Nice knowing you, Palm

Submitted by Larry on 23 September 2009 - 11:51pm

As many people who know me know, I've been a Palm OS affictionado for years. Starting with the Palm III back in 1998, I've used 8 different Palm OS devices personally, 5 of them Palm, Inc.-branded.

So it is therefore with much sadness that I now say "Palm, go to hell, preferably bankrupt".

A little history

In a past life, I was a journalist covering the IT sector. Specifically, I was variously a Contributing Writer, Palm OS Editor, and News Editor for infoSync World, in its heyday the world's largest handled and wireless news website. (I have no idea if that's still true.) My job was to cover the Palm OS market, the US cell phone market, Palm OS software reviews, and related news sectors. That meant I got to see dozens of devices -- good, bad, and moronically stupid -- from Palm as well as many other companies. The mobile market was still wild and wooly, with lots of experimentation. Even though it was getting long in the tooth, though, the venerable Palm OS still did things no other mobile platform did (like, work properly or be fast and responsive), and Palm itself took great care to pay attention to little details that no other platform or manfacturer did. That gave them a large, devout following, myself included, of both users and developers that held on and supported Palm even as it seemed to stand still somewhere around 2002 for the better part of a decade (even if they griped a lot while doing so).

For a while I even developed Palm OS software professionally. (Ah, my days of C...) I never went as far as fan-boy status, at least I don't think I did, but I was a fervent Palm OS supporter and defender, both personally and professionally. I was, perhaps, one of the last major IT journalists to write Palm off as a lost cause.

Enter the iPhone

I left that market at the end of 2004 to move back into web development, and Palm continued to sit still. Then along came the game changer of the iPhone. We all know that story by now. Limited feature set, lots of sizzle and sexy, The Steve's Reality Distortion Field, sales faster than anyone could count, etc. And, of course, let us not forget a total and complete lockdown on the development platform: At first not allowing anything but semi-web apps, and then allowing more applications but maintaining an iron grip on what software is allowed on "their" device through the Apple App Store.

It was a smart business move, of course. Sell people a device that they thought they owned, lock the software down so tight that you still control it, and then become the sole pipe through which 3rd parties can access that customer base so that you can not only take a cut but exert absolute control over what sofware you deign to allow people to install on "their" device. And with absolute control, you can ensure that no one competes with you or your blessed partners, and you can impose your definition of obscene on the everyone else.

Quite simply, there is a reason why I categorically refuse to buy an iPhone. Actually there are many, but a product that is designed from the ground up to bind me to the whim of the manufacturer even after the sale is at the top of the list. It's worse than software DRM.

Et tu, Palm?

Palm, meanwhile, lumbered along with its legacy OS, doing nothing interesting for years. At least, until earlier this year with the announcement and then launch of the Palm Pre and webOS. The tech world was all giddy, and so was I. Father of the mobile industry Palm, back with a new Linux-based platform, features out the wazoo, a seriously slick interface, Javascript/HTML-based development platform that should make developing new software a breeze, clean integration with online services, hardware that made the iPhone look lame... they had it all.

All, including not including any mechanism for storing data on your own computer, only on selected "in the cloud" services, which, of course, means that you are entirely at the whim of those 3rd party services for your data and cannot do otherwise. All, including blocking competing software from their App Catalog. All, including a secret location tracking feature that spies on users. All, including suing people for selling their phones. All, including bricking phones that don't have service with the exclusive carrer. Even Apple never went that far.

Congratulations, Palm. You've surpassed the iPhone after all... in all the wrong ways. If I wanted a company to lease my hardware to me and lie about selling it to me, and deign to permit me to use something I paid for, and to charge me for access to my own information, and to do things behind my back that cripple my experience, I'd just get an iPhone. Or talk to my cable company. I had hoped you were better than that, but I guess not.

Moving on

Palm, I am not going to wish you the best. I am going to wish you a quick and expedient financial death, which is precisely what you deserve. Such behavior deserves nothing less. I seriously, seriously considered getting a Palm Pre once GSM versions were available (as I refuse to get locked into a CDMA carrier), but apparently you don't even want me to do that. So I won't.

What does that leave? Well, Android is no panacea of openness, but so far it's at least far better behaved than either Palm or Apple. It's open source, even if there are still issues with hardware encryption keys. There are still some usability issues in the stock applications, but I can live with that in return for fewer chains.

I don't trust Google with its vast petabyte databases of information about everyone in the world either, mind you, but at least for now if I buy an Android-based device it is my device. I can't say that about any other modern mobile platform. Which is, in its own way, equal parts sad and pathetic.

So whoever wants to replace my Treo 680, give me an Android device with a good vertical keyboard (not a sideways keyboard like the T-Mobile G1), 3G, Wi-Fi, GPS, and a properly open platform. You've got a waiting customer.

You treat me with respect and I'll give you money. Since when did this become a foreign concept to American business?

I'm personally waiting for Nokia N900. I'm not sure if maemo will be switched to Qt by then but it looks like a pretty interesting device. I'm not sure what you mean with "vertical keyboard" but the keyboard is quite like the G1.

Yeah, I couldn't think of a better description for it. I mean a thumbboard that is meant to be used while the phone is in portrait mode, so it's narrower, rather than having to turn the phone sideways to type. The main reason I haven't gotten a G1 is that I couldn't stand using the phone, then pausing to flip it sideways and open the keyboard to enter a few letters, then flipping it back vertically to keep using. (The UI is optimized for portrait mode mode.) That's a major usability fail.

I really do like the keyboard on my Treo 680, despite the aging platform and large hardware footprint. Sideways keyboards are also too large for me to thumb type on nicely, and cannot be used with one hand.

Plus, the N900 looks to be extremely expensive. :-)

Scott Dale Robison

24 September 2009 - 12:17pm

I just upgraded from a crappy Windows Mobile device (as it was the only smart phone T-Mobile had at the time I got it; Blackberry doesn't count) to their newest Android phone. Sadly, it lacks any physical keyboard, choosing instead to go with the iPhone virtual keyboard only model. That being said, it's a lot more usable than I expected (as long as I don't want to touch key). I could have gotten the slightly older G1, as I don't object to that keyboard orientation. I do however object to the Jay Leno chin...

Agree with you completely about Palm. The Palm OS platform was a joy. WebOS might be all that, but if they're going to start embracing more of the locked down model, I'm going to steer clear of them. Of course, I wasn't ready to go to Sprint anyway, so no big loss to me. It's just sad to see the one time industry leader holding pistols in both hands and shooting themselves in both feet simultaneously.

Scott Dale Robison

Gamble (not verified)

24 September 2009 - 1:43pm

While I certainly see many problems with WebOS and would really like Palm to get on the stick about fixing some issues, most of this post is tremendously over the top, esp considering the current state/age of WebOS. You're comparing bugs and underdeveloped areas in WebOS to company policy at Apple.

Larry, you want palm to provide you with a device that you can install/change/modify however you want, yet you give Palm no credit for having done *exactly* that. The WebOS dev toolkit and root access were provided freely and early. You can do whatever you want with the device with these tools, load any software, even freely modify the core OS easily (all legally, try that with Apple).

...AND you can do all of that without ever having to worry about bricking the phone as they've also provided a utility to reflash the device at any time if something goes wrong.

But that's not enough. It's sacrilege to you that anyone would ever utilize "the cloud". To you, the cloud is evil simply in its existence. Here's the problem. For as much as you dislike the cloud, *everyone else wants it*. The ease of use, and capability of bringing all contacts together from various sources on one device without having to convert or sync anything, and always having all of that data available on the web is a feature to everyone else, while it's a flaw to you.

Palm has done about as good a job as can be expected with balancing these two sides. You want something very specific and unique, and excessive freedoms with the hardware. And Palm has given you every tool to do so. But the average user wants it to work and not have to think about it. So by default that's how it's setup.

Local backup sync can be done with applications. 'The Missing Sync' was available about a week after release for free in the app catalog. I'm sure as soon as the app catalog comes out of beta (ie: starts adding pay for apps) there will be a slew of local sync programs available, but it shouldn't be on Palm to create because most users don't want a local sync. They want their google contacts at their fingertips.

Palm has also never blocked competing software as you claim. Apple on the other hand has explicitly said that the reason google voice apps aren't allowed on the iPhone is that it mimics existing functionality (meanwhile there are three google voice apps in Palm's app catalog). Palm's rejection of the NaNPlayer music player to the application store was based on the API being used by that player not being part of the standardized/available APIs for development. What would have happened had they allowed it is Joe PreUser out there would have purchased the player running on WebOS 1.2. When WebOS 1.3 released and broke compatibility that user would have been upset because an approved app that he had paid for would stop working. Palm has explained this reasoning and even given the developer of NaNPlayer suggestions for a different API to use that should offer the same functionality. AND stated that they're working hard to get the API in question locked down so that it can be used in the near future. (So the developer can either modify and be approved... or wait and be approved). Meanwhile Palm has given its blessing for this app to be loadable via homebrew (which doesn't involve hacking your phone like it does for Apple). What more could they do here?

Most people aren't happy about the usage tracking, and I absolutely agree there should be a means to opt out of this. But that sort of thing is obviously nothing new as most OSes and even many applications do this by default (firefox even had a run with this issue). I would be shocked if Palm doesn't bend to reporting on this issue and provide an option to opt out of reporting usage stats (even though they can be very useful for dev of the device). Additionally, it's a cell phone. Just by the fact that it's turned on, the telco knows where you are. There's not much that can be done about this. It's how the tech works.

As for suing retailers for offering unlocked models. They're under exclusive contract short term. Almost every new phone is the same way. This isn't a CDMA/GSM issue. GSM phones are all just as locked when they release as CDMA phones are, and both can be just as easily unlocked. It's also not much more difficult to transfer a CDMA phone than a GSM, it's just the difference of changing a card vs changing ID info in the phone. I'm not a fan that the cell market works this way, but this isn't an issue with Palm or the Pre but with the way the market works. It's what Palm and Sprint have to do to compete until we fix the market.

It's also disingenuous to say that Palm is bricking the phone if you quit service. That implies an action on the part of Palm, instead we're actually talking about a lacking feature of WebOS. Keep in mind that you would have to wipe the device for it to prompt to reconnect to a palm profile. So if you just cancel, your device will continue to work fine (minus the cell service obviously). Now, I do agree that I should be able to wipe the device any time I want and not have a concern over that, but I'm also willing to give Palm the benefit of the doubt here that forgetting to add wifi support at setup was an oversight, but it's an easy code fix and I'm guessing they'll have added it in by 1.3.

The Pre and WebOS are certainly not without issues. Battery life is a major problem. The fact that it's taken them this long to bring the app catalog out of beta is huge loss of momentum. And there are genuine concerns over the present requirement of the palm profile for hardware functionality. But those issues have not yet been demonstrated as company mentality but almost all of them are company oversight. Most of those issues, Palm has already said they're looking to fix soon. Meanwhile Apple is on an active campaign to lock down or lock out as much usage as they can as a part of policy.

Are there problems? Certainly. Are there even legit concerns over *why* certain features were left out or reasons behind it. Absolutely, but many of those are covered and in most cases Palm is working to do the right thing.

Has Palm surpassed Apple in evil actions? Not by light years. No the actions aren't all pure and the platform is far from perfect, but they're pretty close to being as open as Andriod, and it's entirely over the top to compare Palm's company mentality to that of Apple.

Stop. Just stop it. You are making me get all teary eyed for my Kyocera 7135.

Seriously, it was The. Best. Phone. Ever.

I was shocked when I got a blackberry years later, and discovered that was not a platform full of years and years of free/inexpensive quality apps. And even though my Palm phone did crash from time to time, it didn't bug me because restarting it took a matter of 1-2 seconds.

I don't think in my entire life I'll ever own a phone that good again, but for now a jailbroken iPhone will have to do.