BitDepth 670 - March 10

Palm's Pre is the company's last best hope for survival in a smartphone world.
The final days of Palm

Palm's Pre, a new smartphone from the company that defined the field, Photo courtesy Palm Inc.

There's been considerable enthusiasm in past instalments of this column for the products of Palm Inc, the company that all but created the market for the personal digital assistant, or PDA.
I have two of these devices on my desk, but post-iPhone, neither sees much use and nobody wants to buy them. I fear that Palm's new smartphone, due in a few months, is going to be too little, too late.

PDA's really began with Apple's Newton, a massive prototype of the eventual possibilities of the technology that proved to be a bit too big, a bit too slow and its flagship feature, handwriting recognition didn't match expectations.
The Newton, which is still in use by devoted fans, was one of the first projects that Steve Jobs axed on his return to Apple, its potential long since eclipsed by Jef Hawkins' Palm Computing.

Hawkins learned from the Newton while crafting software for it, and Graffiti, the simplified text input system he created for the device would become the hub of Palm's success with its first hardware product, the Palm Pilot. This small, simplified device set its ambitions as a handheld computer far lower than the Newton. Instead of full handwriting recognition, Graffiti more accurately recognised simplified character gestures drawn with a plastic stylus.
Key to the success of the Pilot was the simplicity of the device. It shipped with just a few basic applications, but the relative accuracy of Graffiti and the ease with which the device synchronised its data with a full bore computer created a hit.

Handheld computing
The Pilot could be used as a mobile front-end for a computer system and much of the early software for the product expanded this capability. The explosion in Palm PDA use (Pilot Pen sued for their name, successfully) is directly attributable to the surge in software created by third-party authors, who added functions for the device that ranged from silly to indispensable.
Palm's fall from this state of grace was a combination of technology advances and an astonishing degree of incompetence in execution by the company that defined the handheld computer between 1996 and 2002.

Palm's troubles began because it was such a hot property. The company was bought first by US Robotics, then by 3COM. In 1998, Hawkins and other founding personnel left the company to create Handspring, which developed a Palm based PDA called the Visor and began to explore more adventurous uses of the software platform.
By 2000, Palm's sales and presence was surging. The devices were being sold by IBM, 3COM, Handspring and Symbol Technologies, who designed a barcode scanner using the platform. Sony introduced a chic chrome line of devices under the Clié brand and there was even a short-lived gaming device called the Tapwave.

Competition arrives
All this success drew the attention of rivals and alternative mobile operating systems began to hit the market. Microsoft introduced the unfortunately named WinCE (does anybody there read these names before releasing them?) and Nokia's investment in, and subsequent development of, Psion's Symbian OS.
It's arguable, though, that Palm's greatest enemy was itself. The company was repeatedly split and merged, and its attention was divided at a time when it needed to capitalise on its greatest asset, the Treo smartphone originally developed by Handspring.
That boat effectively sailed when Apple opened up the API to its iPhone and opened an online store that quickly eclipsed the world of Palm.

After a brief flirtation with Linux in 2007, Palm cancelled development of the Foleo, an early attempt at what's now called a NetBook.
In January 2009, Palm announced the Pre, a web-enabled phone running a new Linux based Palm WebOS that breaks with the company's entire legacy. The device won several awards at the influential Consumer Electronics Show, but is still to hit the market.
The final words are still to be written on Palm, but the Pre isn't the inspiring game changer that the company needs. The expectations for a successful smartphone are more demanding than they were when the Treo captured the market in 2002 and on paper, the Pre simply doesn't inspire.
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