How Palm Lost (Like Apple in the '80s)

Illustration for article titled How Palm Lost (Like Apple in the '80s)

The Droid, and Android 2.0 as a whole, isn't going to kill the iPhone. That's ridiculous. Teamed with the iPhone, though, it just straight up murdered Palm—the same way that Microsoft brought Apple to its knees decades ago.


Reviews aren't even hitting yet, but the early consensus is clear: Android 2.0 is the first version of Google's OS that's really grown-up. And now, with hardware like the Droid and the Hero, it's not just a technological triumph, it's the kind of thing that people—and not just leery, jaded tech blog readers—can connect with, and actually use. This is huge for Android.

iPhone OS is already a superpower with massive adoption, a huge app store and a bright future. They're not going anywhere. They learned their lessons about the importance of volume and apps when I was still a kid. But what about the other two smartphone players that consumers really love? You know, Google vs Palm? Think Apple vs Microsoft, circa the late 80s.

Hear me out: With version 2.0, Android is sitting on the cusp of greatness. And Palm? They've got a nice OS, but with just two handsets and a tiny user base they're up against a wall. Google is old Microsoft: They've got a open development platform, tons of hardware partners. They're going to start having problems with this strategy—you know, fragmentation, device support issues, etc—but as with Microsoft, it's going to serve them well, and make them huge. Palm is old Apple: With inhouse hardware and iffy developer support, they're just insular. What that means:

Hardware partners: Who isn't developing an Android phone nowadays? Motorola, Samsung, LG, Sony Ericsson, and HTC dwarf Palm's hardware partner list, which consists of "Palm." Don't get me wrong, the Pre and Pixi are nice pieces of hardware—like Apple always had—but it's tough to compete with such a broad lineup with just two devices, both of which are somewhat polarizing. Android is the new Windows Mobile, but in a good way.

Apps: Apple learned from their past mistakes, and actively courted developers from the start. Android's start was slower and more organic, but seems to so far correlate with handset adoption, meaning it's growing, and it's about to grow a lot more. More apps=a better user experience=joy for Google. Palm has introduced paid apps, but it's not clear why anyone would want to invest in development for such a small userbase. (The first paid app, if you remember, was an air hockey game.)


Apps, again: Android came before webOS, and likewise the Android SDKs came well before mojoSDK. But no matter how far into the future you look, Google has Palm beaten from a developer standpoint. If Android handset sales start to approach iPhone territory—tens of millions—the combination of a huge potential market and powerful development tools, especially SDK 2.0, will make the choice for developers obvious: Go with Apple, or go with Google. Palm won't even register.


Resources: Google can dedicate tremendous amounts of money and time to developing Android, as their pastry-themed release schedule can attest to; Palm is hanging by a thread, and they haven't issued a truly major update to their OS since it came out. Google can lose money on Android for as long as it wants—they've got Microsoft-level buoyancy, those guys—while Palm has to turn fast profit by building and selling phones, lest their nervous investors jump ship.


Google is an app development powerhouse: Their apps are becoming more and more central to the general smartphone experience. Apple and Palm both use Google's maps and search, but naturally, Android always has a later, greater version of both. It helps for the company behind a platform to supply a few killers apps for it too—just look at Office and Window 2.0.

And take what happened yesterday, with Google Navigation for Maps. Google can just will a free turn-by-turn navigation app into existence. Palm can't do this. They can license Google's technology, sure, but that leaves them at the mercy of a competitor.


BlackBerry handsets are safe in their own way—suits need their keyboards, and familiarity is worth a lot—and Windows Mobile is on a fixed heading for total irrelevance, as evidenced by their once-strongest ally, HTC, talking about the OS like it's in hospice care. But there are just three true consumer smartphone OSes out there—the ones that don't feel like complicated smartphones, but which do all the same tricks.


And assuming Apple's is safe—and it is—that leaves two. Like Microsoft once was in the desktop computing space, Google is poised for a meteoric rise, and like Apple, Palm should be bracing themselves for hard times. For all the similarities, though, there's one difference: Palm probably won't be able to pull through.



I can't help but find it funny how much hardcore nerds have extolled the benefits of Linux to the computing community only to have them adopt it piecemeal, irregardless of their lamentations, on a mobile platform. And if Chrome OS can actually dig in, they'll do it again, with most users none-the-wiser. It's like a trojan horse, but with candy inside. #palmpre