Feeds

What sealed Palm's software fate?

The whole widget

Providing a secure and efficient Helpdesk

Nothing but the whole widget

Back to Palm, which in 1999, finally saw its IPO from 3Com appearing on the horizon. Palm's executives were initially wary of the platform pitch. Why not stress the wholeness of the Palm product, a runaway hit?

Alas, they buckled, and went with the flow. So Palm was obliged to seek licensees, finding at first vertical industry OEMs like Symbol, and later, a marquee name in Sony. An ego-driven squabble that drove out Palm's founding trio also presented it with another, in the shape of Handspring. These indeed made Palm look like a "platform".

But should the Palm umbrella follow the platform logic and spin the software operation out? After a few strategy swerves, it eventually it decided it should, but by that time the market had changed. The PDA market was shrinking, and for phones Palm had a venerable OS that was technically suitable for, but too expensive to build into, low end phones. For high end smartphones it had a capable but immature and untested OS that made too many demands. And it found a market of phone manufacturers who weren't prepared to offer more than lip service to anything outside their core portfolios: witness the tepid interest in both Microsoft and Symbian outside of Nokia and outside a few flagship products. So Palm software found itself a "platform" at precisely the worst time: when it had nothing serious to offer the market.

And here Apple's recent experience offers us an alternative history. For twenty years, Apple only ever had one hit product, the Mac. For most of these twenty years it was being urged to become a "platform", too. When it attempted to do so, licensing the MacOS to rivals, the results were catastrophic. But today Apple has the mindshare across two new market categories that it wouldn't have had a hope in if it had followed the horizontal ideology. The iPod wouldn't have been such a success if it had been at the mercy of Windows Media Player. And the iTunes Music Store, not exactly a profit center to boast about, nevertheless wouldn't have gained the publicity it has without the iPod and iTunes. Both are examples of Apples ability "to make the whole widget" and both are triumphant rejections of the horizontal ideology.

Today PalmOS' new owner Access has vowed to continue offering its Cobalt and Garnet operating systems, but as critics have pointed out, it really bought PalmSource for its Chinese Linux presence - in which case $324 million looks like a bargain. But could Palm's fortunes have been any different if it had refused to play the platform game?

Remember that Wall Street's horizontal mania is based on an assumption that customers will not pay a premium for a product from a vertically integrated manufacturer. It supposes that we won't pay a premium even if that buys quality. And the world is awash with cheap rubbish.

Ironically, Palm Inc. in January 1994 was a small software company, warily facing the prospect of making its own hardware. Apple had spent $200 million on the flop Newton, and the tiny start-up had just $3 million in the bank. The decisions it took that year to bring 'Touchdown' - the original Palm Pilot - to market were exactly the limitations that made it a success. But limiting its capabilities also made it difficult to turn into two strong "platforms". Given the calibre of executive leadership, even the most enthusiastic PALM stockholderwill have their doubts things could have turned out any different. But do send us your alternative Palm histories anyway. ®

Security for virtualized datacentres

More from The Register

next story
Same old iPad? NO. The new 'soft SIMs' are BIG NEWS
AppleSIM 'ware to allow quick switch of carriers
Arab States make play for greater government control of the internet
Nerds told to get lost in last-minute power grab bid at UN meeting
Brits: Google, can you scrape 60k pages from web, pleeease
Hey, c'mon Choc Factory, it's our 'right to be forgotten'
Of COURSE Stephen Elop's to blame for Nokia woes, says author
'Google did have some unique propositions for Nokia'
It's even GRIMMER up North after MEGA SKY BROADBAND OUTAGE
By 'eck! Eccles cake production thrown into jeopardy
Mobile coverage on trains really is pants
You thought it was just *insert your provider here*, but now we have numbers
Don't mess with Texas ('cos it's getting Google Fiber and you're not)
A bit late, but company says 1Gbps Austin network almost ready to compete with AT&T
prev story

Whitepapers

Forging a new future with identity relationship management
Learn about ForgeRock's next generation IRM platform and how it is designed to empower CEOS's and enterprises to engage with consumers.
Win a year’s supply of chocolate
There is no techie angle to this competition so we're not going to pretend there is, but everyone loves chocolate so who cares.
Why cloud backup?
Combining the latest advancements in disk-based backup with secure, integrated, cloud technologies offer organizations fast and assured recovery of their critical enterprise data.
High Performance for All
While HPC is not new, it has traditionally been seen as a specialist area – is it now geared up to meet more mainstream requirements?
Saudi Petroleum chooses Tegile storage solution
A storage solution that addresses company growth and performance for business-critical applications of caseware archive and search along with other key operational systems.