Has Palm dropped the ball?

There’s been a lot of negative press about Palm’s new Foleo product since it was announced last week. Many are even questioning whether Palm has any relevance in the current climate of the mobile telecoms industry. For those who are interested in understanding what it’s trying to do, CNET has an insightful interview with Jeff Hawkins, founder of Palm and very much the main driver behind this new initiative.

There are a couple of particularly interesting quotes in the article:

Hawkins: “The Foleo is a lot more like the PDA business in the sense that when we did the Pilot, we designed whatever product we wanted to design. We distributed anywhere we wanted to distribute it. We priced it the way we wanted to price it and we branded it the way we wanted to brand it. When we did the Treos, that’s not true any more. We have constraints on every single one of those items. It’s hard. The carriers dictate things so much. The great thing about this product is that it’s like we’re back completely in control again. We have complete control of the operating system. We have complete control over the software suite. I love that. I’ve been wanting to get back completely in control again.”

This is about as clear and unambiguous as it gets. One of the mobile industry’s great pioneers, a man who built one of the fastest selling consumer electronics products in history (the PalmPilot), is telling the operators they are constraining innovation. This is someone who inspired a developer community of several hundred thousand innovators to create premium applications for his platform and gave rise to the ‘Palm Economy’ – a thriving business where players throughout the value chain made money.

Unfortunately for Palm, this community was much neglected during the turmoil of Palm’s de-merger from 3Com and the subsequent separation of its hardware and software business units, but it still stands as a case study example of how to foster third party innovation, reward developers and provide compelling applications for consumers. For these this reason alone, Hawkins is worth listening to, whatever you may think of the Foleo.

Hawkins: “The further out you are, the more people have trouble understanding. It’s hard to go back in time, but when we did the Pilot, there were a lot of people that thought that was a stupid idea. I mean a lot.”

I’m generally of the opinion that it’s not sufficient to trade on a past success and expect it will be enough to convince people you’ve got it right again this time. However, Hawkins makes an interesting point here. Whenever you try to change the status quo or define a new product category, it takes some time before anyone ‘gets it’.

Conceptually, the Foleo is actually a very good idea. It is a fully open, wireless computing architecture combining cellular connectivity with PC-like control and screen space. It also separates the network connection and voice device from the data manipulation and viewing device. This provides much more flexibility and allows you to optimise the user experience of each. Of course, Hawkins isn’t the first to arrive at this conclusion – many companies have already tried and failed with similar concepts. Palm, however, does have a track record in the key area that could make this successful: synchronisation. It’s HotSync platform defined the way in which PC to mobile data transfer occurs. If it can get this right with the Foleo and Treo combination, it could provide a compelling experience for customers.

Clearly there are certain investors who recognise the potential. Palm today announced a USD 325 million investment in the company by private equity firm Elevation Partners. Jon Rubinstein, who previously ran the iPod division at Apple, will become Chairman of the Board. The company’s shares were up nearly 8 percent today.

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    Ravi C. Krishnan

    You got it right again: “..Hawkins is worth listening to, whatever you may think of the Foleo.”
    Foleo is clearly a move in the wrong direction(not strictly mobile). As an intermediate move, the way Jeff initially entered the phone market with an attachment to the Handspring(Palm)it may be good. Palm can then come up with a down sized device combining TREO and FOLEO functionality and looking totally different and sleek (maybe a clamshell ?) and avoiding the me-too Blackberry like mini QWERTY and coming up with a new input interface. With Private Equity money in the bank, they shoulbe able to pull it off.

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