Why I've Turned My Back on Palm

Palm Inc. -- a company that came to define the once-robust PDA market -- will cease to be an independent entity later this week, following ratification by shareholders of Hewlett-Packard's $1.2 billion purchase.

Since Palm spent much of its corporate life as a division of other firms (U.S. Robotics, 3Com), it's not all that shocking to see Palm under yet another corporate umbrella. What I find more striking is seeing yet another case of a tech vendor that led in one niche being unable to transition as technology moves on.

The classic cases, of course, are the mainframe computer companies that lost massive market share when minicomputers came along; followed by those minicomputer makers being unable to thrive in the era of PCs.

And now, we have the PDA maker that couldn't transition to the smartphone.

At least Palm gave it a shot -- unlike, say, Digital Equipment Corp., which entered the PC arena late and halfheartedly. (I covered DEC in the '80s and lost track of how many times I heard founder and CEO poo-poo the PC in comparison to a VAX terminal).

But while Palm unveiled decent hardware with the Pre and a fairly impressive operating system with webOS, it didn't have the marketing muscle to compete with iPhone or Android -- among service providers, consumers or, perhaps more crucially, app developers.

Having owned a Palm device of one sort or another for more than a decade, stretching back to the original Pilot, it pains me to admit that the platform has become an also-ran when it comes to applications. I've yet to find a decent Twitter app (or even one I've heard of running elsewhere), Facebook is somewhat mediocre, and the iTunes sync problem is well known (as ticked as I am at Apple over blocking Palm's "illegal" iTunes sync kludge, I'm also rather frustrated with Palm for not coding one properly after all this time). And quite shockingly for a company whose heritage is the personal digital assistant, the calendar is rather inelegant when it comes to scrolling ahead or even adding appointments. I usually end up inputing new items from my desktop to Google Calendar and then syncing.

Some Palm owners are optimistic abut HP's acquisition, expecting an infusion of cash and some nifty new webOS-powered hardware. I, however, am skeptical. Unless HP wants to compete heavily on price or simply target the small existing webOS user base, its best strategy may be offering a broad hardware lineup including tablets and netbooks as well as an attractive platform for the enterprise. But that doesn't do much for the power user walking into a retail store without a competitive lineup of apps. What is HP's argument to stick with (or move to) Palm? Hardware that offers more for less than anything built for Android? Suddenly catching up in the application race? Unlikely. Barring a fairly dramatic change in current trend lines, I expect Palm and I will likely be parting ways the next time phone upgrade rolls around.

Sharon Machlis is online managing editor at Computerworld. Her e-mail address is smachlis@computerworld.com. You can follow her on Twitter @sharon000 or subscribe to her RSS feeds:
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