Palm Pre: Too Little Too Late

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I was ALWAYS a huge Palm fan. I had a Palm III, IIIx, V, VII, Treo 600 & Treo 650. They completely rocked, all of them. Then Palm ran into trouble, couldn’t get their OS working and with $100m from Elevation Partners, they snagged Jon Rubenstein and then went into hiding. Until yesterday…when the unleashed the Palm Pre .
Frankly, the Pre looks HOT. It has a unique “deck of cards” interface, and the OS is completely geared to connectivity, with all kinds of hooks into the internet. Threaded SMS and instant message is nice, a unified inbox is nice (are you listening Apple?), the Webkit-based browser is very nice. The hardware seems really terrific. All in all, I think this is a great-looking, potentially awesome device. If it came from RIM, or Microsoft, or even Nokia, it could be considered a “game-changer” for that company. But it is from Palm, the OS/Hardware company that gave up their own OS to run Windows Mobile. This is from a company that hasn’t released a device that moves them dramatically ahead since the Treo 600 (everything else has been iterative). So is the Palm Pre too little too late, or is it exactly the bold advancement that get Palm back into smartphone prominence (after all, they created the category)?
Here is my opinion. It is too little to late. The phone will sell like hotcakes. It will rocket to the top of Sprint’s bestsellers (see you later, Samsung Instinct). It will add some needed revenue and clients to both Sprint and Palm. But will it make a big enough difference? I wouldn’t think so. The impact that any device that isn’t a wild jump ahead of everything else of the market isn’t going to change the playing field. Palm did it with the Treo, Moto did it with the RAZR, RIM did it with the Blackberry, and Apple is doing it with the iPhone. Unless the Pre is a dramatic advancement on the iPhone (which it doesn’t seem to be, it seems competitive with the iPhone on a feature level), then it can’t change the category. And, the category is so competitive that anything short of a game changer amounts to incremental customer acquisition. And the stakes are really high. Look what has happened with the Blackberry Storm. It is a wildly popular device that has been ridiculed by a lot of the press and has had 4 software updates since it launched a month ago. Buggy, not-well-implemented features simply aren’t tolerated. The bar is set really high. Palm can certainly meet the bar, but being as good as Apple or RIM isn’t good enough.
To win at this game, you need to change the paradigm. And while the Pre changes Palm’s paradigm, it simply seems to get Palm competitive with the market. While that isn’t a bad spot to be in, Palm’s reduced visibility over the last 3 years really hurts them in the minds of consumers and businesses. (And let’s not talk about developers, there are very few Palm developers in the mobile world. Few mobile platform companies and few big gaming companies even think about Palm.) So, while the WebOS and the Pre look great, and may make people respect Palm a little more, they don’t change the market. And without that, I think that the competition is too tough. Better than you used to be and competitive with the market simply won’t cut it. You have to be dramatically better.
Good luck Palm. You were great. And, well, I stopped buying Palm products years ago because they simply weren’t getting better. And now that they have, I have moved on. I am an iPhone guy now. And, I suspect, Palm, that a lot of your audience has moved on. I will always remember you fondly. But, frankly, I just don’t feel that way about you any more.

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