This week saw significant and contrasting twists for the legacies of two operating systems that had their roots in the heyday of the PDA. HP revealed that it is killing off the Palm brand, and Nokia announced that -- while it would continue to "harvest" less capable versions of the Symbian operating system on its basic handsets -- it would shift away from the operating system in its smartphones in favor of Windows Phone 7. In some ways, the demise of the Palm brand and the loss of Symbian's last major supporter at Microsoft's hands represent the end of an era.
Palm's salad days included the creation of Graffiti, the category-defining Pilot, and the sleek and popular Palm V. However, it suffered under many troubled owners and strategies, including the separation of and failed reunion with the Palm operating system. At the start of the company's final chapter, CEO Jon Rubinstein pointed to the company's focus on mobile as its main differentiator, but mobile wasn't enough to keep the company afloat.
Now, with its software and handsets inside HP, the group formerly known as the Palm Global Business Unit is working hard to bring webOS to products that include PCs and printers. That's a long way from today's mobile handset – so long that one may question whether apps developed for such devices will have much relevance for a smartphone – but the operating system that was once laser-focused on pocketable products is living on through devices that are anything but.
The Nokia of the '90s saw Microsoft – not Android – as the agent of commoditization.
That twist is nothing compared to the fate of Symbian, the roots of which were an OS called EPOC32, the product of another PDA company called Psion. (Psion, which continues today as a maker of industrial handheld devices, produced what is still arguably the best handheld keyboard in a pocket device with its Series 5 and 5mx clamshell PDAs.) Symbian was driven by a consortium of handset companies led by Nokia -- but also including Motorola, Samsung and LG and Sony Ericsson -- that wanted to have a hedge against the potential influence and growing mobile ambitions of -- that's right -- Microsoft. The Nokia of the '90s saw Microsoft – not Android – as the agent of commoditization.
Symbian was not only successful in terms of driving a massive installed base and market share, but also in its strategic mission of keeping Microsoft at bay. Its demise was driven not by the success of Microsoft, but of Android, which has served the same purpose for many handset vendors while offering many of the characteristics consumers liked about the iPhone.
You could consider these games of chess as similar but unrelated, but the truth of the matter is that they share a common player. Before webOS was ready, Palm too embraced Windows Mobile as a stopgap operating system. Just as for Nokia, Windows wasn't necessarily the operating system that was "right" but the one that was "right now." The smartphone market has changed radically since those days, of course. Nokia can keep working on MeeGo as an alternative should things not work out with Microsoft, but it's clear that the struggling handset giant is committing to Windows Phone as far more than just a hedge. For things to turn out otherwise would be the biggest twist of all.
Ross Rubin is executive director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.