Can Palm regain its developer edge?

Palm isn't dead yet! That's the word from Palm CEO Ed Colligan, speaking at the recent media launch of the Palm Centro in Australia. To hear him tell it, the once-pioneering handheld maker is set to come roaring back onto the stage with new products, a new focus, and a brand-new, Linux-based OS, codenamed Nova. I can't say that I buy it. From where I sit, Palm seems to have lost focus on one of the most importan

Palm isn't dead yet! That's the word from Palm CEO Ed Colligan, speaking at the recent media launch of the Palm Centro in Australia. To hear him tell it, the once-pioneering handheld maker is set to come roaring back onto the stage with new products, a new focus, and a brand-new, Linux-based OS, code-named Nova.

But Palm has been saying the same thing for nearly a decade. And I can't say that I buy it this time. From where I sit, Palm seems to have lost focus on one of the most important contributors to its early success: the independent developer community.

Take a look at these choice quotes that Colligan gave to the Australian computer magazine APC:

  • On whether Palm is still active in the market: "Palm's got maybe 15 million customers and 50 million devices around the world, it's a brand that's globally recognized."
  • Comparing Palm with Apple: "Apple was on the cover of every magazine, [we saw] all these articles about the demise of Apple, and now they're one of the most successful brands in the world."
  • On what we can expect from Palm's forthcoming new OS: "... whether it's Palm OS 2.0 or Next Generation, we're not coming up with the branding right now."
  • On differentiating Palm's products in the market: "... over time you'll see some branding work done on the top two to make sure they're really well delineated."

Branding? It's going to take a lot more than that to restore Palm to its former glory.

When confronted with Palm's blunders over the last decade, Colligan is quick to recall Steve Jobs' miracle turnaround of Apple. Unfortunately, Colligan himself sounds less like Jobs than like John Sculley, the Pepsi-Cola whiz kid who, as CEO of Apple, presided over a lackluster product line, allowed the engineering department to fall into disarray, and ousted Jobs from his own company.

In an interview with Wall Street Journal technology reporter Jim Carlton, former Adobe CEO John Warnock once said of Sculley, "I don't think John understood the industry. He never had any deep penetration of what motivated people to use computers. He gravitated more to 'I have one of these things on my desk because it does magical things.'"

Similarly, Colligan seems entirely too satisfied with Palm's prospects. The days when handheld computing was a Field of Dreams are long over. The market is too crowded, the competition too intense. Customers already have specific ideas of what they expect from handhelds; what they need to know is why they should buy one over the other.

To that end, a clever brand isn't enough. If Apple has reemerged as one of the world's most successful brands, it has done so largely by building a reputation for cutting-edge technology. Quality products come first, marketing second.

And let's not forget: Since the introduction of the iPhone, Palm has not only to emulate Apple. It has to compete with Apple, as well.

One way in which Apple has always bolstered its technology has been by maintaining a healthy relationship with developers. When it began the transition to Mac OS X, Apple was quick on the scene with high-quality developer tools for the new platform. Even in the early days, many a PC coder couldn't help but view the Mac's coherent, well-designed APIs with a little jealousy.

The Mac OS programming environment was so popular with developers, in fact, that Palm borrowed many of its ideas for the original Palm OS SDK. As a result, the early Palm handhelds were a joy to code for, and the platform seemed ripe with possibilities.

More importantly, Palm actively encouraged independent developers in those days, which came as a revelation. If Palm had sold its products as closed, proprietary consumer devices, the market would have greeted them as little more than pocket calculators with built-in address books. Instead, eager third-party developers pushed the handhelds to their limits with games, organizers, databases, and Internet applications, and "PalmPilot" became synonymous with geek life in the late 1990s.

Where is Palm's commitment to the developer community today? If it has a new OS in the works, what does it look like? It's based on Linux: So what? How do we code for it? What can it do? A search for "Nova" on Palm's developer site reveals no answers. Even Palm's developer forums are silent on the matter.

Compare that to the competition. Apple is readying not only an iPhone SDK -- bringing developers along for the ride with a protracted beta program -- but an innovative App Store that will aid third-party vendors in marketing and delivering their software to handheld users. And despite the fact that no handheld yet exists to support its Android platform, Google recently completed an application development contest that drew nearly 2,000 entries. That's real buzz, the kind that no amount of consumer branding can build.

Sadly, Palm seems ill positioned to compete, even with a total newcomer like Google. Colligan says that Palm's new OS will be a "next-generation operating system with much more capabilities, driven around the Internet and Web-based applications." Meanwhile, Apple and Google are basing their systems around existing, well-understood technologies, including WebKit and the new SquirrelFish JavaScript engine. A common Web platform that spans the desktop and handheld devices is beginning to emerge -- where is Palm?

At the end of the day, all the hype about Palm's new OS -- the latest in a series of such plans -- seems like little more than whistling past the graveyard. Branding alone won't cut it in today's handheld market.

Until Palm gets its OS and its independent developer strategy in order, I'm going to have to agree with Colligan: No, Palm isn't dead. Yet.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.