How HP Can Save Palm

HP could challenge Apple and Google in the all-important mobile sector if it took a series of key steps.
Posted August 31, 2011

Mike Elgan

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The whales will have to wait. Right now, it's more urgent to save Palm.

The people behind Palm devices and software have repeatedly created incredibly good products, while the leaders of the many companies involved have done everything possible to destroy the brand and kill its momentum in the market.

As Apple has proved, a successful mobile platform needs long-term thinking, clear vision and a cohesive strategy.

Observers of the mobile scene, including Yours Truly, thought HP might -- finally! -- bring these qualities to the long-abused Palm line.

And they can still do it. I'll tell you how in a minute. First, allow me to recount the many ways the platform has been challenged by rudderless “leadership,” and also tell you why Palm needs to be saved.

Palm’s Tragic Past

From the beginning, Palm (a.k.a. Palm Computing, U.S. Robotics, Handspring, PalmSource, palmOne and HPwebOS, although it will always be Palm to me) has been bedeviled by fickleness and a lack of executive vision.

Jeff Hawkins invented the Palm Pilot in the early 1990s. In doing so, he created the first successful PDA, which would form the basis for the smartphone and the entire mobile industry.

Impossible to imagine now, back then most people used ring-binder type paper organizers. A minority used Sharp Wizard type electronic organizers, which didn't sync with PCs well, and generally had clunky, super-closed software platforms.

The Palm Pilot replaced both those models of personal organization.

Hawkins invented the elements of mobile success familiar to anyone who loves iOS or Android devices: simplicity, usability, connectivity and apps.

But it didn't take long for Palm Pilot user enthusiasm to be squandered by a sudden, jarring and needless change in direction -- a pattern that would repeat itself again and again:

1995: Palm is acquired by U.S. Robotics.

1997: U.S. Robotics is acquired by 3Com.

1998: Hawkins and his team of founders leave 3Com and launch Handspring.

2000: 3Com spins off Palm as an independent company called Palm Inc.

2002: The Palm software platform is spun off as an independent company called PalmSource.

2003: Palm Inc. merges with Handspring, and the new company is named palmOne.

2005: palmOne buys PalmSource's partial ownership in the "Palm" trademark, and calls itself "Palm" again.

2005: A Japanese company called ACCESS buys PalmSource, and renames the software platform “Palm OS Garnet."

2006: Palm releases a Windows-Mobile device.

2006: Palm pays $44 million to ACCESS for source-code rights to Palm OS Garnet.

2009: Palm announces that it will abandon Palm OS Garnet and create a new operating system from scratch called webOS.

2010: HP acquires Palm for $1.2 billion.

2011: HP discontinues "Palm" brand, announces new line of webOS devices, including phones and a tablet designed to compete with the Apple iPad.

2011: HP launches new webOS devices.

2011: HP announces that it will stop making webOS devices.

2011: HP drops price of its tablet to $99 to get rid of otherwise un-sellable inventory.

2011: The tablet sells so well, HP announces that it will build more tablets in "one last run."

With all these about faces, spin-offs, mergers and acquisitions, the question isn’t “Why didn’t the Palm succeed?” The question is: “How did it survive this long?”

In fact, the ability of the various Palm incarnations to gain loyal followings in spite of all these changes tells us that the Palm has enormous potential, and should not be scuttled.

It’s not too late.

Why HP should Save Palm

If you follow current trends, the entire mobile industry will soon be owned by Apple and Google. Mobile revenue is already dominated by Apple. And future market share is likely to be dominated by Google.

RIM is in trouble. Nokia is on the ropes. Motorola will become part of the Google juggernaut. Microsoft can’t seem to get anyone interested in its Windows Mobile platform.

The world needs a third player. Palm is the best candidate, because webOS is the second best multi-touch operating system available to everyday consumers.

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Tags: Google, mobile, Apple, HP, Palm

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