Palm: assimilate with Android or die

Make no mistake, Google dropped a bombshell all over the mobile industry today with today's Android announcement. Since the dawn of the handset we've seen little more than one proprietary device, system, and application environment after the next; when we're lucky, maybe some of those systems deigned 3rd parties worthy of developing something more than Java code for 'em. Even despite the endless promise of Linux and years of tilting towards open source cellphones has resulted in effectively nothing for mainstream wireless customers -- but all that changes today with the announcement of the first free, open, standard (and standards-based) mobile OS.

It's no surprise that Apple, Microsoft, Nokia, and RIM were absent participating in Android and the OHA; each of those power-players has built its mobile business around its own separate mobile platform: OS X, Windows Mobile, Symbian, and BlackBerry, respectively. But the cellphone company we expected to be first in line for Android and the Open Handset Alliance, the one manufacturer that is truly desperate for a powerful, pre-developed, open Linux mobile OS, is nowhere to be found. We are, of course, talking about Palm.

Let's break this down: in 2005 Google acquires startup Android (founded by Andy Rubin of Danger / Sidekick fame), and decides to spearhead a consortium of wireless companies -- handset manufacturers, carriers, chipset makers, developers, etc. -- to rally around a completely free, open, customizable mobile OS based on Linux. Why? Well, besides being possibly the biggest corporate user of Linux and open source software that we know of, the mobile space obviously holds incredible value for Google.

Getting their apps and services on the largely crappy, disparate mobile platforms that exist today has proven to be a huge pain; rich mobile application standards are scarce in the wireless software world, and Google's business is in serving information anytime, anywhere, on any device. It's easy for Google to guarantee their services will work on just about any computer purchased in the last decade, but the same is totally untrue of cellphones -- so they set out to change that, and it seems as though they will do just that. So yeah, a mobile play it's really a no-branier.

Now let's think about Palm, which has been struggling for years through countless setbacks to introduce its own Linux-based mobile OS, in the mean time using a continuously cobbled-together version of Palm OS 5 (originally introduced in 2002) throughout. Palm's first attempt at a next-gen mobile OS, dubbed Cobalt, is announced in 2004 and quickly becomes the stuff of vaporware legend, delayed over and over until ACCESS eventually buys the flagging PalmSource (more here on how that whole thing went down); ACCESS pledges to finish development of Palm's misplaced next-gen mobile OS, and then license it back to Palm (among other companies).

But Palm's had enough, so earlier this year it announces its intentions to release its own Linux-based OS -- again -- but this time without the help of its spin-off sister company Palm Source (which, of course, is now a part of ACCESS). And that new OS is quickly hyped and lauded -- and then delayed. Yet again. Pushed back into late 2008 at the earliest (although we won't be surprised if Palm revises and makes that 2009 or even later). And so we ask, Palm, where the hell were you when Google was rallying its Open Handset Alliance?

We find it hard to believe Google didn't approach Palm; it's not some secret that Palm has long intended make Linux the OS at the core of its flagship products for the foreseeable future. So why did Palm, badly in need of a leg up in getting its new mobile OS off the ground, shun this opportunity? Here Google is presumably offering up Palm a completely open and customizable mobile OS that's built to run on devices exactly like the ones Palm is developing to run its forthcoming platform. With Android, Palm no longer has to worry about mounting R&D costs, developing its own Linux variant, creating an application layer and SDK.

Suddenly all Palm has to do is develop its own UI for Android, give the system the old Palm fit n' finish, maybe whip up an emulator layer for previous Palm OS apps, and they instantly reap the all benefits they've been after chasing the Palm OS-unicorn. Palm's most desperate hour could be over; suddenly there's a light at the end of Palm's tunnel. In fact, if we didn't know any better, we'd even fancy Android was created by Andy Rubin and Google to help Palm out -- it's just too perfect a coincidence. So why didn't Palm join up?

We can think of lots of reasons they might have shied away. Maybe Palm didn't think Android was ready yet -- a company's got to have standards, you know. Of course, that's bunk because it's fairly clear that 30+ other huge industry names didn't feel the same way about Android's maturity. And even if it wasn't 100% there, Palm stands to benefit from the resources those dozens of other players are pouring into Android. This is a platform that stands to get really amazing really quickly because so many companies are putting so much behind it.

Then again, maybe Palm felt its own OS was further along or more technologically superior than Android -- but we doubt that. Palm just announced another delay for its new OS, so obviously things aren't chugging along quite as planned. We saw the same thing happen with Cobalt; it doesn't matter how advanced Palm's OS is, if it's not ready and available to use on a device, it may as well not exist. Meanwhile, companies like HTC -- which used to do all of Palm's Treo hardware -- are planning to release their first Android devices in 2008, which means they probably started working on those devices six months ago. You think a market leader like HTC is going to dive in with no technologically sound reason?

Perhaps Palm was worried about its developer community abandoning it for this new platform, and decided to provide their own alternative to stave away the barbarians at the gate. But it doesn't take an analyst to tell you that logic is absurd; the barbarians at the gate have become Palm's own disenfranchised development community. Palm's new OS will undoubtedly break compatibility with Palm OS 5, and developers, who've been without a decent platform upgrade in over five years, will likely jump at developing for Android. And they have every reason to. It's probable that in the next couple of years there will be vastly more Android-based devices from dozens of handset manufacturers and carriers worldwide than there will be Palm devices -- even when the new Palm OS is released. Even those who stick around to develop for the new Palm OS aren't going to do so exclusively -- there's just absolutely no reason not to at least port to Android.

So what's our takeaway here? Well, obviously we're extremely excited for what Google intends to do for the mobile industry. From where we sit, assuming it can deliver (and really, when doesn't Google deliver?), everyone seems to benefit from openness and standards: handset manufacturers, carriers, component makers, developers, and most of all, consumers. But of the companies we didn't hear from today, it's pretty clear Palm, with its wayward direction and flailing advances, has the most to gain from Google's path of the righteous. It's time Palm cut its losses, gave up on its Quixotic quest to do its own OS, and apply laser-like focus on the things that made Palm Palm: innovative hardware with masterful interfaces, and amazing applications. The choice is clear, Palm, assimilate with the rest of the Androids, or die alone.

P.S. -Palm issued the following statement to us: "Palm has always been committed to open platforms for developers. And Palm has the added differentiation of being able to tightly integrate the software platform with our hardware design, which we believe gives us an advantage in delivering a great user experience.

Palm customers have benefited from the availability of Google services on Palm's platform, such as Google Maps for mobile on Palm OS. And we look forward to further collaboration with Google to offer great user experiences on Palm products."