Palm's Third Act

2009 marks another year when Macworld and CES are scheduled for the same week. It’ll be a great week for product announcements, but it’ll also be a week of information overload. RSS feeds will overflow with gadget coverage. For those of us covering technology, it presents some logistical challenges, too. Which conference to attend? I’ll be at Macworld again this year, but with Steve Jobs passing on the keynote slot, it’s tempting to head to Las Vegas for CES during the second half of the week. Why? Big news is expected from Palm on January 8th.

The last major announcement from Palm was the Foleo in May 2007, a device that was cancelled only a few months later. While the device itself was a failure, the concept was not. Netbooks are quickly becoming a sizeable market with universal appeal. Palm’s experience with the Foleo has left much of the tech press skeptical of Palm’s coming announcement. Personally, I think this is going to be one of Palm’s most important announcements in its history, following its two prior acts – the rise of the Palm PDA in the mid to late 1990s and the company’s transition to smartphones after the acquisition of Handspring in 2003. A hit will resurrect the company. A flop will likely lead to its demise.

This is an interesting time for Palm. On December 22, the company announced that it had secured $100 million in an equity investment from Elevation Partners, just four days after a disappointing Q2 FY09 earnings announcement with a substantial net loss for the quater. Palm’s CEO Ed Colligan called this an “undeniably difficult period.” Indeed. With so much of the smartphone narrative and consumer excitement focused on iPhone, BlackBerry, and Android, Palm has largely been left out.

The far more intriguing Colligan quote from the Q2 FY09 earnings release concerns Palm’s upcoming announcement – “We are on track to deliver a breakthrough new platform and products that will bring a truly differentiated smartphone experience to our customers and reestablish Palm as a leading innovator in the mobile industry.”

Breakthough new platform…
Truly differentiated smartphone experience…
Reastablish Palm as a leading innovator in the mobile industry…

Sure, press releases are full of language like that, but if you’re Palm, you can’t make these statements with the smartphone market conditions the way they are and expect to be taken seriously ever again unless there is some shred of truth in these words.

I think Palm has a chance. Not a very good chance, but a chance here and I think it’s unfair to be dismissive until we know exactly what Palm has to show us. For Palm to change the smartphone market dynamics at such a critical time, the company needs a hit on January 8th. Anything less than that will turn its third act into its final act.

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