The Case of the Subpar Smartphone - New York TimesI'm chopped out most of the article where he's definitely wrong, though I left in a few of his goofs. Really, he needs to talk to some old geeks with (some) memory. Even so, he's exposing a market problem that deserves attention.
September 8, 2007
By JOE NOCERA
My Treo died.
It happened about three weeks ago, and I can’t say I didn’t see it coming. I bought a Treo 700p in early January and have had buyer’s remorse pretty much ever since.
The 700p, of course, is a member of the Palm smartphone family; it’s the one that uses the Palm operating system (the 700w uses Windows). I chose it because I was a longtime user of the Palm Pilot, and had all my data already stored on the Palm application on my computer. In other words, it was the kind of completely rational technology decision we nongeeks tend to make — and then, sadly, come to regret.
Practically out of the box, my Treo froze on a regular basis. I could never get my Gmail account to sync with the Treo, and had to use the Web to retrieve e-mail — which required the patience of Job. It had all sorts of weird glitches: sometimes it raced around the menu while I watched helplessly; at other times, it would switch from one application to another for no reason. It would ring randomly. By June, it was shutting down completely two or three times a week, even in the middle of phone calls, and then powering back up again.
Maybe, I thought, I’m just unlucky. Maybe I’ve bought a lemon, in which case I should try to get my carrier, Verizon Wireless, to replace it. You know how it is, though: life kept getting in the way, and I never got around to it.
But I also think my avoidance was due to a darker, more painful thought: maybe Treos were simply lousy devices. ... Maybe I was a fool to assume, as I clearly had, that just because Palm had once made great products, it was still making great products.
Then my Treo died, and that gave me my answer. What killed it was, of all things, a software upgrade from Palm...
... Then came the hours of working with the valiant Verizon technical support guy, as he struggled to get my [new[ Treo up and running. There was the software that refused to work. The continued difficulty of synching with Gmail. The “soft resets.” The frustration. The constant refrain of “Let’s try that again.” And finally, after everything was more or less up and running, the painful realization that the new phone was almost as problematic as the old one had been...
... It’s hard to make a good smartphone — so hard, in fact, that no one really has it right yet [jf: almost right, but wrong. See below]. BlackBerrys are great at e-mail, but the phone is barely adequate and its Internet abilities are not very good at all. The Motorola Q crashes almost as often as the Treo. The Apple iPhone is terrific for music and media, but lousy for e-mail and phoning.
Part of the reason has to do with what’s called the “form factor.” For marketing reasons, everybody is trying to cram all these complicated features into ever-sleeker, ever-thinner boxes, while also adding longer battery life, and so on. Invariably, smart phone designers have to make compromises that mean some functions don’t work especially well...
... On the one hand, believe it or not, the company is still using the same operating system it used when it was churning out Palm Pilot, which, please recall, had no Internet, no e-mail and no telephone. [jf: wrong. It's the same name, but the old apps are running in emulation - they're slower now than they were ten years ago!] ...
He's right that today's smartphones fall short (though I suspect he's exaggerating the iPhone's flaws), but he's quite wrong that it's not possible to build a great smartphone. The Samsung i500 appeared to be a very good phone when I had it, but in retrospect it was a fantastic phone. There's never been anything like it since it was discontinued about 3 years ago; those who have working i500s coddle them. I gave mine to my wife when her old phone died, and I've suffered ever since.
Since the Samsung was a great phone, and it ran the Palm OS, why is the Treo so unreliable? Ahh, well, the Samsung ran the original PalmOS, the one with Graffiti One. That OS was written by cyborg infiltrators from the 32nd century. Shortly after the i500 came out Palm was essentially destroyed from within (Microsoft gave a push or two) and it's never recovered. The Treo runs a botched descendant of the original PalmOS that's held together by bailing wire.
That eliminates the Treo, but it's also true that every non-Palm smartphone OS, to date, has been unreliable or has placed disabling demands on the phone, or both. The old PalmOS was designed to run fast on a hamster-powered CPU, so the i500 was positively capacious. All of today's OS's ask much more of the host phone.
We'll see if Apple can break this trap, but I wouldn't look for anything from Palm. Their secret genius took his stock options and ran ...