Palm: Back From the Brink?

As I’ve mentioned before, I have had a lot of frustrations about smartphones. Most of them are kludges with major usability or extensibility problems. I finally settled on a BlackBerry Bold as my new phone, which I am very happy with so far, but I’ve had a long-running soft spot for Palm and the long-neglected Palm OS operating system.

Palm lovers like me though have had a rough few years. First, the old Palm Inc. (which made the hardware and the software) lost its way and its original founders left to start a new company called Handspring. Handspring made some great devices which ran the Palm OS made by Palm (under license), including my beloved old Handspring Visor Pro and the original Tréo smartphone.

Then Palm, for reasons nobody really understands, split itself in two. PalmSource was the company that would build the software, and PalmOne would build the handhelds and phones themselves. Both would have legal right to use the name ‘Palm’. PalmOne quickly merged with Handspring (bringing Palm’s original founders back in-house) and embarked upon some of their best hardware devices ever, including the groundbreaking Tréo 600 and Tréo 650 phones that set the course of the smartphone market for years to come.

PalmSource, however, didn’t do so well. The old Palm OS was showing its age badly, and PalmSource’s anointed replacement—Palm OS ‘Cobalt’—was never picked up by any hardware manufacturers. PalmOne kept using the old Palm OS, re-christened Palm OS ‘Garnet’ by PalmSource, and diversified to selling phones running Microsoft’s Windows Mobile operating system. PalmSource also promised (and never delivered) a Linux-based successor to ‘Cobalt’.

PalmSource then got bought out by Access Ltd. PalmOne purchased all rights to the Palm name and so the old Palm OS became simply ‘Access Garnet’, ‘Cobalt’ died out entirely, an ‘Access Linux Platform’ system was promised, and PalmOne became ‘Palm Inc.’ again.

Got it?

Access finally did deliver an Access Linux Platform (ALP), but like Cobalt no manufacturers picked it up for their devices. Palm (formerly PalmOne) announced that they were going to build their own OS from scratch just like they did in the good ol’ days instead of using ALP. Years went by. Palm kept delivering phones based on the hopelessly-outdated Garnet or the hopelessly-kludgy Windows Mobile. Access kept producing . . . nobody is really sure what Access has produced.

Palm Pre and WebOSAt the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) on Thursday, Palm—after all these mistakes, missteps, and messes—finally showed us what they’ve been doing for the last two-plus years. This was widely regarded as Palm’s last chance, and they needed to hit a home run if they expected to survive. Well, I’m happy to say that Palm came through. Tech pundits are already lauding this as the beginning of Palm’s big comeback, and there is a ‘buzz’ around Palm that I haven’t seen since the Tréo 650 so many years ago.

The phone they announced, called the Palm Pré, is a slick piece of hardware in-and-of itself. It has a capacitive touch-screen like that in Apple’s iPhone, a keyboard much like that in most current Palm and BlackBerry offerings that slides out from the bottom in an ergonomic curve shape. It has 8gb of memory on-board and a high-speed mobile processor. The Pré will be available in the ‘first half of 2009’, initially as a Sprint exclusive in the United States.

But the real gem here is not the hardware; what we Palm lovers are really excited about is the long-awaited successor to Palm OS.

The new operating system from Palm is called WebOS, and many in the industry are already lauding it the first true competitor to the Mac OS X-derived operating system on the Apple iPhone. WebOS runs on a Linux core with a custom Palm-built interface layered on top. It centers around a ‘card’ application paradigm which takes some influence from various desktop and mobile operating systems—including the iPhone, new versions of BlackBerry OS, Mac OS, and others—along with the ‘Zen of Palm’ simplicity that made us all fall in love with the company in the first place. It has to be seen to be fully understood, so I highly recommend that anybody interested take a look at the in-depth video at TreoCentral and Engadget’s photo gallery. I am impressed with what Palm has created, and I think you will be too.

From a developer standpoint, Palm has provided a small amount of information on its web site for developers—basically telling us to stay tuned. Ars Technica has managed to get much more detailed information from a developer who has advance access to the software tools, and what they’ve discovered has me interested. Apparently, you develop applications for WebOS using web development languages with some platform-specific extensions. This could potentially open up a whole world of possibilities for web developers to easily become mobile software developers, even more so than Apple’s iPhone ‘web apps’ already allowed.

Most importantly, Palm is not taking the restrictive stance toward application development that Apple has. This is important to me, since Apple’s attitude toward device extensibility is the biggest reason I bought a BlackBerry instead of an iPhone (the crappy software keyboard being the second biggest). Palm encourages developers to build and improve upon what they have brought to the table with few, if any, restrictions.

The Pré is only the first phone to run this new system, and there’s lots of work ahead for the folks at Palm. Over the coming months they need to put a bit more polish on what they showed at CES (optimize for speed and smoothness!) and try and work out as many ‘1.0’ kinks as they can before these devices arrive in consumers’ hands. They need to get a software development package in all developers’ hands as soon as humanly possible—preferably YESTERDAY. Meanwhile, they need to be building more devices—a touch-screen-only device, a traditional Tréo-like device, etc.—and get them lined up through multiple wireless carriers.

I’m sure Sprint spent a lot of money to get this exclusive assuming people would switch to Sprint to get the Pré. Sprint is in dire-straits and losing customers, and this is possibly their last-ditch effort just as much as it is Palm’s. Palm would be wise to diversify to other carriers—particularly Verizon and AT&T—and do so quickly. I would hate to see Palm fail simply because its ground-breaking, paradigm-shifting device is on a carrier nobody is willing to switch to.

Scott Bradford is a writer and technologist who has been putting his opinions online since 1995. He believes in three inviolable human rights: life, liberty, and property. He is a Catholic Christian who worships the trinitarian God described in the Nicene Creed. Scott is a husband, nerd, pet lover, and AMC/Jeep enthusiast with a B.S. degree in public administration from George Mason University.