Man, what a crazy year, right? We know things haven't really been going your way lately, but we want you to know that we haven't given up on you, even though it might seem like the only smartphone anyone wants to talk about these days is the iPhone. It can be hard to remember right now, but you used to be a company we looked to for innovation. You guys got handhelds right when everyone else, including Apple, was struggling to figure it out. And it was the little things that made those early Palm Pilots great -- you could tell that someone had gone to a lot of trouble to think about what made for a great mobile experience, like how many (or rather, few) steps it took to perform common tasks.
The problem is that lately we haven't seen anything too impressive out of you guys. Sure, over the past few years the Treo has emerged as a cornerstone of the smartphone market, but you've let the platform stagnate while nearly everyone (especially Microsoft and HTC, Symbian and Nokia, RIM, and Apple) has steadily improved their offerings. So we've thrown together a few ideas for how Palm can get back in the game and (hopefully) come out with a phone that people can care about. (And we're not talking about the Centro / Gandolf.) Read on.
Frankly, you've taken a turn from being the respected underdog and innovator to repeat offender in stale gear. Every press release you issue or "leaked" photo we see these days is another dent in your already banged up armor, and really, we're not sure how much more we can take -- our loyalty has practically become an embarrassment among peers. The New York Times totally nailed it when they said "Palm is about to release a new model in its Treo line and photos leak out to silence." That said, we humbly submit a few (mainly practical) suggestions for how you can turn things around, organized by hardware, software, and other.
Get thin - Three words: FIGURE IT OUT. If HTC, Apple, and Motorola can offer thin (and we mean friggin' thin) smartphones, you can too. We know you think the Treo is perfectly proportioned, but it's not. It's chubby. No excuses any more, ok? It doesn't have to be as thin as the iPhone, but you've gotta trim some of the fat.
Bigger, higher resolution displays - Make the screen bigger and up the resolution and you'll go a long way towards winning us back. There's no reason the 750 shouldn't have 320 x 320 (or higher) -- Windows Mobile 6 supports that, or didn't you hear? But for new devices you might want to have the keyboard slide out, like with the HTC Hermes or the Samsung i730. It's a really smart move. The long and short of it is this: if you can find some way to marry the expanse of something like the iPhone's or G900's massive, high res screens and still retain the spirit of the Palm keyboard, people will be very interested.
Speaking of the keyboard, don't mess too much with it - Apple may or not add a physical keyboard to the iPhone (our money says it won't happen), but the one the Treo has now is pretty good and it's pretty much the one thing that's keeping a lot of Treo owners from jumping ship. And from what we hear, the Centro is going to have a keyboard that's "impossible to type on" -- not a good sign. Then again, HTC's signature sliding QWERTY form factor is really compelling too, so you might do good to whip up a really messaging-heavy device built around that kind of design. But again, don't be tempted to mess too much with what's good about the Treo's input.
Make it look nice - We know Jeff Hawkins thinks Palm (well, technically Handspring) nailed it with the Treo form-factor, but it's been almost FOUR YEARS since you introduced the Treo 600, and apart from a few long-overdue improvements here and there (losing the antenna stub, making the casing a few millimeters thinner, tweaking the keyboard), it's essentially the same phone. The Treo used to win design awards, but now it looks really clunky compared to devices like the Dash, the Curve, and the iPhone.
YOU NEED TO MAKE THE PHONE LOOK NICE. Phones are a big part of people's lives now, and if they're going to spend $400 and up for one, they're going to want something they won't be embarrassed to use in public. C'mon, even RIM has figured this one out. How have you failed to see that innovative and engaging design is necessary to win (or even compete) in the mass-market consumer cellphone world? We know that's where the Centro is aimed, and we're not so sure it's going to hit the mark.
Add WiFi - Is it really almost 2008 and the Treo STILL doesn't have WiFi? No excuses any more, sort it out.
Think about adding some storage - There was a time when just having expandable storage via a memory card slot was enough, but that time's passed. People won't mind sideloading via USB if you make the Treo appear as a mass storage device, meaning you can add embedded flash memory (a few gigs would be nice). 8GB in a cellphone is now the new bar. Meet or exceed it, but don't ignore the fact.
Finally, put the kibosh on the Centro / Gandolf / Treo 800p - You're going down the wrong path with these devices, and everyone knows it but you. We don't want to harp on this, but if what we've heard in the initial reports, and seen in blurry photos is what you're really going to offer, then believe it or not, you'll actually be able to expect a reception from your community roughly twice as lukewarm as it was for the Foleo. Palm, put your ear to the ground and listen. We hate to be jerks, but now appears to be the time for some tough love.
Completely overhaul the OS - We know you're working on a Linux-based mobile OS to succeed Palm OS Garnet -- which was already REALLY showing its age two years ago -- but we're sorta worried that you're going to just port the old UI to a new kernel. It's too late for that. Apple's winning converts because they totally rethought how we should interact with a mobile phone, and Palm needs to do the same thing.
We hate to keep bringing up Apple, but there are so many accurate analogues. Like when Apple introduced OS X: it made a serious gamble that the stability and features they were offering in their new OS outweighed the compatibility with older apps and user interface comfort which already existed. They took an old, once great, but very dated OS (sound like anyone we know?) and trashed it. And it worked for them.
If you've demonstrated any true wrongdoing in the way you've sustained your operating system, it's been your inflexibility in cutting ties and moving forward. Believe us when we tell you that's not an attitude embraced by a culture of techno-fetishists -- your core customer. So don't be scared to kill backwards compatibility, or threaten a little bit of what users are used to in order to gain important advances for your OS and devices. Sometimes you have to tear down to rebuild, and honestly, you have a lot to tear down.
So if Palm, which has been around for around 15 years, doesn't have the user interface design and OS engineering expertise to pull this off, then you should just get out of the game right now. Seriously, if this new OS you're going to introduce is just the old Palm OS with some slightly fancier graphics, your customers will just come to resent you all the more. Respect their intelligence.
You guys need to go back to the drawing board (and back to your roots) and figure out how to optimize the smartphone experience of 2007/8 just like you optimized the PDA experience ten years ago. That's how Palm won its first fans and kicked off mobile computing as we now know it. So you don't have to go in for the same kind of gesture-based touchscreen-focused UI as the iPhone (though it might not hurt), but you do need to make the UI cleaner, faster, sexier, and more fluid and intuitive -- and that doesn't mean throwing on a new skin.
Be open - Here's one place you can really gain an edge over the iPhone: be REALLY open. If you're running the new Treos on Linux, this shouldn't be too difficult anyway, right? Give us the ability to really tweak the phone. Not just to create new applications and skins, but entirely new interfaces -- whatever your users can come up with. Give the community an SDK and all the tools necessary to improve the things they don't like -- and you'll end up with a Treo that users can make better and more useful -- and thus necessarily more desirable than the cookie cutter devices Apple's pumping out.
True multitasking - Having to ask for this is almost embarrassing. Palm OS Garnet just wasn't made for multitasking, which was only barely acceptable even when Garnet was introduced nearly five years ago. We're going to assume that you're on top of this with Linux, but we still have to mention it.
Embrace developers - Just being open probably won't be enough -- you need to win back developers who have abandoned you and court new ones. You know how we knew you guys were in trouble? When people stopped making Palm apps. Yeah, there have been a few here and there -- Google shocked us with a Palm version of Google Maps -- but we all know that the once vibrant community of Palm OS developers has withered in recent years.
It's going to be tough at first. A lot of people feel burned by you guys, your reluctance to keep the platform alive. Others might shy away from devoting time, energy, and money to developing apps for the new Palm OS when (at least for awhile) the user base will be a lot bigger for other mobile platforms like Windows Mobile, Symbian, etc. Stick it out. Invest in innovation -- even if that means enabling others to innovate with your platform.
Add a better browser - Blazer ain't cutting it anymore. Apple's set a new standard with Safari on the iPhone, but pay attention to what people like Dave Winer and Michael Gartenberg are saying about its limitations. For starters, trying to replicate the desktop browsing experience on a mobile device (ANY mobile device) isn't always a good idea. Mobile-formatted web pages work because they're designed for smaller screens. Blazer has done a decent-enough job of formatting sites for the Treo's screen, but you need to improve a TON of stuff.
Ajax support, tabs, the ability to toggle between WAP and regular versions of a page, and not having to reload every time you go back a page would be a good place to start. (Your new browser should be able to cache till the cows come home because mobile device users are already fighting an uphill battle against slow and spotty connections.) Just look at some of the other competition in Opera, S60, etc.; it's not hard to see how much mobile browser innovation there's been in the past couple of years while you've let Blazer rot.
Offer great Mac support out of the box - A lot of people use Macs now -- it's not 1999 anymore. Making it tough for them to sync their phone is a dealbreaker, especially considering how well the iPhone syncs not only with Macs, but with PCs. And the most vexing part is all it takes is a native iSync plugin -- super easy, you know? Trust us, it'll be worth it. You want the Mac community on your side.
Multimedia - The multimedia aspects of the Treo are really underappreciated, and that's probably because they're very poorly integrated right now. Pocket Tunes, TCPMP, and Kinoma are alright, but -- love it or hate it -- the iPod functionality and integration in the iPhone completely redefined multimedia convergence in cellphones. But remember: a lot of people (us included) aren't really into the whole iTunes ecosystem, and would love a viable alternative. Again, make loading multimedia on the Treo as simple as drag and drop, and make playing it back as simple and sexy as Apple has.
Get with Google - You've already taken some baby steps here -- it's great that you're pre-loading Google Maps and all that -- but you need to go deeper. Offer a great mobile versions of Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Reader, etc. and you'll have a good shot at winning over some of the millions and millions of people who have migrated to Google's ecosystem. Besides, it's not just about syncing with the desktop anymore, it's about syncing with the cloud.
Stop wasting money on the Foleo - We all know this isn't going anywhere. And even if it does do alright -- and let's be real, it's never going to do better than alright -- it's really just a distraction from the main business you're already neglecting. Besides, how many Treo companions do you expect to sell if the Treo itself isn't up to snuff? The Foleo is not the way to make the core product better.
Make better ads - We know this is easier said than done, but all this "It's not a phone, it's a Treo" crap isn't cutting it. Even stodgy old Sprint and Verizon have gotten the message on advertising -- look at the Chocolate, connectile dysfunction, and flashlight commercials, which have been really successful. If you can't match them at inspiring current and potential users to spend money on you, you need a new ad agency.
Stop keeping us in the dark - A lot of former Treo fanatics we've spoken with have abandoned Palm because they're just tired of the complete lack of information about stuff like where the platform is going and when much-needed software updates will be available. We don't expect you to reveal all your secrets (that's what Engadget is here for), but it would be nice to get some confirmation about when we'll finally see some the first Linux-powered Treos, not cagey answers and misleading statements. If you're worried about cannibalizing sales, don't be, because a lot of people who might stick around for a new-and-improved Treo are already jumping ship for iPhones, HTCs, and BlackBerrys.
Look, we know what we're talking about here won't be able to happen today, tomorrow, or next week. It's going to require some serious time, dedication, and faith in the brand you've built. Your stock is tumbling, the lowest it's been in months; your customers have lost faith, and those buying Treos seem to be just going through the motions; your efforts to expand your business have gone unfulfilled, and perhaps most importantly, your consumers are unhappy and looking for the next great thing -- that you're not providing. But it's not entirely hopeless. Your biggest competition's already shown its hand, and you've seen how successful they've been. Look at what they've done right (and wrong), and build upon it.
Even if you only implemented half the suggestions we've laid out here we think you could really turn things around. And we do, honestly, want you to make it through this thing. We want to love Palm like we loved it in the old days, and know somewhere, deep down, you've got some fight left in you. And believe you us, this is your shot. The bottom's about to drop out on the Treo, and if you can't make it happen soon, you may never get another chance to get a foothold on innovation.
Your friends and fans,
By Peter Rojas, Ryan Block, and Joshua Topolsky