Engadget Cares: The state of Palm - checking in a year later

Outgoing Engadget editor-in-chief Ryan Block contributes Engadget Cares, a friendly advice column for the people who make your technology.

Hard to believe, but it's been a year and a day since Peter, Josh, and I published our intervention letter to Palm, wherein we rattled off a number of (admittedly unsolicited) suggestions on how we thought they might best turn things around at a time when Microsoft, RIM, and Apple were really eating into their slice of the smartphone pie.

Palm CEO Ed Colligan took the time to publicly reply, letting everyone know that he "forwarded [our letter] to [Palm's] entire executive staff and many others at Palm have read it. ...We are attacking almost every challenge [Engadget] noted, so stay tuned." When the dust settled, we were cautiously optimistic, if not a little hopeful.

In some ways that letter inspired Engadget Cares. And since it's my last day here at Engadget as editor-in-chief and all, it seems only appropriate to check in on things and see whether Palm really did "attack every challenge" from a year ago. Read on.

So Palm, I'm going to go over each point from last year's letter, awarding a Treo 600 for every bit you've gotten right, and a Foleo for any (continued) misdeeds. At the end I'll add it up and see how you've been doing.

A Treo 600 represents +1, while

a Foleo represents -1


Get thin - I thought we might have to start off on a sour note, because prior to the Pro's launch earlier this week, Treos were pretty much the same place we were last year when it comes to girth. Some newer devices, like the Centro, are down from the usual 0.8-inches thick to 0.73-inches. Meanwhile, the iPhone 3G actually got thicker, and STILL manages to be significantly thinner at 0.48-inches; RIM's Curve is at 0.6-inches, and the upcoming Blackberry Bold sexpot is a scant 0.5-inches thick. But you managed to make the Pro 0.53-inches, and by all accounts that's the thinnest Palm smartphone yet. Just don't stop there, okay? You can always make it a little thinner.

Bigger, higher resolution displays - Same deal. In fact, Palm fans took a huge step back on the Centro, which brought us down to an eye-straining ~2.2-inches. You know it too, Palm, because you totally downplay the Centro's screen size. Sure, you could argue that it's got more pixel density, and that's a good thing when your UI scales. Palm OS 5 does not, so bundle it with some bifocals. We're glad the Pro's screen is no longer recessed (we hear it ain't easy to do a flush resistive touchscreen), but it's still the same display, you know?

Don't mess with the keyboard - I definitely like the mild, incremental improvements made on newer Palm devices, but the Centro keyboard is, as predicted last year, "impossible to type on" (unless you've got a four year old's thumbs), and the new Treo Pro is actually a step back for the flagship line's fuller-sized pad. It's closer to the 800w-style size, but you've managed to actually make it harder to type on, congrats. And don't even get me started on the fact that you don't seem to be an inch closer to a sliding QWERTY. Really, why not do one?

Make it look nice - The Centro seems more toy than smartphone, the 800w kind of reminds us of a smiling clown in makeup, and the Pro ironically shares the same keyboard and design cues as the lowest-end device in the lineup. Hell, even RIM, long-time purveyor of some of the world's ugliest phones, has totally gotten with the program in the last year.

Add WiFi - The 800w and Pro have it, and that's definitely a step in the right direction for devices of this class. Don't stop there, though!

Think about adding some storage - 60MB (in the 755p) and 170MB (in the 800w) of available user memory doesn't do a smartphone a whole lot of good anymore. Even HTC's Touch Diamond stepped to the game with 4GB, 25x your capacity.

Put the kibosh on the Centro / Gandolf / Treo 800p - Turns out the Treo Centro is one of your best selling phones of all time. Congrats! But I do think that has more to do with the aggressive price point, and less to do the device itself. And as of July, $100 for a Centro (with EDGE) became a whole lot harder for consumers to justify in the face of a $200 iPhone (with 3G). You may have to make this one free if you want to continue fending off Cupertino.

You also just announced the Pro, which you're selling unlocked for $550 -- which means you couldn't get AT&T on board to sell it alongside the iPhone at $200 subsidized, or something like that. I don't remember the last time you launched a new flagship product in the US that didn't have a carrier launch partner, so we have to wonder a bit why AT&T got cold feet.

The real point here is to say I still don't really think Palm's on the right track with these devices. They feel just as out of touch with where the market's gone. On the flip side, at least you're trying SOMETHING new, which is a departure from the last few years of Palm products. Plus, a couple million Centros don't lie, nor does NPD's stats which peg Palm's share of US smartphone sales in 1H08 gaining 3% to 12% (over 1H07's 9%). So we'll give you the 600. This time.

Software suggestions

Completely overhaul the OS - In the time you've tried and failed with Cobalt / OS 6, tried again (and failed again) with that next-gen Linux OS (later sold to ACCESS), and have been working on the next-next-gen Linux platform: RIM's totally overhauled their entire user experience and sold a gazillion devices, Microsoft has shipped nearly a half dozen versions of Windows Mobile, Apple's shipped two versions of their mobile platform, and Android was announced and is just about ready to ship.

Meanwhile your target for 2007 turned into end of 2008, then early 2009, and now the first half of 2009 (according to a recent NYT profile) -- but the fact that there's no official (or leaked) alpha shots, no public or private SDK, or really nothing else to go by at this point leaves us skeptical, to say the least. But hey, in the midst of Helio's unraveling you did pick up the dude behind the SideKick's interface, and if there's one thing Android doesn't have going for it so far, it seems to be UI savvy.

The rest (be open, add true multi-tasking, embrace developers, add a better browser, offer great Mac support, beef up the multimedia, and get with Google) - These are a little harder to directly gauge, because they presumed you'd have actually shipped (or at least begun to detail) the new platform by now. But you haven't. And almost all the points we made are still as valid today as they were last year, with only a small amount of forward motion coming from only the most tenacious 3rd party developers still trying to plug the holes.

Fortunately, you still have an advantageous position, especially in light of Apple's false-openness with the iPhone. You need to really let devs and users get their hands dirty with your platform and devices. Trust us, people are getting sick of the iPhone App Store gulag, and Android's radical openness is going to help shift things in the other direction. Bank on differentiation, you might not have any other choice. Since we're not any better off today, though, you get a Foleo. Just one though, not all seven.

Other Stuff

Stop wasting money on the Foleo - Sure, the whole netbook market really started to take off around the time you were killing the Foleo, but I stand by that recommendation big time. What some people didn't see in hindsight was that the Foleo was a totally different concept than netbooks, and was poorly positioned from the start. Expecting users to fork out $600 for a giant "companion" device in order to make up for the long list of shortcomings in your own mobile platform is no way to sell either product.

And unfortunately for the Foleo, it couldn't have lived as a netbook, either; Eee PCs still would have outpaced it because they provide a proper laptop-like experience, be it with Windows XP or just having Firefox in Linux. The Foleo didn't just shirk the experience we appreciate in a good netbook, it also depended heavily on having a cellphone and syncing services between devices. (For example, it couldn't do email by itself -- it required a phone to sync email with and send through.)

In fact, as you may recall, I got to spend some time with a late-model Foleo. Everything about it was underwhelming, and the one thing the Foleo needed to nail -- the browsing -- was a complete failure. (Think: no tabs, no Flash, couldn't even load Gmail, and LOTS of crashing.) Plus, going up against Asus's Eee would have eventually turned out to be a major distraction for an already distracted company, as well as an uphill battle due to the Foleo's fundamentally flawed premise. Trust me when I say that the idea won't be vidicated, and that the smartest thing Palm ever did with the Foleo was to kill it.

Make better ads - "It's a Palm thing" That's really the best you guys could do? These are some of the worst technology ads I've ever seen. And what's worse, they don't even tell you anything about the devices (like, say, why it would be a better choice than a BlackBerry or the iPhone). If I were you, I'd drop Young and Rubicam and run for the hills. Maybe pick up TBWA \ Chiat \ Day -- the people that make the iPhone ads should know better than anyone how to counter them.

Stop keeping us in the dark - Again, nothing much has changed here. No clear timelines have been set for the next-gen OS in spite of developers flocking in droves to Apple's platform. If devs were on the fence before, they've jumped it by now. Would it really hurt to tell people how things are going? Palm has a blog, yet we rarely see it used for anything but the usual company line-toeing.

In fact, I might say things are even more closed off than they were before, and Ed Colligan still won't sit down with Engadget to talk about what's going on with Palm. To be fair, when we last saw him out at an event, Ed expressed interest in an interview with Engadget. But for whatever reason, try though we might, the people at Palm won't seem to let us drop by for a sit-down. Go figure.

So let's see where we stand!

That's four Treo 600s!

And eight Foleos.

Ouch, that's a total score of -4. Or, if you want to look at it glass-half-full, that's four things that have been tangibly improved over this time last year.

Without sounding like too much of a broken record, are we really better off with today's Palm products? Devices take 12-18+ months from start to ship, but I think a lot of us believed that after Elevation's recapitalization and the installation of former iPod executive Jon Rubinstein to lead your product-development, we might see some short term results. In a sense, we have -- you've managed to win over some new Palm converts selling a lot of budget-priced Centros -- but it's hardly a satisfying return to the high-flying glory days.

I'd also wager that kind of gain won't be long term. RIM and Apple know that business devices have to get personal, and vice-versa; your current (and from what we can tell, future) offerings don't seem to address the need for a single, versatile, do everything device. (Say, doesn't that sound a little like the original Treo mission statement?) We're in the same Palm stasis we've been in for about a half a decade now, waiting for the new software as the launch timetables slip quarter after quarter, year after year.

Picking up the Android mantle still seems like a great short-term move, but it seems like once again you'd rather go to bat with Linux alone. That's understandable to a certain extent, but why not at least build a few Android devices alongside your forthcoming Nova / Palm OS II, Windows Mobile, and legacy Garnet-based handsets? It'd show you're still interested in staying relevant and competitive as an important new mobile platform emerges, or at very least that you're humble enough to recognize there hasn't been a major Palm OS update since 2002. No, we aren't expecting Ed to give us another public response, just for Palm to make good on its heritage of innovation -- however you want to define the word.

Ryan Block is the editor-at-large of Engadget, and is currently at work on a new gadget-related content startup.

If you know a company or technology in need of a little advice (especially one too afraid to ask for it), hit him up at engadgetcaresATengadgetDOTcom.