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Switched On: A Pearl in the Palm

Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about technology, multimedia, and digital entertainment:

Most consumers prefer a mobile phone with an integrated antenna to one with a small stub protruding from a corner, silently awaiting its ideal window in which to poke them. Yet, for Palm, which has been on a hot streak with its methodically evolving Treo line, the process of integrating the antenna was far from a no-brainer. According to CEO Ed Colligan when he introduced the Treo 680 that recently became available through Cingular, Palm worked carefully to ensure that reception was at least as good with an integrated antenna as with the stub antenna and had finally succeeded.

Palm relayed this bit of Treo trivia to exemplify its commitment to preserve a good user experience even in the face of competitive pressures or fashion fads. Another such example is the trend toward sleek, slim smartphones such as the Motorola Q or T-Mobile Dash. The Treo 680's sculpted exterior slightly reduces its profile, but the phone still appears chunky compared to the pocket-friendly profiles of some competitors. Critics are vocal in wanting a thinner Treo or other smartphone from Palm, but are silent in acknowledging the reduced battery time that would likely mean.

Should Palm be commended for its convictions or persecuted for its pigheadedness? For now, high-mindedness is yielding high returns. Contrary to many reports, the Treo 680 is not aimed at consumers per se, but rather at a wider net of mobile professionals. Palm has sweetened the deal in more ways than one by adding candy-colored shells to its venerable design.

The company that once owned (and nearly reclaimed) its own operating system continues to devote great attention to software, and it has included some impressive applications for the aging Palm OS, now known as the "Access-Powered" platform. Among the sleekest are a mapping application takes advantage of Google's local data prowess and a TypePad client that provides the industry's best mobile blogging experience.

Such well-implemented functionality is bound appeal to consumers on the leading edge, but Palm will need to dilute its dogma if it is to swim beyond the smartphone lake into a broader ocean of what is becoming intelligent feature phones such as the RAZR-thin Cingular 3125 developed by HTC. Palm has not yet diversified its handset portfolio the way it did in the PDA market that it pioneered and still leads. However, if it's looking for an example of a company that recently broke with its own conventions, it can turn its attention northward toward Research in Motion.

Like Palm, RIM gradually evolved its flagship handset line over many years, adding multiple carrier support, larger screens, color, GPS, push-to-talk and other enterprise-focused enhancements. Its first foray into the consumer market, the 7100 series, narrowed down the basic BlackBerry proposition with a well-received keyboard compromise.

However, with the BlackBerry Pearl, RIM has slimmed down and stepped up, making great strides in industrial design, multimedia and a mini-trackball that succeeds the scroll wheel that has long been a BlackBerry staple. Perhaps even more importantly, the Pearl has transformed RIM's image and from a stodgy provider of enterprise messaging technology to one of hip consumer handsets, revitalizing the BlackBerry brand.

If RIM could do this, a more consumer-entrenched brand such as Palm should certainly be able to as well. Combining the design makeover of the Pearl with the software savvy of Palm could yield the biggest advance in smartphone design since the original Treo 600.

Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group and a contributing editor for LAPTOP. Views expressed in Switched On are his own. Feedback is welcome at