July 12, 2005
The Palm OS is Officially Dead (RIP 1996-2005)
Perhaps PalmSource has watched too many Monty Python episodes with their recent announcement, which goes something like this: And now for something completely different: We're dropping all traditional Palm OS development immediately and switching over to Linux. Not that I have anything against Linux, and recognizing the Palm OS may have reached the end of its road, but huh?
A number of people have asked me why I haven't posted much about Palms over the past year. The answer is simple: I just didn't see Palm going anywhere, even with the marvelous Treo as its flagship product. Don't get me wrong, as I love my Palm-based organizers with their simple ease of use. But the market has changed, and Palm has already been left behind as fairly irrelevant with the possible exception of the Treo. Much of the excitement is gone, and it's more than just market maturity. I see much more excitement over glitzy 3G camera phones and iPods -- heck, even PocketPCs (which I never thought I'd ever say). Even the cool Treos didn't catch on in the corporate world nearly as well as BlackBerries.
Perhaps that's why PalmSource's interim CEO, Patrick McVeigh, recently announced that it's shifting engineering efforts from the traditional PalmOS to a future Linux-based Palm OS. He stated, "We are delaying all development of products not directly related to this." Recall that PalmSource is the OS division spun off from then-Palm, so Palm could become palmOne and focus on the hardware. palmOne exhibited innovation with devices such as the collapsible Tungsten, the cool Treos, and recently with the voluminous LifeDrive.
PalmSource innovation? Not so much. Many moons ago, PalmOS 5 was rebranded as Garnet, and it was described as an interim platform until the "next big thing". The forthcoming PalmOS 6, Cobalt, was supposed to be their flagship smartphone OS. Sadly, it turned out to be much ado about nothing, and PalmOS 5 remained, well, clunky and limited.
Given PalmSource's previous grand OS announcements that went nowhere (e.g., Cobalt), it's really tough to think "going Linux" will change things much for PalmSource or the Palm platform. Existing Palm OS apps likely won't run on the new Linux-based OS. Last time I checked, that was well over 10,000 apps (probably closer to 15,000 now, cumulatively speaking). Marooned. You may see some new Palm program version updates, but probably not beyond the point when the existing market share starts dwindling. Software developers will likely go into maintenance mode to eek out as much revenue as possible while changing development efforts or simply moving on.
Given the inertia and entropy PalmSource experienced with the PalmOS in recent years, it's not a huge leap to consider other OS platforms. Indeed, PalmSource has publicly mentioned this possibility on various occasions. It doesn't make much sense to go develop yet another proprietary OS, which made Palm's prior acquisition of Be a head-scratcher. So, why not go with an open source OS?
The market has tried Linux PDAs before -- remember the Sharp Zaurus? It had moderately good success with the IT gearhead crowd, but never made the big splash in the consumer market. I'm certainly not saying it can't, but we haven't seen that kind of leadership at Palm in a very long, long time.
Speaking of time, per Palm Infocenter, "He [McVeigh] also put a timetable on the release of the upcoming linux Palm OS products. The version for low end and feature phones is planned to be completed by summer 2006 and a high end version for smartphone is expected to be ready in the second half of next year." I could be wrong, but I expect PalmSource to encounter more problems along the way. Not to mention I expect those dates are just for the new OS availability. Even allowing for pre-release alphas and betas, hardware manufacturers will likely need lead time to develop their devices and debug them. The Palm-based cell phones (Treos) took noticeably longer for the wireless carriers to debug, test, tweak, customize and certify for their service. Consider how long it's taken for the iTunes phone to evolve from vaporware status.
If they can get major cell phone manufacturers onboard, PalmSource may have a chance due to the larger market and becoming more of a B2B provider. Consider the news that LG just signed on to be a Palm OS licensee. Why would LG do that if the traditional Palm OS is going bye-bye? Thus some suspect LG will produce one of the early Palm-Linux phones. I wish them luck, as I really like what LG has been cranking out in cell phones.
By then I fear Palm will be a fading memory in consumers' minds. They're going to have to develop a platform that's radically better just to get noticed -- something that Palm/PalmSource has never done except in its grassroot days.
With all this said, I truly hope that abounding rumors of Palm's demise are greatly exaggerated. I felt they built a better mousetrap and their products made my personal and professional lives easier. I found Palms so much easier to pick up and use compared to PocketPCs -- particularly the Handspring line (courtesy of Jeff Hawkins, the visionary behind the original Palm, who's now back at palmOne). The Palm software and user communities reached cult status quickly. It made mobility fun. While my heart hopes that PalmSource can finally deliver, my brain has already moved on, thinking about iPods, digital cameras, and my next cell phone.
Thanks to the Depraved Librarian for the news and following links, which are well worth the read (I particularly enjoyed the Pocketfactory post):
Topic(s): Mobile Tech & Gadgets
Posted by Jeff Beard