Palm's WebOS could help BlackBerry compete against Apple, Android

A Palm acquisition could revamp RIM's OS and help it resonate more with younger consumers deciding between an iPhone or a BlackBerry Curve

Palm's future in the smartphone market remains uncertain, but its technology could prove valuable to Research in Motion (RIM), makers of the popular BlackBerry smartphones -- especially as RIM continues its consumer push.

Reading David Coursey's InfoWorld post "Palm is doomed; let the good-byes begin," I couldn't help but wonder what's next for Palm. As mentioned by Coursey and the Wall Street Journal, Palm has released strong products since relaunching on the WebOS platform, and it enjoys excellent carrier support. Yet this hasn't helped Palm's share grow:

In the nicest way possible, it (the Wall Street Journal) says Palm, with a mere 0.7 percent of the smartphone market, compared to 14.4 percent for Apple and 20 percent for RIM, simply can't catch up.

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Being acquired by RIM is definitely one answer to the "what's next for Palm" question. There is, however, the slight issue of Palm's $1 billion market cap putting a serious dent in RIM's $1.3 billion cash and near-cash position. However, RIM doesn't have any debt, so there's room to finance the acquisition. RIM's stock, while not priced where it's used to being, remains on most investor's tech stock short list and could help fund the acquisition. For our purposes, let's assume RIM could close the deal.

The larger question is "Why would RIM want to acquire Palm?"

Palm's 0.7 percent market share isn't reason enough to acquire Palm. RIM could get its share of that 0.7 percent as Palm users look for future devices from Apple, RIM, or Android phone manufacturers.

One reason to acquire Palm would be to leverage Palm's open source experience. I've argued that RIM could benefit from using open source more effectively in its business. Palm would jump-start this effort.

The more compelling reason to acquire Palm would be Palm's WebOS platform. The BlackBerry platform, built on the aging BlackBerry OS, is in serious need of a refresh. This is less the case for enterprise BlackBerry users, many of whom couldn't function without the email and messaging capabilities that the BlackBerry excels at. The user interface and rich interactivity of BlackBerry applications are secondary to the mail and messaging requirements. This will change over time as more businesses expose enterprise applications to mobile devices. For instance, the fact that a company's CRM application is more usable on an iPhone or Android versus a BlackBerry may well entice an enterprise user to migrate off their BlackBerry.

A revamped OS would resonate a lot more with younger consumers deciding between an iPhone or a BlackBerry Curve. The fact that one's friends are on BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) -- an instant messaging platform available to BlackBerry device users -- is reason enough to leave behind 100,000-plus iPhone apps for the ability to communicate with tens or hundreds of one's (closest?) friends on BBM. Giving these consumers users a richer, more fun user experience would go a long way toward keeping these BlackBerry users happy in the face of iPhone-toting friends.

The user experience would be vastly different between a WebOS-based BlackBerry and a BlackBerry OS-based BlackBerry. But this would be a point-in-time statement and one that retains and attracts both enterprise and consumer users. For a consumer, the WebOS-based BlackBerry lineup -- especially if new RIM-designed devices are released in addition to the existing Palm devices -- would be a much more compelling user experience than what's available through the current BlackBerry OS-delivered user interface. For the enterprise user, the addition of a WebOS-based BlackBerry line, along with RIM's commitment to bring the user experience to all BlackBerrys would be a reason to remain a BlackBerry user until the new interface arrives on BlackBerry's enterprise-targeted product line.

Waiting for coveted features on a product or platform you've already invested time and money in is not uncommon in the IT market. For instance, as terrible as the BlackBerry browser is, many BlackBerry users are waiting at the edge of their seats for a new WebKit-based browser rather than jumping ship to an iPhone or Android device. Early iPhone users lacking copy-and-paste capabilities are another example.

There's also an issue of existing BlackBerry applications running on WebOS-based devices. Maybe a stripped-down BlackBerry OS could run in a virtual machine on the mobile device? I'm sure RIM's engineers could come up with some creative solutions.

As a BlackBerry user, I'd love to get the WebOS user experience in addition to the email and messaging capabilities of a BlackBerry. Would you?

Follow Rodrigues on Twitter at SavioRodrigues.

p.s. I should state: "The postings on this site are my own and don't necessarily represent IBM's positions, strategies or opinions."

This article, "Palm's WebOS could help BlackBerry compete against Apple, Android," originally appeared at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Rodrigues et al.'s Open Sources blog and follow the latest developments in open source at InfoWorld.com.

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