Feeds

What does HP want with Palm?

Web-based OS, or a nice stack of patents?

Gartner critical capabilities for enterprise endpoint backup

Palm, which defined mobile computing, has been bought by HP, which pissed away its stake in the same industry. So can HP do any better this time around?

Palm didn't invent mobile computing; it arguably took the industry several steps backwards in creating a device entirely reliant on its desktop companion. But in doing so the company discovered what people wanted in a mobile computing device and pioneered many of the techniques that have made the iPhone so successful. Thus HP needed to buy Palm not for the innovation itself but for the patents that followed it.

Palm's great insight was to see that users didn't need or want an entire computer on the move. Palm users could take a corner of their desktop computer with them, but a Palm without an associated desktop was next to useless.

That insight enabled Palm to dispense with luxuries such as a keyboard or - on early models - even persistent storage. Your Palm was only a cache of the desktop; if the battery died you just re-synchronised and at worst lost the updates you'd scratched in with the Graffiti recognition system.

That put synchronisation at the centre of everything, with HotSync as the cornerstone of Palm's offering. Back in 2001 your correspondent was developing Bluetooth applications for Palm and iPaq devices. As developers we would come into work, sync our personal Palm devices and then spend the day crashing them with badly-developed applications, secure in the knowledge that they could be synched back at the end of the day, perfectly, every time.

HotSync didn't just copy over diary appointments and contacts: during the process every installed application is offered the opportunity to backup data, or be connected to a desktop equivalent which would be triggered by the desktop HotSync application.

When Microsoft launched ActiveSync we were aghast and unable to understand how Redmond had failed so badly to do something that seems so obvious when you've seen it done well - surely someone at Microsoft had seen HotSync in action? Despite that, all our product demonstrations were on iPaqs: they were much prettier, with colour and noises, and battery life is hardly an issue during a demonstration.

HP did licence Palm's synchronisation software, very early on, but committed to Windows Mobile with the acquisition of the iPaq line as part of Compaq in 2002. The company proceeded to do nothing very interesting with the iPaq line for the next few years.

Meanwhile Apple took the idea of a tethered device much further with the iPhone. Companies like Nokia and Microsoft were making mobile computing devices, but Apple, like Palm, realised that making a mobile device dependent on a desktop application is no bad thing.

HP has pushed out an iPaq phone or two over the last few years, but would like to be doing a lot more. The company's gross margin was 22.8 per cent last quarter, according to Reuters, which compares that to RIM's 45.7 per cent and Apple's 41.7 per cent to explain why everyone wants to get into smart phones - even Nokia managed 32.4 per cent.

But these days anyone doing anything interesting in the mobile computing needs a big stack of patents to back them up, or risk being out-litigated by the competition. The iPaq was cutting edge but it never took off, while Palm managed to file hundreds of patents which fit precisely where mobile computing is heading: "Wireless, radio-frequency communications using a handheld computer", "Wall mount cradle for personal digital assistants" and "Palmtop computer docking system", to pull out just three.

Having a decent stack of patents protects HP against the inevitable litigation it will provoke by achieving any success in mobile computing. The major players are already at each other's throats, so anyone expecting to draw attention to themselves in mobile will need to come in well armed with patents of their own.

That's not to say that HP won't do great things with WebOS, or that Microsoft shouldn't be concerned by reports that the company has given up on its Windows 7 pad. Protected by Palm's patent portfolio HP can enter the mobile market with confidence that it won't get the rug pulled from under it, and if it can use Palm's brand and OS then that's just dandy. ®

Boost IT visibility and business value

More from The Register

next story
Apple takes blade to 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display
Shaves price, not screen on mid-2014 model
iPhone 6 flip tip slips in Aussie's clip: Apple's 'reversible USB' leaks
New plug not compatible with official Type-C, according to fresh rumors
FEAST YOUR EYES: Samsung's Galaxy Alpha has an 'entirely new appearance'
Wow, it looks like nothing else on the market, for sure
YES YES YES! Apple patents mousy, pressure-sensing iVibrator
Fanbois prepare to experience the great Cupertin-O
Kate Bush: Don't make me HAVE CONTACT with your iPHONE
Can't face sea of wobbling fondle implements. What happened to lighters, eh?
Steve Jobs had BETTER BALLS than Atari, says Apple mouse designer
Xerox? Pff, not even in the same league as His Jobsiness
TV transport tech, part 1: From server to sofa at the touch of a button
You won't believe how much goes into today's telly tech
Apple analyst: fruity firm set to shift 75 million iPhones
We'll have some of whatever he's having please
prev story

Whitepapers

5 things you didn’t know about cloud backup
IT departments are embracing cloud backup, but there’s a lot you need to know before choosing a service provider. Learn all the critical things you need to know.
Implementing global e-invoicing with guaranteed legal certainty
Explaining the role local tax compliance plays in successful supply chain management and e-business and how leading global brands are addressing this.
Build a business case: developing custom apps
Learn how to maximize the value of custom applications by accelerating and simplifying their development.
Rethinking backup and recovery in the modern data center
Combining intelligence, operational analytics, and automation to enable efficient, data-driven IT organizations using the HP ABR approach.
Next gen security for virtualised datacentres
Legacy security solutions are inefficient due to the architectural differences between physical and virtual environments.