Monday, September 01, 2008

The Palm Story - An Ending Dream

Just two years ago, Palm was the leader in the U.S. smartphone market, but since then the company has fallen behind its major competitors HTC and Research In Motion (RIM). And Apple is hot on Palm's heels.

But to understand the issues within Palm one needs to look at the history.

Palm seized the mobile world from Apple in 1996. They made a populous device that DID organization that people needed affordably. Did it quickly and simply and soon allowed users to add application functionality. It was an instant hit. The Pilot was in the top 10 of all tech inventions of the past 50 years. The Treo hybrid phone / PDA made the list too. Jeff Hawkins, the (Steve Jobs / tech guru of Palm) visionary behind both devices struck gold twice.

Now, Palm has always had an Achilles heel. Financing! Because of this, they have always had to depend on “others” outside the “vision” to provide the capital for the next step.

This lead to the fall out of Hawkins, Dubinsky, Colligen which were the original core of Palm. Palm took on a corporate America approach from the Palm III until Tungsten T3 period. Hawkins, Dubinsky, and Colligen started Handspring (loose VC in the tech bubble) and licensed the Palm OS from Palm. They created devices in parallel from the Visor thru Treo 300. This all took place from about 98' thru 03'. Palm Inc also began licensing the Palm OS to Sony, Samsung, and several others. They nearly landed Compaq who at the time was a PC hardware kingpin. Microsoft was hard at work (successfully) in direct competition for this mobile OS sector during the period.

Then in 03' came the disaster that still haunts the Palm platform to this very moment. Palm & Handspring merged. Palm PDAs had successfully transitioned to OS5 and high speed ARM architecture (like Win Mobile) and cash strapped Handspring was ready to release it's crown jewel, the Treo 600. This was a tremendous merger that would bring Hawkins and company back into leadership with both strong PDAs and cutting edge smartphones ready to soar. But herein lies the poison pill of the deal. The Palm OS was popular and the mobile market leader, but MS was more robust and the scary “Goliath” competitor. Palm saw success in licensing the OS platform. The disastrous decision was made within the group to spin the Palm OS off to be under it's own freestanding company.… “Is it really smart to break up into smaller parts when trying to defeat a Goliath”?

The new Palm PDAs / phones (Palm Solutions Group + Handspring = Hardware) would be renamed PalmOne, while the name 'Palm' would be owned by Palmsource Inc, the newly spun-off software / platform company. When the updated 650 model was released a year later, it got the PalmOne label. Palmsource meanwhile was off to fight the dark side by bringing forth Palm OS 6 (Cobalt), the platform that would bring the Palm OS into the multitasking and multifunctional wireless standard world. Because they were not affiliated with PalmOne hardware anymore the hope was that Sony would stay the Palm OS course. Not having the OS supplier as a direct competitor would allow a host of others like Motorola etc to feel free to come into the platform. LG actually signed a license and announced over a dozen new devices on the way based on the new platform. It NEVER happened. Sony (in the midst of company wide profit woes) not only abandoned Cobalt, but PDAs altogether. PalmOne dropped it's devices based on Cobalt and so did everyone else. Apparently the OS in v6.0 was a disaster.

Old OS5 (Garnet) received basically no attention after the Palm breakup. It was on the way out. With Cobalt’s flat lined pulse clear to see, PalmOne felt forced to do it's own major update to the Garnet OS. Everyday users of WM and other cell phones had replaceable batteries and flash memory. Palm OS lost all data if the battery went dead. In response, Palm changed Palm OS from its crisp and quick 'direct memory access' architecture roots. In parallel, what would have certainly been strong upgrades of the Tungsten, Zire, & Treo lines to OS6, were now scrambled for survival on this extended life OS5.

Thus we received the somewhat anemic 650 upgrade/sidegrade and the pathetic excuse for an upgrade to the Tungsten T5 from the T3. This OS rewrite from v5.2x (Zire 72, Tungsten T3, Treo 600) to OS5.4x (Treo 650, Tungsten T5) is the OS on every current Palm device of PDAs, Treos, and Centros today. This “FrankenGarnet”, as it has been called, now has NVFS, or a Non Volatile File System. Cobalt would have offered this, but Palm was forced to hack it onto old OS 5 on it’s own. NVFS allows your battery to go dead and the memory contents to be retained. This is a good thing, but a much more complicated architecture than the simple and quick DMA architecture of OS5.2x and earlier.
Remember how super quick and snappy your old Palm Vx was with a little 33mhz processor? Now, your Treo 650, 700p, Tungsten T5 with 300-400mhz+ mhz spits, sputters, stumbles, and lags it's way around while you get angry. Remember how lightening fast a Zire 72 or Tungsten T3 was? Those days are gone with NVFS based Palm OS. That is the miracle (curse) of a totally different architecture underneath Palm OS. It’s memory architecture is more like a PCs.

Palmsource did basically nothing to update Palm OS 5 and literally disintegrated in the wake of the OS6 disaster. They tried to switch to a Linux based OS and basically bit off more than their mismanaged company could chew. They were soon purchased by Access Corp in a shady looking outbid of Motorola (and probably PalmOne). PalmOne probably helped orchestrate the deal to keep a hardware arch rival from owning its platform. The Access (Palmsource) OS called ALP is today being rejected en masse again as they make another ridiculous attempt to re-invent it as a UMPC type OS. Between the death of Cobalt OS and PalmOne's decision to rewrite to NVFS, the “zen of Palm” totally died. It's over forever. Some remnants remain, but buy and large those glory days of quick, stable, and simple are gone forever. “Palm”. Its now the orange blob Palm instead of the early years blue blob Palm, which preceded the Orange/maroon PalmOne. Whew?!? Now they are once again just Palm. Nevertheless, the fatal damage has been done and PalmOne really had no choice but to grovel at Steve Ballmer's kneecaps for a Windows Media license. Old FrankenGarnet is simply not up to the modern multitasking / multi-wireless task required to produce cutting edge phones. It's a PDA OS that was pre-hacked to handle legacy Palm apps and then hacked again by PalmOne for NVFS. We should be amazed that it does what it does today in a semi-stable manner.

During this ma lay, PalmOne had to completely trash it's future device plans and set a course for survival while the smartphone space crowded. FrankenGarnet has been relegated to entry level Centros where it's done well. But everything with modernity in the spec department has begun to depend on Windows Media. MS makes an uninspiring product as usual, but it is very robust and up to date from a constantly changing wireless standards (and other) point of view.

Palm President Colligen stated that they actually began work on their new OS way back at the Palmsource spin-off in 04'. Probably very lightly, if at all, but they could see the handwriting on the wall. Little PalmOne could never swim among the Nokia, HP, HTC, Moto, Samsung, LG giants w/o control of a unique platform. So Palm announced last year, the world changing Foleo running on Palm's own Linux OS. Foleo never came to market and probably good for Palm that it did not. But during that fiasco, Palm revealed the 2009 release of devices based on a totally modern Palm OS over Linux. Later Colligen stated these devices would be revolutionary from a software AND hardware perspective. That’s basically all that’s public

Code named Nova, this OS platform is Palm's only hope. They know that they can't afford the engineering horses to compete in the me-too WM world forever. FrankenGarnet is approaching full obsolescence in the wireless world.

The Treo Pro is not the greatest smartphone, but it is good and compelling and telling of several possible things. This is appears to be the first device to get the Rubenstein effect. (Hawkins is apparently no longer involved in smartphones. He is either on another Foleo run or not really involved at all in Palm products. His focus seems to now be in a totally different venture called Numenta) The Pro is finally thin. It finally is sleek and sexy. It finally has acceptable specs (so does the 800w). It has a relatively decent battery in that thin package. And it finally has a standard 3.5mm audio jack that folks have been screaming for since the first Treo played MP3s. That's been four years and the boring looking 800w still is without one! There appears to be a new sheriff in Sunnyvale!

That leaves Palm with an Apple-esque dream of controlling it's hardware and software to create unique and compelling devices again. It's precisely the dream that absolute fools led Palm away from in 2003 when the platform was spun off. Conventional wisdom (pre-Apple juggernaut) said licensing the platform was where the $ was. Conventional wisdom and a host of corporate leeches in those days nearly brought the Palm economy to disaster today.

Nova in 2009 is THE watershed moment for Palm. If Rubenstein and company deliver compelling solutions then the revolution can survive. If Nova fails to wow, and I do mean WOW, then the party is over.

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