by Martin Veitch

Palm: Rags To Riches… Then Back Again

Mar 21, 2010
IT Strategy

There is an interesting new piece about the current, unhappy state of Palm, written by former Apple executive Jean-Louis Gassee who sold another company, Be, to Palm many years ago.

I’d encourage you to read it even if you already know about industry tricks such as how funding is structured and how ‘channel stuffing’ works, but this is essentially a piece framed by the narrative arc of ‘small company makes it to become big company then fails to sustain position and becomes also-ran’. Rags to riches then back to rags, in other words.

At the risk of sounding like a Monty Python character, I had a Palm product in the mid-1990s, before there was colour in this world. The US Robotics Palm Pilot was a thing of extreme beauty, a phaser-style device in glorious monochrome that was the first mainstream product to make pen-based computing a reality. Looking back, it was pretty basic in terms of features — essentially a set of organiser applications — and inherent connectivity was limited to the cradle sync and infra-red but it seemed pretty cool at the time. Blokes put these things in their shirt pockets in the way that Alain Delon might have displayed a packet of Gauloises.

It chewed through batteries but it was a sheriff’s badge of coolness, a sign that you were on top of the latest trends. It was a sweet piece of industrial design, a sort of long-awaited successor to the Sinclair Black Watch and seen generally as preferable to (or at least trendier than) the very British, slightly dweebish Psion handhelds of the time. A beautiful colour screen successor continued the golden run and the glut of ISV and accessory support created a nice pull for the product too.

When US Robotics was bought by 3Com there ensued a complicated period whereby this classic product saw ownership, direction and branding changes. The Treo suggested that Palm could manage the transition to smartphones but it was far from being the only game in town, the company suffered problems with strategy and product, and a brand that had found iconic status in its youth lost its bloom.

The decision to pull the Foleo ‘mobile companion’ even before shipping was an embarrassing public failure. The Palm Pre was supposed to be the big comeback product and was good in many ways but the competition has got very big indeed. Palm wasn’t quite Bjorn Borg returning to tennis clutching wooden racket but it was struggling.

This is the brutal reality of market dynamics. If somebody else builds a better mousetrap, then you end up wriggling about with your tail trapped beneath wire. Of course, while there’s life there’s hope. After all, Apple was in a parlous position 15 years ago and look at it today. When all’s said and done, it’s all about the product, stupid.