Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Palm OS Obit #245 - and a contrary opinion on the death of the mobile platform

Yet another Palm / Handheld obit, this time focusing on applications: Mobile Opportunity: Mobile applications, RIP.

There are some interesting bits in the essay. Fragmentation of platforms (esp. Microsoft's numerous platforms) made it prohibitively expensive to reach large numbers of users. Java was mentioned in an editorial aside, I think it deserves more attention as a disaster all by itself.

Greedy/incompetent carriers sought funds through "certification", but never seemed to have much interest in building a platform.

I particularly appreciated the discussion on marketing and platforms. I can confirm that the great free websites promoting PalmOS software are largely gone ...
(Elia Freedman): Then there's marketing. Here too there are two issues. The first is vertical marketing. Few mobile devices align with verticals, which makes it hard for a vertical application developer like us to partner with any particular device. For example, Palm even at its height had no more than 20% of real estate agents. To cover our development costs on 20% of target customer base, I had to charge more than the customers could pay. So I was forced to make my application work on more platforms, which pushed me back into the million platforms problem.

The other marketing problem is the disappearance of horizontal distribution. You used to have some resellers and free software sites on the web that promoted mobile shareware and commercial products at low or no charge. You could also work through the hardware vendors to get to customers. We were masters of this; at one point we were bundled on 85% of mobile computing devices. We had retail distribution too.

None of those avenues are available any more. Retail has gone away. The online resellers have gone from taking 20% of our revenue to taking 50-70%. The other day I went looking for the freeware sites where we used to promote, and they have disappeared. Hardware bundling has ended because carriers took that over and made it impossible for us to get on the device. Palm used to have a bonus CD and a flyer that they put in the box, where we could get promoted. The carriers shut down both of those. They do not care about vertical apps. It feels like they don't want any apps at all.
Michael Mace continues:
...I've always had faith that eventually we would solve these problems. We'd get the right OS vendor paired with a handset maker who understood the situation and an operator who was willing to give up some control, and a mobile platform would take off again. Maybe not Palm OS, but on somebody's platform we'd get it all right.

I don't believe that any more. I think it's too late...f you're creating a website, you don't have to get permission from a carrier. You don't have to get anything certified by anyone. You don't have to beg for placement on the deck, and you don't have to pay half your revenue to a reseller. In fact, the operator, handset vendor, and OS vendor probably won't even be aware that you exist. It'll just be you and the user, communicating directly.
Not bad, but I think there's a flaw in his reasoning. He's clearly stating that Palm built an elegant platform, but failed to create a robust business model.

That's not my recollection.

Palm did build a very elegant platform with the Palm III and V, but after the V their quality went off a cliff. Around the same time Microsoft cut them out of the business market with Exchange, and then Palm chopped off its remaining leg by fighting a no-win battle with Xerox over Graffiti One.

As for a developer community, Palm had the Palm Economy -- not a bad idea. I can't speak to their execution on that, but my sense it collapsed because the platform rotted away first.

Microsoft, meanwhile, having destroyed all their competitors without actually delivering anything, developed mad cow diseases and drove the Mobile PC platform into the grave for the heck of it. (Hey, how else can you explain their mobile strategy?)

So now we have the iPhone. The browser experience leads people like Mace to predict that the browser is the new platform.


On the other hand, there are a lot of very, very smart developers who want to create the best possible native experiences for millions of iPhone users. Experiences that work on airplanes, cars, trains and lots of other places where the wireless experience sucks. Sure, you'll be able to create disconnected apps using Google Gears 2009 and Adobe AIR 2009, but they won't have the smooth elegance of native apps.

If Apple can prosper while staying clear of Microsoft's Exchange turf (don't go there Apple, it's a death trap) Mace may discover that he's declared the mobile platform dead at exactly the wrong time ...

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