As others flock to iPhone, Palm faithful await the Nova

Despite a troubled few years and lack of innovation, Palm still commands a loyal user base awaiting the next big thing.

In the early part of this century, Palm dominated mobile computing, capturing almost 90% of the market. These days, Palm rates less than 10% of device sales, an also-ran without a major OS upgrade in almost six years.

Despite this, Palm still has its faithful: thousands of users in forums analyzing the company's announcements, swapping tips and quietly keeping hope alive for a future renaissance.

In the era of the iPhone, they prefer the Palm's simplicity and functionality, signs of age notwithstanding.

"It's the only thing where you can have your cake and eat it too," said Alli Flowers, a longtime Palm user who now sports Sprint's Centro. "There's absolutely nothing you can do on any other device that you can't do on a Palm -- and more."

For the most part, it's true. For years, Palm users have  had Web browsing, mobile email, even video and music playing. The document editing BlackBerry is so proud of bringing to market? Old hat for Palm users!

"They did such a good job four or five years ago that it's still around today," said Avi Greengart, research director for Current Analysis. The problem is, by and large Palm's evolution stopped at that point, with their latest breakaway product, the Centro, basically being a boiled down Treo in a sleeker form factor at a consumer-friendly price point.

"They're caught between a rock and a hard place, the rock being RIM and the hard place being Apple," Greengart said.

For many people, what was great five years ago doesn't cut it anymore: Flashier interfaces and sleeker designs lured more away with each successive phone generation.

For Flowers, however, Palm's offerings are still more than enough. Over the years, the schoolteacher has volunteered her off hours to edit and report for MyTreo.net, a news site devoted to the platform.

These days, much of that news is grim: In January, the company closed all but one of its retail stores, and last December it cancelled its high-profile Foleo companion device. Palm seems to be faltering the most as smartphones gain a mass appeal.

Does this faze Flowers? Not a bit.

"I'll be the first to admit that the iPhone is beautiful," she said. But she argued that a strong fundamental base and years of minor adjustments have created a nearly ideal device, and that sometimes technology just reaches a level where there's not much room for improvement.

Palm has always said, 'We'll introduce a new OS in six months' ... It's a case of broken promises.
Sammy McLoughlin
FounderPalm Addict

"They can say that Palm is old, but I prefer to say that it is mature and stable," she said.

Part of Palm's early genius was an almost compulsive attention to speed. Not just a short boot time or almost instant switchover between applications but also the speed with which one could tap into -- literally -- the functionality of the device.

That functionality was part of what Sammy McLoughlin has found appealing over the years.

"I'm in the PR business, and my Centro just gets the work done," McLoughlin said. When not travelling between his home bases in Manchester and New York, he also runs PalmAddict and he is considered by many to be a premier Palm guru. He's been organizing Palm discussions since 1999 and can't even recall all the Palm devices he has owned.

Although he's another avid fan of the Centro, McLoughlin admits that many believe Palm strayed off course a while ago.

"People think Palm has had its day," he said. "If you had asked this question five years ago, [I would have said] Palm was much better than Windows Mobile, and it will never catch up."

But a lot has changed in the past five years. Push email created a generation of CrackBerry executives, while Windows Mobile siphoned off users familiar with Microsoft's interface.

Design also began to play a larger role in phone choice, a memo Palm may have missed with the functional, but clunky, Treo line.

"The [Treo] 650, which I used for a while, was both reliable and had excellent call quality," McLoughlin said. "But in terms of being attractive compared to the Motorola Razor and iPhone? It lost that battle hands down."

The Centro fixes some of the more glaring design flaws, he said, but it's not enough for many users.

"They want Palm to be innovative, too," he said. While stability is generally rock-solid, users want multitasking, a design overhaul, and Wi-Fi. But what many want most is to see Palm succeed.

"I hope, at the end of the day, Palm rewards us with something we're going to be proud of in the future," McLoughlin said. "Speaking for myself, I'm always going to use Palm."

Others haven't been able to keep the faith. Scott MacHaffie literally wrote the book on Palm, "Palm and Treo Hacks," published by O'Reilly.

"They nailed the PDA," MacHaffie said. "If all you want is a PDA, then it's still the best platform out there."

Where Palm faltered was the phone half of the smartphone equation, he said. For whatever reason, Palm's focus on details and an optimized experience went missing.

"With the Treo, they really lost it," he said. "They just missed a lot of little things that they should have gotten right, that they have gotten right on their PDAs."

Last September, after almost a decade of Palm ownership, MacHaffie went with the iPhone. He said Palm's platform had only incrementally advanced in a world moving much faster.

"They need to be innovative again," he said. Palm may soon have a chance to do just that.

For years, Palm has promised a major revision of its flagship OS, based on Linux, with many of the features its users have been demanding: multitasking, a makeover, the Wow! factor. For some dedicated users, the mysterious OS, code named Nova, has become a chance to project dreams of a revival.

Before that revival, however, the product must actually ship. It's widely expected to appear early next year, but McLoughlin tempers his hope with skepticism.

"You have to remember that Palm has always said, 'We'll introduce a new OS in six months or at the end of the year,' and they keep missing that," he said. "It's a case of broken promises."

And as Android approaches consumer readiness and Apple gears up to release a 3G iPhone with a more open developer kit, the world that Palm once dominated so completely is becoming more crowded by the day.

"They need to do something innovative," MacHaffie said. "They need to find the killer app for their vision of a smartphone." He said the alternative was to become another Windows Mobile smartphone manufacturer, a road they have already tested with a line of Treos running the OS.

Despite the long odds, the Palm faithful hold out hope.

"I think they can recapture that market," Flowers said. She pointed to all the quiet gear-up going into development, including the poaching of several high-profile Apple execs.

"I had a chance to talk to somebody at Palm [who] said you have to respect the fact that we really can't tell you anything about it," Flowers said. "But at the same time, they have huge smiles, so you know they're up to something good."

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