The Palm Pre unveiling stands in my memory as one of the most refreshing moments in modern history. Palm had done it—they had created a great phone Nokia would've killed for. But today, that's just not enough.
As Palm teeters on the brink of either ruin or acquisition, let's take stock of what they did right:
• They abandoned an entrenched but aging platform for something new an innovative, and they didn't half-ass it: Palm OS was dead, WebOS was here.
• WebOS was actually good. If you discounted the lack of apps at launch, it was arguably more capable than anything else on the market.
• The Pre was totally buyable. It's one of the few smartphones I'd consider buying, and would also recommend to the rest of my family. And the hardware didn't suck.
• They got huge buzz, and they earned it.
Sure, their app ecosystem was slow to develop, and their TV ads were underwhelming at their best, and creepy at their worst. But that's not what really matters, right? Palm accomplished something with the Pre, and we could all see that.
This was the line from Jason's Pre review that he caught the most flak for, but seriously, fuck that, it was spot on:
I'm bored of the iPhone. The core functionality and design have remained the same for the last two years, and since 3.0 is just more of the same, and-barring some kind of June surprise-that's another year of the same old icons and swiping and pinching. It's time for something different.
The Pre's spell was such that it made everything else feel old. Palm made something different—and it was something we would have paid obscene amounts of money for just a year prior. More than anything, Palm succeeded wildly at reinventing its products, its company and its image, by its own standards and by ours.
The problem is, it's not 2006 anymore. Those standards don't apply.
There was a time when it was enough for a company like Palm to release a fantastic phone, and for years, that's exactly what they focused on. But today, to fight in the smartphone wars is to fight against multi-platform giants. And the rules of engagement have changed: It's no longer phone vs. phone, or mobile OS vs mobile OS. Today there are apps, and even if a phone maker nails that ecosystem, they have to integrate it into the company's other stuff: desktops, tablets, the living room, the workplace, the bathroom, the car—not to mention all the music, movies, TV and other media consumption any given human expects to be able to tap into on a new device.
The era of the standalone smartphone company is over. To say it plainly: If you want to make the best smartphone these days, it's just not enough to make the best handset, or even the best OS. So pour one out for the indie phone makers! I, for one, am sorry to see them go.
UPDATE: Jon Rubinstein has issued a company-wide memo to soothe worried employees. It's suitably last-stand-y:
To accelerate sales, we initiated Project JumpStart nearly three weeks ago. Since then, nearly two hundred Palm Brand Ambassadors, supplemented by Palm employees from Sunnyvale, have been training Verizon sales reps across the U.S. on our products. Early results from the stores have already shown improvement on product knowledge and sales week over week. You may have also seen a growing number of Palm ads on billboards, bus shelters, buses, and subway stations-all getting the word out about Palm.
As I said before, the root of Palm's problems are essentially unaddressable, so it's no shock that he doesn't lay out a clear, detailed vision for a second (third?) Palm turnaround. But the sight of their CEO so obviously aiming a garden hose at a forest fire can't be much comfort to Palmers, or investors.