What sealed Palm's software fate?

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Analysis So, PalmOS ends up in the hands of an Japanese mobile browser company that almost no one has ever heard of. It's a sad sign that expectations for PalmOS software have been so low, for so long, that PalmSource stock leapt 70 per cent on the news.

The origins of this decline have been well documented here at El Reg, we'll only recap the key mistakes before raising a spectre that haunts this tale of Silicon Valley history: a spectre called Apple.

In 1999 Palm announced a partnership with cellphone alliance Symbian, promised joint roadmaps combining the best of both, but failed to follow through. An alternative history, where Palm brought its human interface expertise and US marketing strengths to a solid operating system, never materialized. Which is a pity. Although Nokia pretty much runs the Symbian show these days, its popular user interface still lacks the usability that has always been Palm's hallmarks. (Nokia's Series 60 wouldn't have survived the ruthless click monitoring that Palm enforced, ensuring basic tasks could be performed with as few steps as possible).

A year later Palm had changed its mind again: CTO Bill Maggs said that Palm didn't need a modern operating system at all, and Nokia and Symbian were wasting their time. After Maggs inevitable departure in 2001, followed by that of genial CEO Carl Yankowski, a group of engineers unsuccessfully tried to convince the company to use Linux, but couldn't convince the lawyers that GPL software wouldn't Pacman Palm's entire business. Wind on four years to today, and Palm software's future is firmly based on … Linux. It had nowhere else to turn after spending the interim period developing a modern operating system for smartphones - 'Cobalt' - that it couldn't persuade anyone to adopt.

So arrogance, ignorance and blind chicken panic played a large part in this story. But did it have to be this way, if Palm had ignored entreaties from all quarters, and refused to play the "platform game"?

Without taking away responsibility for these decisions from the executives involved, how much can we blame Wall Street's mania for forcing slice-and-dice horizontal models that resemble the PC industry on all technology companies it surveys? The PC business is one in which only two established monopolies (Microsoft and Intel) and one blessed assembler (Dell) make any money. Let's remind ourselves that today the hardware side of Palm is, on a global scale, a very modest but nicely profitable operation - and people love their Treos.

"We don't make software - we make a platform"

A "platform", by definition, is a technology licensed to third parties. Wall Street likes platforms because a new platform creates new markets - although these are often very short lived - and it believes vertical models harbour waste and inefficiencies - although horizontal models often simply transfer the cost to the customer, for example as buck-passing "technical support". Wall Street is rarely wise to the long-term consequences of its investment decisions, as we see from the bandwidth glut of the late 1990s, when capital poured into infrastructure that today no one can afford to operate.

So what we're really looking at is an ideological obsession that benefits one particular lobby - finance capital.

However, this has been the dominant ideology for two decades, and any successful software company that refuses to position itself as "a platform" finds itself punished in short order. And such is finance capital's cost-cutting, market-making mania, even successful web sites are forced to make compliant noises if they are not to lose analyst support.

For example, Amazon.com and eBay both live two parallel lives: running the direct retail operation themselves, and providing a market place for third party retailers too. Google's future, we're so often told by Silicon Valley "experts", depends upon turning itself into a platform. This is one of the subtexts behind those "Google is the new Microsoft" stories you may have been reading, and it's true that for Google-obsessives this is the stuff that wet dreams are made of. You may even have heard that Google is really preparing the 'Google OS'.

But for many companies, licensing the crown jewels is rarely easy, and very often the demand is quite absurd. Google's future doesn't depend on making itself a "platform", but by above all else maintaining the health and integrity of its advertising brokerage. Way down the list in second place comes the pipeline of new features needed to maintain the punter's interest in the site. So Google wisely pays no more than lip service to the platform concept - just enough to convince the bloggers that it's up to something.

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