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Is Palm a Player or Just a Pre-Tender?

Once the leader and innovator in all things mobile, in recent years Palm has barely kept up with the pack, let alone acted as a leader. With the introduction of the Palm Pre it appears that open source technology is helping bring Palm back from the edge of irrelevancy.

Many of today’s mobile phone users may not recall Palm’s dominance in the mobile market dating back to the 1990′s. Palm hit the market and was running circles around the “contacts and calendar” only personal digital assistants. Palm devices boasted a touch screen and a capable computing platform. Palm even brought to market (in the USA) the first viable smart-phones. And there were applications — lots of them. Today Apple boasts of tons of applications being available for their iPhone platform, but the real trailblazer for mobile applications was Palm. The mobile developer community was thriving thanks to Palm and their innovative devices and a market that just couldn’t get enough gadget gear.

While other entrants into the mobile space made some small dents into Palm’s market share over the years, Palm appeared to have essentially self-destructed. Over time Palm would announce but then never release incremental enhancements to their operating system. The hardware and software were split up and sold. With each disappointment, Palm’s goodwill quotient eroded. As a result the Palm developer community has largely scattered like the folks at the Tower of Babel. Many developers have embraced the iPhone; others Windows, BlackBerry and more recently, Android. Who can blame them after repeated failures? Perhaps the release of the Palm Pre will entice these developers back to their first love. I myself was pretty skeptical when I heard that Palm was making another go at it — but Palm deserved another look. Here’s what I’ve found.

WebOS

While the Palm Pre is getting all of the media attention, the real story is WebOS. The hardware can be described as an iPhone with a physical keyboard — and it is delivered with a form factor shy of the “brick-like” feel of the T-Mobile G1 or any number of other HTC devices. While the hardware appears to be a very compelling entrant to the space, the innovation is in the operating system. It’s all about the user experience, and people use software! This is a good move in my view.

Trotting out another device with PalmOS would be a non-event and the (ahem desperate) move of using Windows Mobile on a Treo is something I have barely come to terms with after all these years. Instead, Palm rolled out WebOS — its new built-on-Linux operating system. While Palm has certainly not embraced open source with the same flamboyance as the Android team, the array of open source technologies enabling the WebOS platform is non-trivial. This embracing of open source for a main-stream device by a major player such as Palm is a good indicator of open source’s penetration to the hearts and minds of today’s mobile decision makers. Palm has setup a website dedicated to interfacing with the public about its use of open source technology. Here you can find the open source packages in use, including the patches made by Palm to enable WebOS’s features.

As its name suggests, WebOS is very “web” centric. The primary operating environment essentially wraps the open source WebKit browser engine into a clever user interface built on web standards — applications are written with familiar technologies such as HTML, CSS, and Javascript. That’s right, I didn’t say C/C++/Java/etc. This is a refreshing change of pace for mobile device development.

One significant consequence of this approach is that the platform is accessible to a much larger community of developers than traditionally seen in the mobile space. A developer or designer with traditional web development skills can create a functional and useful application for WebOS without ever concerning himself with a pointer or a try/catch block! It is very likely that Palm will provide an SDK which enables low level development to take place (i.e. C or Java), however that is not required to build WebOS applications. The Pre is not simply an Internet tablet – there is more than just a browser screen and an always-on connection. Remember, this is a phone too! It would be a stretch to say that the “browser is the computer”, but WebOS does make some significant strides in that direction.

Mojo , Javascript, Prototype, & JSON

The WebOS environment is pushing the standards envelope by employing the not-yet-finalized HTML version 5 which includes the holy grail for web apps — local storage! A mobile device capable of leveraging the power of the web plus local storage is a force to be reckoned with because such a broad array of application scenarios can be satisfied. Beyond HTML, CSS and the very capable Javascript language, WebOS includes a framework library named Mojo Application Framework.

Mojo brings features typically associated with heavy SDKs in C or Java to the browser development environment. A WebOS application may interact with physical storage, PIM (Personal Information Management) databases and beyond — and all of this via the Mojo framework. If you are comfortable with coding in Javascript, you’re well on your way to developing applications for WebOS.

How do the applications looks — please tell me this isn’t a Java AWT application. Thankfully, no! WebOS provides more than just your typical “web form” user interface capabilities. Mojo permits Model-View-Controller application design and a full complement of user interface “widgets”. Combining a rich (and easy to use) user interface with the power of Javascript, DOM (Document Object Model) and Ajax you have the ability to create rich internet applications right on your mobile device — a very compelling story. But, we can take it a step further and look at the interaction available via WebOS’s Services APIs. These services allow a WebOS application to interact with the Location Based Services (i.e. GPS), the Camera, and oh-yeah, sensors, and even the telephone!

You’re probably wondering how a Javascript “application” can have so much power and access to the device? The answer lies in the binding between the scripting language and the services APIs. These interactions take place via calls to a function named serviceRequest. The arguments to this asynchronous function include a service name and a JSON (JavaScript Object Notation) object which contains all of the specifics such as method name and parameters. This object can even include information on what to do if the operation succeeds or fails. Here is an example of initiating a map lookup:

this.controller.serviceRequest('mojo://com.palm.applicationManager', {
  method: 'launch',
  parameters: {
    id: "com.palm.app.maps",
    params: {
      query: "1600 Pennsylvania Avenue"}
    }
  }
});

If you are at all familiar with Android development, this is very similar to creating an Intent and issuing a called to startActivity within the Android SDK. While syntax always matters, one might argue that an advantage of the developing in the WebOS environment is that the parameters are more readily understood in a JSON object thanks to the JSON syntax of prefixing each parameter with its name and a colon. Ironically, this reminds me of Objective-C’s parameter passing approach. Oh well, its all good.

It’s the economy, stupid

So, how will WebOS fare? Great question. It is certainly too early to tell. I think the answer comes down to execution and marketing. WebOS is an idea whose time has come and the Pre appears to be a promising inaugural device. But is it exciting enough to draw people from iPhone? How well can WebOS scale “down” to compete with the upcoming Android non-smartphones? Might it be found on a netbook? I think it could. If it doesn’t sell, it doesn’t matter how cool it is. Beta max anyone? And of course we need applications!

What about the gaggle of PalmOS applications written by those intrepid mobile developers over the past decade? Thankfully Palm has addressed that opportunity in the form of the “Classic” emulator application which may be purchased and run on the Palm Pre. This emulator allows you to use your favorite PalmOS application from yesteryear. That is exciting, and in my not so humble opinion a necessity to draw people back to the brand. Of course Palm has to make sure that new WebOS applications are readily available and begin to woo back their development base. I personally am very excited to learn more about WebOS. I just have to count the cost of sneaking another smartphone into the house.

Comments on "Is Palm a Player or Just a Pre-Tender?"

hhemken

Don’t even get me started. Palm’s product strategy is below laughable. Go to an electronics store and look at their PDA line. Go on, don’t be shy. For $200 you will get a fat klunky device with a few megabytes of memory. That’s right, I said mega. God only knows where they can even buy such small quantities of memory these days. Small screens, too fat to fit in your pocket, vastly overpriced, they single-handedly destroyed the PDA market. I recall seeing analysts say that the public had lost interest in PDAs, and that’s why the market shrank. Maybe we stopped buying because the new ones were no better than the old ones. Why buy a new one?

I have wanted to replace my Palm m500 for years. It is thinner and more pocket friendly than anything they have out now, even in its slim aluminum case. I would buy a Centro, but AT&T forces you into their gratuitously expensive data plan, so I would end up paying well over $600 per year per person in my family, essentially for nothing.

This is the dark side of our gadget-happy times. Everyone wants to take your money and give you as little as possible in return, all behind an enormous, loud, hysterical curtain of empty hype.

Reply
hhemken

I made a mistake in the cost estimate. It is over $300, not over $600.

Sorry!

Reply
dbayer

IMO, PDAs quit selling in part because of our desire for more gadgets. People wanted a cell phone, a PDA, and perhaps a pager. At the same time, people didn’t want the utility belt look as they carried everything around, hence the smartphone. NPR reported last week that now smartphones now outsell regular cell phones despite the price difference. Particularly now that smartphones take the place of yet another gadget (media player), everyone wants that extra functionality, and they want it at home, in the car, in the park, at work, or anywhere else. The same trends have pushed notebook computer sales over desktop sales. Welcome to the mobile world.

Yes, the service can be expensive, but you get what you pay for (more or less). If you want ubiquitous access to email, and for MS Exchange users unified calendar and contacts as well, you have to pay for the service. This is no different than the switch from dial-up to broadband Internet connections for the home – broadband costs a lot more, but you’re getting more too. TANSTAAFL.

Reply
kimkhan

The world of PDAs are over for me, atleast for a few years now. I used to have a PDA – I still even have my linux based sharp zaurus sitting somewhere collecting dust. For almost couple of years now, I am using a slick smartphone from Asus which has everything I need to sync with my outlook, a GPS, a 2.0MP camera, Wifi with VOIP softphone/skype, and media player. And it is touchscreen and recognizes nicely my handwritings and you can buy it only for around $150 – $200 from ebay – no need for any dataplan contracts from any provider.

This is my everything device. My next device will probably have a better camera and video recording capability then it will replace my camcorder as well.

And above all, it is way slicker and fits nicely in my pocket. It is an Asus P527 – check it out.

Reply

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