Palm, which launched a new flagship device and platform earlier this month, is a company staring at the very real possibility of extinction. The pioneering user experience of its PDAs has long since been super-seeded by smartphones, while its own range of Treo handsets lacks differentiation and is rapidly losing market share to competitors. It is in a precarious financial position, burning cash as its top-line revenues fall and relying on a single private equity investor (Elevation Partners) to keep it afloat.
It is difficult, therefore, to overstate the importance of the new Palm Pre device and webOS platform. Pre needs to succeed by selling millions of units in the first year and webOS must establish itself as a viable alternative to the other software platforms on the market, demonstrating differentiated features and an ability to attract third party developers.
If we set aside the hype surrounding the launch, this scenario provides a valuable case study in how refocusing a company on the importance of user experience can be at the heart of a business revitalisation strategy.
In developing Pre and webOS, Palm has been forced to take a long look in the mirror and ask itself some searching questions about what really defines the company. Interestingly, the answers it has come up with are very similar to the founding principles which helped it achieve success in the PDA market:
– Reducing complexity
– Keeping users in sync with their personal information
– Fostering third party innovation
– Enhancing the user experience through new input methods
If we look back to the introduction of the original Pilot 1000 PDA in 1996, we find all these characteristics were part of what the company described as the Zen of Palm. At the time of the Pilot’s release, the biggest manufacturer of PDAs in the US was Apple with its powerful and complex Newton device. Instead of trying to compete directly with the feature list of the Newton, Palm’s founder and chief product designer Jeff Hawkins spent his days trying to understand what his target market of company executives would really want from a mobile device.
Famously his user experience research is said to have involved carrying around a PDA-sized block of balsa wood in his shirt pocket. Hawkins would pull this out in meetings and practice taking imaginary notes or going through the motions of accessing a contact. He used these experiences to refine the shape of the block and start building the physical and on-screen interaction chains which would define the ‘Zen of Palm’.
He quickly realised form factor could be a hugely limiting factor to widespread adoption. The competing Newton, despite its impressive feature set, was simply too big. Hawkin’s target became the shirt pocket and he was willing to sacrifice advanced capabilities to ensure the electronics would fit into a truly pocketable size.
Palm is returning to a similar approach with the Pre. At first glance, the device is simplicity itself: the face of the Pre is defined by a large screen and a single button below. The software interface of webOS is lean, stripped of the visual flummery which has characterised recent attempts by competing manufacturers.
However, behind the spartan look and feel of the user interface, Palm appears to have concentrated its efforts on introducing a layer of smart middleware to help customers integrate a wide range of web services into a useful format on their mobile screens. Indeed, as the name suggests, webOS has been designed with web connectivity at the very heart of the platform.
Keeping users in sync with their personal information
The most obvious example of this middleware at work can be found in the way the Pre handles contact management. Users can add contacts from a wide range of sources, either by desktop synchronisation or from web services such as Facebook, and Palm’s webOS will intelligently combine them to ensure duplicate contacts are avoided.
For instance, if you import Joe Bloggs from Outlook on your desktop and Joe Bloggs is also listed as one of your Facebook friends online, webOS will create a single contact combining both their Outlook information and a link to them on Facebook. It doesn’t sound like rocket science, but as anyone who has tried to synchronise personal contacts from one source and business contacts from another with a mobile device will attest, this has been one of the biggest frustrations with smartphones and PDAs for some time.
Again, we can find historical precedent for this kind of development. When Palm introduced the Pilot in 1996, its HotSync technology became the benchmark experience for keeping users in sync with their desktop PCs. The world is a very different place in 2009 and the HotSync model, with the PC at the heart of the synchronisation process, is increasingly irrelevant. WebOS lays a firm foundation, ensuring Palm devices of the future are just as good at bringing together users’ data sources on the web as the original Pilot was at keeping up-to-date with the PC.
The complexity of the emerging web services landscape and the very nature of wireless technology mean this middleware layer will only grow in importance. I have written about this previously and stand by my assertion that companies which succeed in developing an effective architecture to mediate between the ‘always on’ ubiquity of web services and the inherently unreliable connectivity of wireless networks will emerge major winners.
Fostering third party innovation
The structure of webOS also lends itself to third party innovation, a vital element of Palm’s long-term strategy. As Apple has demonstrated with the iPhone App Store – which generated 500m application downloads between July 2008 and January 2009 – a significant proportion of customers are compelled to extend their mobile experience with new services if the process of discovery, purchase and installation is made fun, simple and cost effective.
The so-called ‘Palm Economy’, populated by more than a hundred thousand developers, was once one of the company’s greatest assets, churning out thousands of new applications per year. Palm was the first PDA manufacturer to solve the complex equation of platform consistency, developer support and strong third party sales channels which creates a vibrant eco-system for innovation.
Back in the late 1990s, Palm OS was the only platform for which developers could create an application which would work across multiple devices, using commonly accepted tools and know there was an effective market place to reach consumers – the dominant online store of the time: PalmPilotGear (now making a comeback as PocketGear after spinning out from former owner Motricity).
As a result, consumers flocked to Palm because they knew they were buying so much more than a PDA -they were buying something which could be expanded with games, productivity tools and pretty much any application they could imagine.
With webOS Palm has taken a brave decision to completely re-architect the operating system for the modern world. As a result, there is no backwards compatibility with the library of existing Palm OS applications. While the value of this catalogue has been declining for some time, it is still a significant resource. Support may come through third party emulators, but Palm’s message to developers is clear: it is time to move on.
Crucially, Palm has also stated webOS devices will include an integrated applications store, allowing developers easy access to a large consumer channel from the outset.
The result of all this technical jargon should be an environment in which it is simple for popular web services to create mobilise versions of their applications. As a customer, that means you should quickly find applications like Facebook, eBay, Yahoo, BBC iPlayer and others become available for the Palm Pre.
For detailed insight into what it is like to develop for webOS, read this PalmInfoCenter.com article with Tom Conrad, CTO of internet radio pioneer Pandora, who had early access to the tools.
There is further historical precedent for this approach at Palm. Back in 1998, when Palm announced the Palm VII wireless PDA, it actually developed a similar model for web access. The Palm VII used a technology called web clipping – an innovation way ahead of its time. The concept was built around web applications which stored common elements like the UI locally, only connecting to the web for short periods of time to download small ‘clips’ of data which were then fed into the local application. Applications on the Pre use a similar model, with the UI coded locally in web standards and grabbing content from the internet seamlessly.
Enhancing the user experience through new input methods
Palm is promising further user experience innovations with the input methods on the Pre. The historical precedent here is Graffiti, an optimised alphabet it introduced on its original Pilot devices to simplify handwriting recognition. Even the most advanced mobile microprocessors of the day simply couldn’t handle natural handwriting recognition. To keep costs low and the device size pocketable, Palm chose a much less powerful processor than the competing Newton, but enhanced the input experience by asking users to make a simple trade-off: by investing a few minutes in learning a slightly revised way of forming characters, customers achieved a far higher level of accuracy and input speed than could be achieved on the Newton.
The latest Palm innovations are somewhat different, but they remain grounded in those principles of practicality, reliability and speed. To achieve this on the Pre, Palm has introduced a slide-out keyboard. It has adopted a curving slide design, so the phone has a banana-shaped profile when extended. This may seem like a purely aesthetic decision, but there are actually solid customer experience principles at work. The curvature of the handset improves the balance when typing, combating the ‘top heavy’ feeling users complain of with standard QWERTY monoblocs like the Blackberry Bold and Nokia E71.
Palm has also chosen to extend the input area below the touchscreen. The lower portion of the device face, immediately below the the screen, is actually sensitive to gestures. For instance, swiping a finger backwards across this area will take you back a step in webOS.
It is difficult to grasp how this impacts the user experience, but it is a potentially significant enhancement to the interaction process. One-handed operation of touchscreen handsets is typically limited by a simple factor of ergonomics: most people’s thumbs aren’t long enough to reach all parts of the screen when the device is cradled in the palm of the hand. This means interface controls located at the top or the edge of the screen are inaccessible when trying to operate the device with one hand. As a result, users are forced to use the index finger on their other hand to reach these areas and the one-handed mode is broken.
With the Pre, users should be able to bypass this problem by using gestures on the hardware casing beneath the screen, which most thumbs can reach comfortably. It may seem like a minor tweak, but if it enables the Pre to be a truly one-handed device for much of the time, users will find the experience much less taxing on their hands than competing products such as the iPhone and HTC Touch.
Further input innovations on the Pre include the design of the keypad buttons, where Palm’s Treo devices have long been acknowledged as the masters of the minature QWERTY, and the inclusion of universal searching from the home screen.
This search function, where a user simply starts typing the first few letters of any item they want to find on their handset – from contacts and bookmarks to applications and emails – may be one of the most significant contributors to the webOS user experience. It was pioneered by Zi Corporation with its Qix input system and has since appeared in several forms, including Nuance’s implementation on some Nokia handsets.
It may not sound as intuitive as selecting an attractive icon from a grid, but in trials it has proven itself to be an incredibly effective way of encouraging wider use of handset features. Crucially, it provides consistency: one discovery method can be used to access anything. The human mind loves routine and learns it quickly, so interaction methods which allow users to repeat processes tend to lead to much quicker task completion times. In contrast, completion times slow when the user has to pause and consider which interaction method they should use to proceed. The consistency of universal search can have a dramatic effect on customer experience.
What we have in the Pre and webOS is a case study example of a company asking itself what users want and giving staff a mandate to build products to meet that user experience requirement. Palm is placing its trust in customer-focused innovation to save the company. User friendly tweaks have been given higher priority than headline specifications, all in an attempt to provide users with a product which genuinely makes them happy. It is a courageous strategy and all user experience practitioners should be watching with interest to see whether it succeeds.
Will the Pre and webOS save Palm? Is Palm’s new user experience genuine innovation or does the Pre borrow too heavily from its competitors? I’d be very interested to hear views from the MEX community on this – and whether you intend to replace your iPhone with a Pre when it arrives! Please post your comments to the blog using the links below.