Editorial: Why I'm a Palm fan and not a fanatic
I’ve been a loyal Palm user for many years. Going back to the old Palm M105 I’ve been a Palm diehard, up through the Tungsten T, Tungsten T3 (best PDA ever), a Treo 650, Treo 755p, and now the Palm Pre. Don’t get me wrong, I really do like the Palm Pre and believe that it is the best smartphone on the market and webOS certainly has more potential than any other platform, but years of observation have left me somewhat jaded on the future of Palm.
This time one year ago I was lost as to what my next phone was going to be. My Sprint contract was close to being up for renewal and while I was still a fan of the old Palm OS, it simply couldn’t compare to the offerings from Apple and Google. Problem is, Android a year ago was still pretty darned rough around the edges and even then I didn’t like the idea of being locked in the Apple iPhone ecosystem. And Sprint, oh poor lowly Sprint, they didn’t have a single new phone that I found really appealing. My Treo was by no means in bad shape - the 755p was a tank, after all - but I’m a self-professed technology whore and I had a bad hankering for the latest.
Thankfully, it wasn’t much longer before Palm revealed webOS and the Pre. I though I was saved, and through the next six months that it took for Palm and Sprint to finally ship the phone I read everything I could about it, jumped back into discussion of the phone and Palm, and eventually came to be a writer and editor for PreCentral. The Pre finally landed in my hands on launch day and I couldn’t have been happier.
But the five months since have slightly soured my opinion of Palm. With my observation ramped up by orders of magnitude so that I could effectively cover Palm and its products, I’ve come to be more than a bit jaded. If webOS had launched like this two years ago, or even just a year ago, it would have been more acceptable. But we live in a world where smartphones are becoming more and more prevalent and manufacturers and developers have stepped up their game considerably in response to, well, the iPhone. The more competitive devices there are on the market, the better yours has to be to truly stand out.
Here’s the problem: the standout part of the Pre is the webOS operating system, and even that has some glaring shortcomings. But I’ll start with the hardware, which simply put is unacceptably inferior. Don’t get me wrong, I really like the design concept, but clearly it’s not designed or built well. I know that there are plenty of Pre users that managed to get a good unit at their first (and only) purchase, but I can speak from experience that not everybody has received quality hardware.
My first Pre was afflicted with the infamous slider crashes because of a loose battery compartment. The Touchstone back contacts on my second Pre randomly broke. And after only a few weeks my third Pre began to develop stress cracks around the USB door. I have a Touchstone, so the only time I ever used USB was to hook up to my computer, which maybe happened twice a week at most. So now I’m on my fourth Pre - by now most sane customers would have turned to something else, but clearly I’m not sane.
As best as I can tell, the Pixi is a much more solid phone than the Pre. I wish I could say that the slider design of the Pre makes it inherently fragile, but given the fact that slider phones had been on the market for several years before the Pre was even conceived, it’s unacceptable for the hardware to be this shoddy. You could say that the curved slider makes the Pre more prone to breakage, and you’d probably be right. One has to wonder why that wasn’t realized before trotting the phone out on stage at CES. When Palm phones were more dominant in the smartphone world it wasn’t so bad for the hardware to be less-than-stellar, but now that you’re at the bottom of the heap those same low standards just aren’t good enough.
So what kept me with Palm and the Pre, aside from the fact that I’m paid to write about the company and its devices? webOS, that’s what. If there’s one thing that I am more than a technology whore, it’s a sucker for good design. The ease of use experience that is the webOS user interface is in my eyes unequalled. Where the iPhone set a new bar in the UI world, Palm stuck their pole into the box and cleanly vaulted over that bar (that’s a pole vaulting analogy, for those of you with dirty minds). The nearly seamless multi-tasking interface of webOS is second to none and is wrapped in beautiful graphics, but in most every other area it falls short of the competition.
There’s a place for apps built on these foundations - things like translators and calculators and pretty much everything else that fills the App Catalog is fine. But heavier apps, the kind that now drive smartphone adoption and are clearly evident as the keystone to the iPhone’s continued success, can’t work off these tools. Apps like Palm’s own Calendar and Email struggle to run smoothly even with the beast of a processor that is inside the Pre.
There’s only so much tweaking that can be done to make these apps faster, and when Calendar ran faster on my old Treo and its comparatively pathetic hardware, there’s a case to be made for over thinking the coding approach. That same case will argue for native coding. At its core, webOS is a Linux operating system and as such is capable of running Linux apps. Palm has not yet given access to Linux development, which is really the only way that we’re going to get the kind of impressive apps that have made the iPhone so popular are making Android into a platform with which to be dealt.
On the subject of hardware, the beefy processor inside the Pre is an impressive chip. But it also has an impressive counterpart, the GPU, that’s sitting there completely idle. Why it’s idle is a mystery to me, except that Palm has clearly chosen not to enable it. I’m hopeful that it will be enabled at some point, along with the aforementioned native SDK. But each day and each webOS update that goes by I have to wonder when that day will come. The Pre’s processing and graphics potential are comparable to the mighty iPhone 3GS, yet the Pre still lags horribly in comparison. While some of that can be blamed on having a multi-tasking operating system, when you’re running what are supposed to be lightweight web apps it’s hard to defend the sluggishness.
At least Palm put 8 GB of storage in both the Pre and Pixi, and sure after counting the OS there’s really just over 7 GB available, but that’s par for the course. I can even deal with the lack of expandable storage, though it would make me happy to have the option (and give me one more thing to lord over the heads of my locked-down, uni-tasking, iTunes-hobbled friends that tote iPhones). But what’s laughably absurd is how that storage space is allocated for apps.
I completely understand Palm’s motivation in partitioning the storage space such that apps are segregated from the USB partition and not available to the average user. Since the App Catalog is an ecosystem with no serial codes, developers are dependent upon Palm protecting their apps from the fingers of less-than-scrupulous users. Imagine the backlash developers would have given if the app files were easily copied from the USB drive partition. So I do get why Apps were hidden away in a separate partition, but Palm knows as well as I do that where there’s a will, there’s a way, and Palm provides the way in the form of a publicly available SDK.
But keeping apps to a partition poses a bigger problem than developer backlash: user backlash. The problem is that we’ve run out of space. I’ve hit the app space limit as have thousands of other Pre users. Palm has an App Catalog with close to 400 apps now available and most users can only download 40 of those at the most. This limitation is not only crippling users, but it’s going to cripple developers as users are forced to chose between apps not because of their price or features, but because of their size. Eight gigabytes of storage space is a good thing, but only being able to use a few dozen megabytes of it is not so great.
Here’s where I can truly express my fan vs. fanatic argument over Palm. Of all the shortcomings of the Pre and webOS, the app space limit is the most galling. It demonstrates and incredibly lack of foresight in the design of webOS. Palm knew as well as anybody that the future of mobile computing, nay, the present of mobile computing, was hinged on apps. People need more than a calendar, email, tasks, memos, and a web browser. Being able to easily extend the function of your device was one of the hallmarks of Palm OS. The iPhone has taken that to an even greater extreme by building an ecosystem with more than 100,000 apps that have been downloaded more than two billion times. Read that again: two billion downloads.
While some may quip that iPhone users are simply app hounds, you can’t deny that Apple and the App Store have changed the face of mobile computing. I think it’s been for the better, and given Palm’s embrace of an App Catalog - albeit in limited beta form - and the recent overtures to developers, Palm clearly recognizes that the game has to be stepped up on the apps front.
But I’m afraid that Apple has also changed the mobile computing space for the worse on the features front. Apple made it acceptable to launch a phone without all the standard phone features intact. While that was okay for their first phone, and marginally excusable for their second phone (I’m looking at you, MMS and video recording), it’s not acceptable for somebody who had been a player in the smartphone industry for more than seven years by the time the Treo was announced. While the Pre did bring more to the table at launch than the iPhone, in many small ways it was a disappointing step back from Palm OS Treo smartphones.
While webOS is impressive in many ways, it is the small things that make it a complete package. It’s the small things that made Palm OS so nice and kept me on the platform for years despite the advances of other systems. And it’s the small things that were missing from webOS at launch, many of which still are. Simply put, it’s unacceptable for a four-year-old Treo to be able to do things out of the box that a brand new supposedly state-of-the-art Pre cannot.
It’s tantamount to Chevy releasing its upcoming Volt electric car without cruise control or FM radio (but still including AM). It wouldn’t be a complete package, just like a phone without customizable alert tones or video recording is not a complete package. Such things can be excused in a company’s first offering or in bargain basement products - you won’t see cruise control in a thousand-dollar Tata Nano - but not in the flagship device from an established, if downtrodden, market leader.
A few years ago Palm had lost its way. You can trace it all the way back to the spinning off of PalmSource and the Palm OS and the lack of aggressive pursuit of a new operating system as Palm OS quickly aged. Has Palm gotten its Mojo back with the Pre and webOS? Not quite, though they’re on their way. There are still many steps to be taken, but the first has to be a true commitment to quality and excellence. It doesn’t matter how cool the concept of webOS is if users are frustrated by the lack of simple features or less than great hardware or the relative dearth of apps in general and the complete absence of truly impressive apps.
I still have faith in Palm. They’re the scrappy beaten-down company in the smartphone world, getting back into the race and impressing users and media alike. It helps their cause that many people remember Palm devices of old and can look at webOS and see the heritage, yet still be wowed by the modern newness. But some of that wow factor wears off after using the devices for a while. I know that Palm is a small company with just around a thousand employees, and competing against behemoths like Apple, Research in Motion, Google, and Microsoft is no small task.
The Pre and webOS were a good start on the road back to relevance, but they’ll only get Palm so far. I have little doubt that the Pixi will sell well, especially if Palm can quickly get it onto carriers other than Sprint. But even the strong-selling Centro was barely enough to keep Palm afloat, and today the numbers that the Centro put up are positively pathetic compared to how well other more modern smartphones have sold.
Palm is under new management with Jon Rubinstein and has brought in plenty of new talent in recent months. It makes me hopeful for Palm, but there’s not much that I or any other smartphone user can do with hope alone. That hope has to be translated into results, and those results have to be real tangible improvements to hardware and software. Palm may have been a big player in getting the smartphone industry to the point where the market was poised to take off, but right now they’re clearly not acting like the top dog. In some ways Palm is ahead of the curve with webOS, but in many others they’re still stuck thinking like they were years ago. And that is why I’m only a fan, and not a fanatic.