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Extending the Life Line of the Palm OS

by Marc Hedlund

Recent reports of faltering Palm sales leave fans of the PalmOS wondering what it will take to correct the course. Palm CEO Carl Yankowski has just announced a partnership with PricewaterhouseCoopers to sell Palms into the enterprise, but will that be enough? What could Palm and its main rival, Handspring, do to bring back the magic of the Palm platform? If this temporary slump can be overcome, what of the lurking competition from Microsoft with the PocketPC and Compaq with the PocketPC-based iPaq handhelds? Below we consider some more radical ideas to help Palm and Handspring to extend the life line of the PalmOS, so that the many fans of the Palm platform don't get left with empty hands.

Bundling: An App In the Palm is Worth Two on the Net

One of the most amazing things about the Palm community is the huge number of applications available for the platform. Unfortunately, most Palm users don't have the faintest idea how to install any one of these applications (and the PalmOS doesn't make it any easier -- see below), and probably have never seen a Palm accessory. When Palm users do discover applications well-suited to their jobs or interests, they love the experience -- almost as though they've found a whole new handheld.

Palm and Handspring should introduce people to these applications and accessories by selling role-specific handheld bundles. For instance, Palm could sell a "Reporter Palm" bundled with software and accessories a writer or newspaper reporter might need:

The Reporter Palm Bundle
Palm Vx, lightweight and thin with a long battery life
Software Accessories
WordSmith for word processing Keyboard for writing stories
Noah Pro, a dictionary program Modem for filing reports
IR Print, for printing drafts on the go Travel kit for working overseas

Without developing a single line of software, without making any new hardware, we just built a Palm that is infinitely more useful for a reporter or a writer than any they could buy off the shelf today. No muss, no fuss, no learning complicated techno-nonsense to make it all work. Could a motivated reporter build this setup by themselves? Of course, and some have. Considering, though, that Palm devices seem to have saturated the techno-geek population, what better way to move out to the non-geek world than by making it incredibly easy for any user to discover the applications that will endear them to the platform?

Packages for other professions are easy to imagine as well. Student Palm could be a low-end bundle, oriented around note-taking and a budget price. JetSet Palm could be loaded with travel software and accessories for the frequent-flyer club. Dr. Handspring could come with the Physician's Desk Reference and a voice recorder springboard modules. The Executive Handspring could come with Margi System's PowerPoint presenter module, a leather case, and an expense tracker. Taken to the extreme, the Palm and Handspring factories could do just-in-time packaging and software installation for a host of markets -- or even allow people to "build their own Palm" from a Wizard-like interface. As an added benefit, this would increase the rewards for the best Palm application developers, encouraging more applications and a higher level of quality.

Simply by packaging the Palm correctly--putting it in a new box, adding the things a professional market will need, and giving it a name--the value of the Palm platform could go up enormously for the general population. If you don't think that matters, ask Steve Jobs what packaging and ease of use have done to turn Apple around. Make it easy for people to use.

Not That Wireless, This Wireless!

With the release of the Palm VII, the Palm community took a step towards the trendy area of wireless connectivity, enabling the device, supposedly, to access the Internet from anywhere.

It's time to admit that this, like the Newton's hgrdwritimg rccojnitien, was an idea before it's time.

Jeff Hawkins, inventor of the Palm, certainly has -- apparently he was opposed to it from the beginning. A recent New York Times' article about wireless devices made the point very well, when a reporter couldn't get the most popular devices to work in midtown Manhattan. The Times piece read for all the world like a Newton review from eight years ago. The technology just isn't good enough. The connectivity isn't fast enough, the applications aren't compelling, and the interfaces are miserable. The Palm VII is not the right wireless for 2001.

In the time since the VII's release, another technology has emerged, one that deserves more attention from the Palm community: WiFi, or 802.11b. This standard for local wireless connectivity has everything the PalmOS needs from wireless today:

  1. It works.
  2. It has taken off in the corporate environment.
  3. It fits with the core PalmOS competency.
  4. It opens new markets for Palm companies.

HED: 802.11b on the PalmOS

For an early peek at 802.11b access on the Palm platform, read Derrick Story's review of the Xircom 802.11 Module for the Visor.

Imagine this scenario: a set of corporate users wants to schedule a conference room. Do they want to use their Palm VII's to go find a room over the Internet? No! Internet service is going to be way too slow, will create security hassles since they'll have to authenticate over the Internet, and it probably won't work in the middle of their office building anyways! Instead, they use their WiFi-enabled Palms to access the corporate calendar and schedule the room reliably and quickly. Ideal! If the WiFi user needs Internet access, the WiFi base station can act as a gateway -- at much higher speeds and greater reliability than a Palm VII could ever offer.

WiFi opens the door to consumer and retail applications as well. Ordering a movie ticket from your Palm when you get to the theater would be no problem, and inventory management or even table-side credit card clearance would be much more realistic with WiFi. One recent announcement had San Francisco Giants fans receiving statistics and updates on their Palm handhelds by using the IR beaming port at stations around the stadium. That's a cute hack, but wouldn't it be better to use WiFi to deliver information directly to their seats? Any business that wanted easily accessible in-store information and interaction could just place WiFi terminals around its location and tell its customers to "Bring your Palm!"

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Palm and/or Handspring should market the Palm Corporate Network, a WiFi-based solution that includes WiFi hardware for high-end Palms (Handspring, of course, is already covered on this front since WiFi Springboards exist for all of their models), shared calendar software that integrates with the Palm Datebook and Palm Desktop apps, and a built-in security system so that authentication is easy for the user. In addition to solidifying the PalmOS lead in the corporate world, this also opens a whole new world of application markets for the Palm community to address. Wireless database access makes a lot more sense over a LAN than over the Internet. Browser-based Intranet apps are going to perform a whole lot better than waiting three minutes for a Google response. And so on. In addition, WiFi might provide the single greatest incentive for users to upgrade to higher-performance handhelds.

The Palm VII should be given a nice retirement with an engraved gold watch. The future has passed it by. Its descendents can take another stab at the wireless Internet when the time is right, but just as personal computers did, they should master the local area network before trying to take on the world-wide network.

Making the Desktop an Application Showcase

On the Palm.com home page Palm proudly announces that 9,500 applications are available for its platform. An impressive number! Curiously, the software page says 8,000, and the press releases say 10,000. Anyone home in there? This is, though, an improvement over the time when SimCity for Palm was the featured application for months on end. (It's a great game, but the are 8,000 -- er, 10,000 -- other possibilities, many of which deserve time.) Sometimes one has to wonder whether Palm thinks of the developer community as an asset, or instead as a strange phenomenon better left undisturbed.

The PalmOS is a delight to program -- it features a very well-designed API with excellent developer tools. Developers have responded to it extremely well, producing very high quality applications in almost every category imaginable. If the strongest asset of the Palm platform is its ease of use and brilliant design, perhaps the second strongest is the range of applications developers have made available for it. So why isn't Palm doing more to improve and promote the application experience? One idea in this vein is elaborated above, but there are other areas where applications could use some help from the mothership.

The worst of these failings is the applications installation experience, completely unchanged since the release of the Pilot 1000 many years ago. The current system is workable, but it relies on the persistence of the Palm user to get the application from discovery to operation. Palm applications are underused in part because installation is so convoluted, relying on an unspecified packaging format and suited only for the VCR programmers of the world.

To solve this, the PalmOS should come with a Web browser plugin to make installation as simple as clicking on a link on a Web page. (This is easy to do: define a media type for Palm apps, say, application/palminstall. Define an XML format for application descriptors, listing required PRC's by URL, license for clickthrough, etc. Then install a plugin that is called for that media type, which parses the descriptor and throws the PRC's in for HotSync. Done!) Not all applications will be able to use this (for instance, conduits would be harder to get right), but for the vast majority, this will dramatically simplify the process.

Once installing applications is easier, the developer community should get the prominent promotion it already deserves -- a place on the Web sites of the handheld makers that shines the spotlight on the best of these applications. The Palm.com and Handspring.com Web store shopping carts should be upselling these apps as aggressively as Amazon, making the new Palm handheld owner aware of the riches hidden in the developers' work.

Another area where applications could use more support is in desktop presence. The built-in PalmOS applications (Date Book, Address Book, etc.) all have two representations: one on the Palm, and one in the Palm Desktop, the PC application used for entering and viewing data. The Desktop application is extremely useful -- indeed, one of the key innovations of the Palm was allowing people to enter data on the Desktop and have it automatically synchronized to their Palm device. As easy as it is to program applications for the Palm itself, though, the benefits of the Palm Desktop are completely limited to the built-in applications, and developers cannot extend the Desktop in any way. (The best a developer can do is to create a conduit, which can call some outside application when a HotSync is performed. This is an okay workaround, but it requires the developer to produce and maintain separate conduits and desktop applications for each platform -- which usually means only Windows users get the benefits of conduit connectivity.)

Related Articles:

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Compaq's iPAQ PocketPC: The Multi-Purpose Multimedia Handheld

In any other operating system, a "desktop" is an area where the user can add documents and programs suited to their needs -- and the Palm Desktop should do the same! Rather than being fixed into the limited set of built-in applications, the Palm Desktop should recognize a cross-platform interface format (perhaps just a reuse of the Palm PRC format) that would allow Palm developers to easily create a desktop representation for their Palm applications. These desktop views should enjoy the same HotSync and data exchange benefits found in the built-in applications -- allowing them to get out of the handheld-only world. Such a scheme will dramatically lower the barrier for desktop connectivity for Palm apps, and as a result make add-on applications much more visible and useful for the user. In addition, this will expand the usefulness of the Palm platform for Macintosh and Linux users, allowing them to enjoy desktop connectivity for their applications.

Too many Palm users view their handheld as nothing but a glorified datebook and contact manager. That's a shame -- the Palm developer community has done excellent work to extend the utility of the platform, and the desktop environment should do more to make these add-on applications first-class citizens of the platform.

Standards: It's Time

There comes a time in the development of every technology when the free-wheeling early days must come to an end, and either one player dominates, or the standing players must get around the table and agree to some standards for the way their industry will develop. If they don't, they leave their customers with an array of unsatisfactory choices.

Today, the PalmOS faces a real and growing threat from the PocketPC, particularly Compaq's iPaq handheld. PocketPCs are gaining on the outside, and the Palm community should think long and hard about which enemy is more important -- the competing Palm players, or Microsoft?

The PocketPC platform widely uses CompactFlash (CF) and PC Card accessories, giving its users wide interoperability with digital cameras, laptops, and other devices. In contrast, the PalmOS companies have each decided to do their own thing. Handspring was formed around its Springboard expansion format, which is large enough to accommodate many types of accessories. Palm itself has recently and mysteriously adopted the SecureDigital (SD) card format, too small for any interoperability, and without the hardware interfaces that have worked well for Handspring. Sony -- and Sony alone -- is relentlessly pursuing its MemoryStick format. HandEra, a recent entrant, split the difference by supporting SD and CF at the same time.

Simply put, this creates an unacceptable confusion in the marketplace. Which is the better format? Which has more devices? Which one will work with my camera? And so forth. For most consumers, the answer will simply be, "Forget it." Without a great incentive, no one will bother. The PocketPC doesn't have this problem.

So, who's the bigger enemy? If they know what's good for them, the Palm players will sit down and back one format they all can live with -- and if they're really smart, they'll get behind the Compact Flash format already taking off with digital cameras and PocketPCs. Handspring has nothing to lose -- they can ship a CF Springboard and support their existing products plus CF expansion with no problem. Palm would have to swallow its pride and admit they made the wrong choice, but since they are the only company shipping SD for Palm right now, better to take the medicine while the patient is still alive. (They could even put out a CF-SD adaptor if they're committed to being wrong.) HandEra made the right choice and is already set. Sony....well, Sony is probably hopeless -- having lost the Betamax versus VHS war, they are unlikely to concede defeat until the war is already over. We can just start calling the MemoryStick "Betamax 2000" and see if they flinch.

While we have the players at the table (that is, while we're writing a wish list), it would also be an excellent idea to standardize the serial port. Every Palm handheld that has been released seems to have a new shape for clip-on devices like GPS and wireless modems (about which, see above), and some new way of attaching and HotSync'ing. The time for this sort of play is over. Palm needs a serial format analagous to the USB format for desktops -- something easy, standardized, and accessible for consumers to attach their Palm to their desktop, portable keyboard, or whatever else. While it may seem like a neat revenue trick to require each Palm user to buy a new Palm keyboard, HotSync cradle, modem, and whatever else each time they upgrade, consumers will get tired of that very quickly. Make the Palm an investment, one that will survive a year's worth of development, and the user will treat it that way, too.

Will these ideas make Palm and Handspring invulnerable to their competition? No, but they would lead the platform in the right direction: away from divisiveness and consumer confusion, away from the land of the three-function calculator, and towards a better user experience, richer utility, and new markets. If the Palm companies can't pull it off, surely a lesser platform will wind up winning, and consumers and fans of the PalmOS will wind up losing.

Marc Hedlund is an entrepreneur working on a personal finance startup, Wesabe.

Copyright © 2009 O'Reilly Media, Inc.