Palm take-over watch

This is just in: HTC is said to be considering taking over Palm. That would be an interesting development, since HTC is one of the few parties we can trust not messing up webOS but actually using it as it’s supposed to work.

Palm has an absolutely first-rate product in webOS, especially its user interface. As far as I’m concerned the Palm Pre is the only phone that’s (almost?) on a par with the iPhone when it comes to UI, although the system is completely different (and has supported multitasking from the start, not partially and as an “exciting” novelty).

Mistakes

Still, Palm is in deep, deep trouble. It has made such hideous mistakes in the past year and a half that the company is hemorrhaging money and is almost dead. A take-over is the only way of preserving webOS; therefore I strongly support a take-over by a party who knows what it’s doing. HTC qualifies on that point.

Faruk wrote a good piece on Palm’s problems. Basically it wanted to challenge the iPhone, but failed in a few crucial areas, among which a hideously wrong release time (scant days before the release of the iPhone 3GS).

Additionally, it has completely messed up developer relations. Back in February 2009 it announced webOS, and I was immediately captivated. Betting your entire existence as a company on a web-based OS? You’ve got my attention, buddy! (Note that this was even before Vodafone ever contacted me, and before I knew I was going to switch to mobile.)

It was clear that Palm was courting developers in a way similar to Apple. It wanted to copy the App Store, but with web technologies. Of course, Apple has a fanatical base which it could draw from, and Palm couldn’t compare to that. Still, from the outset it was clear that Palm needed not just developers, but web developers. Why else would you build your entire OS on web technologies?

Web developers

And then ... nothing happened. For months. Web developers such as me, who were mightily interested in the new system, got no news, no information, nothing.

What I think happened was that Palm’s outreach was excellently suited to reach PalmOS developers, but they had absolutely no clue how to reach web developers, and did a thoroughly lousy job. Besides, I wonder what PalmOS developers thought when they heard they were supposed to learn web technologies. Will they have greeted it with glad cries, or will they have resisted change? I’m guessing the latter, but that’s only guesswork.

There’s an important lesson here. Web technologies are hot in the mobile space, but so far nobody is interested in web developers. I’m not sure why that is; maybe the web world is too alien for mobile companies, maybe they want to service their existing non-web developers first.

Currently all mobile companies are kind of waiting passively for web developers to fall into their laps. I predict that the first company that can truly mobilise web developers in support of its technology will take a lead over its competitors. Of course, that company will have to use the web as it’s meant: open and free. No proprietary implementations, please.

Palm clearly saw this strategy, but failed miserably in actually reaching web developers. Belatedly they hired Dion Almaer and Ben Galbraith of Ajaxian fame to become their development relations managers, but I’m afraid it’s too little and too late. By the time Palm discovered it had a problem, web developers had already lost their interest because so many other exciting things were going on in mobile. Timing is everything, and Palm messed up the timing.

Take-over

Pre and Pixi sales went lousy, and soon take-over rumours started to float around. I read impassioned opinions on why Nokia, Microsoft, BlackBerry, or Motorola would want to take over Palm, as well as more generic reports of what was wrong.

And now we can add HTC to that list. The same article mentions hardware producer Lenovo as another possible candidate.

What would these prospective buyers acquire?

  1. First and foremost, webOS. That’s the main prize, and it is worth serious money, especially if you’re thinking about challenging Apple on its home market in its home demographic.
  2. It seems Palm owns a few patents that could help HTC in its upcoming lawsuit against Apple. I know nothing about patents, so I just relay the news without commenting on it.
  3. I suppose Palm still has a little bit of brand awareness left in the US. That would be interesting for a company that wants to enter or expand in the US market. That is mainly interesting for Asian (or European) companies.

Not too shabby, but buying Palm is not a world-class deal, either, certainly because it’s rumoured to cost $1.7 billion. And even after the actual buying you’d have to spend millions on device development and marketing.

Anyway, the take-away for us web developers is that we want webOS to survive since it’s the first web-based OS, and excellent from a UI perspective to boot.

(ChromeOS is coming up, of course, but as far as I know no mobile variant is in the making, because Google already has Android. Therefore it’s likely that webOS will remain the only mobile web-based OS for the time being.)

So what we want is a Palm buyer who knows what it’s doing. HTC qualifies here; over the past year I have come to trust HTC’s implementations of both Android and Windows Mobile. Hey, these guys even got WinMob 6.1 to work! (Well, more or less, in which the more came from HTC, and the less from Microsoft.)

In contrast, I’m not sure if I want ham-handed desktop hardware vendors to take over. They have no clue about software, no clue about the web, and no clue about the mobile world. But maybe I’m doing Lenovo a disservice here; I know next to nothing of the company.

The Palm tragedy has entered a new act. Maybe it’s the fifth and last act, maybe we still have months of agonising waiting ahead of us. In any case Palm will be history as an independent company before the year’s out. And I’m rooting for HTC, since I think it would be the best candidate from a web development point of view.

This is the blog of Peter-Paul Koch, mobile platform strategist, consultant, and trainer. You can also follow him on Twitter.
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1 Posted by ceeaser on 10 April 2010 | Permalink

though i am a palm pre user on sprint myself, and work with OS hackers over at precentral.net. Funny the things we can do with Web OS, and I assure you the tweaks we have done with Palms ok destroy the competition out here on the market def including Apple. We are able to overclock the phone with kernals to 800mhz, and cpu scaling with the chipset Palm has intergrated. The results a very very fast and very very stable phone. The making of programs and games are a ease, as well as patches for thinks like a virtual keyboard using Web OS are very easy to implement. I agree with HTC taking over, though people still have to understand sprint still sold over 2million units of the pre version alone, and that was with a beta product. Even at laptopmag.com a little smartphone battle showed the palm pre plus beating every top phone on the market with customer votes, (i mean the nexus one, BB bold, htc hd2, and the Droid by 10k votes) and when audited by laptopmag most of the votes were from BB, and Iphone users who have used the Web OS and believe its the Future. Right now I think the reason they havent sold alot of units (according to anyalist) is because the pre design is so much different then the massess. I mean if a company produces a slider its landscape not portrait, but more and more phones are giant slab type devices which the pre is not.

2 Posted by ceeaser on 10 April 2010 | Permalink

Though I kinda like my Pre design alot, though I would prefer a slightly larger screen and a landscape slider, I like that its small and compact. I really am not keen to having a tablet in my pocket. With HTC making a touch pro 2 variant running Web OS would burn up the market, I believe in that so much. the only reason the TP2 didnt is because it was running a old OS (winmo 6.5) seeing that this is the perfect design for all consumers, and HTC got it right with it. So I think HTC should take the plunge (assuming Palm would agree too) they have a long history together, they have the hardware Palm would need, and the respect of the smartphone market. So lets keep our fingers crossed.

3 Posted by James Norton on 10 April 2010 | Permalink

The reason I didn't buy the Pre was all about form factor. The screen is too small, the keyboard is too small and felt bad in my hand. I think HTC would do good things with WebOS provided they used their latest hardware offerings.

4 Posted by r4i on 11 April 2010 | Permalink

The battle is not only on the hardware (screen size) or on the soft (webOS) and applications.
The twice are verry important !

And only 2 offer lot of app: IphoneOs and Android ...

Forget app and user experience had killed palm ...

5 Posted by r4i gold on 29 April 2010 | Permalink

It will be a good move for Palm as they need a good high performance device which they now get from HP.Hope this both together will be a great competitor for Apple.