is their Eli Manning) and coach (the Handspring acquisition also brought back Jeff Hawkins). The problem is that their workhorse line (the Tiki Barber), which performs well, has been known to fumble at critical times. The Tungsten line has been led in part by the aggressive value of the TE and the style of the T3. But, the entrance of the T5, which was asked for by businesses and consumers alike, and all of its issues, which we not asked for, is like a fumble at the 1-yard line when the game is on the line. PalmOne cannot afford these issues with their Tungsten line. This is the visible line that people most see, even if Zires and Treos are more successful cash wise. PalmOne needs to go back to training camp and clean up those fumbles else risk losing the game on all fronts.



In football there is a saying, the championship is not won or lost in the first game. Everyone has a fair shot. PalmOne has had a bit of a head start, building off of the impressive seasons when they were just Palm. PalmSource as well has a great head start with their impressive market penetration all over the world. The question now, like with every good team that is broken up, is where is the vision to move forward. For the PalmOS to move forward, these major players need to do a better job of giving vision to the market that they created. The need to be aggressive, yet not deny the completeness that has been their calling card for many years.


Within the NBA there is a team that did these things, and is having a good bit of success in the San Antonio Spurs. Before David Robinson and Greg Popovich, the Spurs had a hard time making tracks in the NBA after a successful ABA legacy. They had a vision of running the game with a skilled big man and good shooters and defenders around him. They wanted good character guys who also made a mark with their attitude in a league of bad boys. They ended up playing well. When they took the risk in getting a second big man in Tim Duncan, everything came together. But it all started with a clear vision by all the major players. From the front office to the fans, people knew where the team was going and all helped to make that happen. If palmOne and PalmSource want to survive in this league, they will have to mobilize in the same way.



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