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Extending the Life Line of the Palm OS

by Marc Hedlund
07/05/2001

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
Handheld
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.

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