Palm's Pre: last chance for a second coming

Rodney Gedda

Rodney Gedda is the former deputy editor of CIO and former editor of Techworld.

With more news beginning to surface about the pending Palm Pre launch, I thought I'd recapitulate what might have been for the once mighty smartphone pioneer. For the past year TechWorld has been engrossed with developments in the mobile phone industry.

How could we not be? Game-changing technology and product developments arriving with Apple's iPhone and Google's Android have turned the mobile industry on its head.

We won't credit the touch screen for this revolution, they've been around for long enough, but we will definitely credit three key things – apps, apps and more apps!

The rise of the pocket computer has been begging the blind mobile industry for years to build a rich software ecosystem around it and Palm, not Apple or Google, was at the vanguard.

In a interview dated June 2004, I spoke with the then PalmOne CEO Todd Bradley (same company, different name and CEO) about the prospect of the industry moving to a converged mobile phone and PDA (with GPRS for data, but 3G was on the way), therefore obsoleting the humble stand-alone PDA.

Bradley was adamant the business market would continue to support two types of device – GSM and Wi-Fi, respectively – because some applications “don’t need the always-on connectivity of GPRS”.

When asked if the rise of smart phones is likely to signal the death knell of the traditional PDA, Bradley said: “Despite the pundits, I don’t think [the standard PDA] is going away anytime soon. There will be lots of innovation around how you use the device. Anyone who’s saying that this industry is dead is not looking at all the focus we’ve put on creating relevant products.”

It's always easy to look back into the past and see how wrong companies can be with their product roadmaps, so I'm not going to suggest that Palm's strategy at the time was “bad”, but it could have done itself a favour and realised that its was only a matter of time before GSM and Wi-Fi came together in the same device at a price point that made building stand alone PDAs obsolete.

So, while mobile application users may not have needed always always-on connectivity, most of the industry was making devices with both technologies anyway it became a no-brainer to go with the converged product.

Nowadays, it is clear that any type of consumer isn't going to go out of their way to look for a device that supports Wi-Fi, but not GSM unless its a very, very specific application.

Bradley was right about two other things, “it’s not always-on access that’s important, but it’s the ability to simply gather information and provide a solution”, and “it’s inevitable that Nokia and Samsung will come into the smart phone space”.

Unfortunately for Palm it failed to act on both of those predictions.

Like smartphones, Palm was also at the forefront of mobile applications. Years before Apple and Google starting thinking about mobile apps Palm had a vibrant ecosystem of third-party software developed for its platform.

So why isn't every third person twittering with a Palm like they do with the iPhone?

There are a few reasons, but the main one being marketing. Apple, being Apple, raised hell at the possibilities of its mobile application platform, whereas Palm had the “if they need a mobile app they will go looking for it” attitude.

Another is mobile network bandwidth. Mobile networks of five years ago weren't what they are today, but that doesn't mean Palm couldn't have brokered special voice and data contracts with the carriers for its devices the way Apple did with the iPhone and Blackberry did before that with its e-mail offerings.

A bundled smartphone contract with voice, data and application delivery software? Suddenly Palm is way ahead of the technology and competition curve.

This leads us to the much anticipated Palm Pre. Due this month in the US, the Pre will run the more open Palm webOS and provide an SDK for third-party development.

The Pre would have to be Palm's last ditch effort to reclaim the market it once pioneered but later squandered (even Palm's Windows Mobile products have failed to rock).

Past complaints about apps being too difficult to develop look like they will be addressed with webOS and they must be for the platform to flourish. And the less restrictions the better.

WebOS must now compete with the developer-centric iPhone, Android and Windows Mobile platforms and will only succeed if the barriers to entry are low.

The reemergence of the Palm platform in the shape of the Pre is a positive sign for both Palm and the industry. It promotes competition and gives consumers another option.

Let's hope Palm plays its cards right this time.

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