Extending the Life Line of the Palm OS
Pages: 1, 2

Making the Desktop an Application Showcase

On the 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 and 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.)

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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.