I’m : a programmer, writer, podcaster, geek, and coffee enthusiast.

Palm’s problem

Yesterday, Palm announced and demoed a brand new phone and mobile OS: the Pre and webOS. They look promising, and they’re huge steps forward from their Palm predecessors, especially considering that everyone had written off Palm as permanently insane after the Foleo.

The Pre hardware is similar to the iPhone’s weight and footprint but 38% thicker and with a slide-out keyboard. The big news is webOS, which has a number of interesting implementations and ideas. I’m curious about a few things.

All application development is supposedly done in HTML/CSS/JS and the phone runs them in WebKit on a Linux-based OS. Great, but Apple didn’t make any of their applications this way (including the “widget” apps, e.g. Stocks, Weather) because of performance and battery-life concerns. Objective-C and Cocoa are fast on the iPhone, but heavy Javascript and DOM reflows aren’t. (I have no idea how game developers are supposed to get anything accomplished in webOS, but that remains to be seen.)

The Pre’s CPU and GPU are pretty high-performing parts — faster and more power-hungry, I think, than the iPhone’s. How has Palm compensated for this? I bet the Pre uses a similar-sized battery as the iPhone 3G because they’re the same weight, so did Palm make the rest of the phone (including its backlight and radio) far more efficient than the iPhone’s, or will it have a worse battery life? The iPhone 3G’s battery life is already unimpressive… Palm really can’t afford to be worse.

But I want this to be successful. The iPhone could use some very strong competition, and I don’t see any coming from Microsoft or RIM.

The main problem that Palm has had in the past has been their attitude. This is exemplified by their CEO’s statement yesterday to AllThingsD:

The biggest unknown is price, which went unmentioned during the demo. My assumption is that Palm would try to take market share by coming in significantly lower than the $200 or so Apple wants for its iPhone. But when I ran that theory by Palm CEO Ed Colligan, he looked at me liked I’d peed on his rug. “Why would we do that when we have a significantly better product,” he asked, then walked away.

(Sounds like the Pre will be $300-400. And it’s a Sprint exclusive. Hmm.)

Palm’s higher-ups always strongly and vehemently believe that they have the best product on the market. At times throughout their history, this has been true, and they’ve done well during those times. Nobody made a better PDA in the late 90s than Palm, and the Treo might have been a very advanced phone for a while. (I actually don’t know. I’ve only ever heard terrible things from Treo users. But I’ll give Palm the benefit of the doubt… I’m sure it was good at some point.)

But they’re not always correct in that assumption. Palm has become quite good at consistently almost destroying itself by ignoring the market and blindly barreling down a path that’s wildly inconsistent with actual demand.

When everyone else had a modern OS, Palm stuck with their ancient one. When everyone demanded thin phones, Palm kept their thick Treo semicylinders. And when everyone made smartphones and laptops better and more capable than ever, Palm tried to release the Foleo.

Palm makes what it thinks is good. Sometimes this lines up with what’s actually good, but it’s practically luck at this point.

You can argue that Apple has a similar attitude, but Apple is correct much more often. To a point, this type of direction is a virtue. But Palm is far past that point — it’s a pathological liability that has caused the company to lose a lot of money, marketshare, and opportunity.

I want webOS to be great. But I just can’t shake the feeling that Palm is always one move away from steering its product into a mountain.