It’s been a tough time for longtime Palm fans. Those of us who have followed the geniuses behind the handheld stalwart through their work at Palm, Handspring, and Palm again (points awarded for those who remember the brief stops at US Robotics and 3Com) have watched with frustration as the company stopped innovating and was passed by. BlackBerry picked off part of the market by zeroing in on email, and you may have heard that Apple has entered the market, too.
What differentiated devices on the PalmOS from handhelds that ran on other operating systems was their simplicity. They were easy and fun to use — and they didn’t feel like computers stuffed into a smaller form factor. Even when developers smashed together a Palm PDA with a mobile phone, first with the VisorPhone and then with the more elegant Treo line, they were (until recently) careful to balance increased functionality with the self-evident usefulness of the PalmOS. But even Palm executives must have questioned whether there was a business in such utility, because in recent years it also began selling models based on Microsoft’s almost-as-complicated-as-its-desktop-forebear Windows Mobile operating system.
Last month, the editors at Engadget published an open letter to Palm laying out the company’s many mistakes and begging for a change of course. Some of the suggestions were on target, some were the hopes of romantic fanboys, and now one of the smart suggestions — “Stop wasting money on the Foleo” — has come true. In a post today on the Palm company blog, CEO Ed Colligan announces that the about-to-be-released Foleo sublaptop “Treo companion” would not be released. I saw Jeff Hawkins demo the Foleo at D5 and saw much to like. Who wouldn’t want an instant-on (real instant-on, not hibernation), open source laptop with batteries that ran for weeks? But the Foleo’s $500 price tag put it uncomfortably close to that of full-fledged Windows laptops. And the last thing a company desperate to fix its core product needs to do is start a dubious new line that’s dependent on the troubled core business. Better for Palm to cancel the product before the market does it for Palm.
It’s a difficult move (the company will take at least a $10 million charge), but it’s an inevitable one. It may also be too late to do much good for Palm. Earlier this year, Marc Hedlund posted eloquently on Radar regarding why Palm’s success with developers was based on its relatively open platform. Yet even Marc, a one-time owner of three Palms and three Treos, has subsequently abandoned those models for the quite-closed iPhone. The last several generations of Treos have been evolutionary, not revolutionary, and that’s why they’ve had the buzz of dead mosquitos. If Palm is to leapfrog over BlackBerry and, especially, Apple, it needs to redefine its entire product segment. Again.