Thursday, May 24, 2007

Palm’s life-or-death innovation challenge

Rob Pegoraro of the Washington Post is my favorite personal technology columnist. While Walt Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal is more influential, I enjoy Pegoraro’s best columns more — probably because, come hell or high water, Mossberg is limited to 900 words.

Today, in a (dead tree) column entitled “Palm’s Dumber Smart Phone,” he points to Palm’s exact problem:

Not even three years ago, the Treo 650 smart phone looked revolutionary. But its latest successor, the Treo 755p Palm unveiled two weeks ago, feels more like a relic.

[Treo 600,650]The Treo’s basic concept — uniting a cellphone, handheld organizer, miniaturized keyboard, touch-sensitive screen, Web and e-mail access and media playback in one device — makes sense. But while competitors have advanced, Palm has been napping on the train tracks.

The new Treo 755p gets online no faster than last year’s model. Its basic design features few changes from the 2004 version; its dimensions almost match those of the 2003 edition. And its operating system and software for desktop synchronization received their last major updates in 2002.

Over that same period of time, almost every other hand-held device — Windows Mobile smart phones, BlackBerrys, iPods and even plain old cellphones — has seen major upgrades in capability and notable shrinkage in size.

In other words, the world will pass by even the most innovative companies if they stand still. In his blog, Pegoraro amplifies further:
Seeing how badly Palm has lost its way makes me feel like I’ve been had. I’ve recommended this company’s products many times in print and online and spent my own money on a Treo 650 two summers ago. The first year with the thing was great, as I wrote last summer. But since then, my smartphone has grown steadily less stable, especially when browsing the Web or checking e-mail. And none of the newer models shipped since then cure that reliability problem, since they all still run the same, increasingly fossilized software.
Of course, for Palm’s financial problems a key reason is that their operating system strategy is all mucked up due to the ill-advised spinoff of PalmSource, and PalmSource’s subsequent troubles leading to its ill-fated sale to Access (instead of Palm or Motorola).

This brings to mind a similar story told by Charles Ferguson about Netscape — which was unable to update its spaghetti code browser while Internet Explorer was catching up, a failing that eventually killed the company. Fortunately for the executives, it failed after AOL spent $4.2 to buy Netscape.

There are rumors of some great Jeff Hawkins breakthrough that will save the company. If Jeff’s planning on pulling a rabbit out of the hat, now would be a good time to do it.

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