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Palm Column

Slow down, accessorize, and support

by Shawn Barnett
March 2003, issue 48

The PDA industry is moving out of its infancy and straight into adolescence. It's an awkward stage, filled with self-doubt, impulsivity, and rapid mood swings. One quarter joyous and optimistic, the next downcast and brooding. The bad economy is a factor as is a school campus filled with other confused, competitive, and judgmental peers.

Obsolete expansion peripherals and styli litter the shelves of computer stores in a haphazard arrangement like so many clothes strewn on the bed and floor of a teen's room. Old display stands for what last quarter was the hottest product now hang in tatters from the pegboard while the next big product sits in a space meant for another brand-like the poster of last year's boy band hanging from a staple with the latest artist taped overtop.

It's a mess, and there's not a single section in the computer stores that looks as bad, not even the cell phone section.

Nine issues ago, I had a suggestion on how Microsoft could take on Palm. They should standardize, set some parameters that developers had to stick to so that users could have some hope of compatibility between devices of different brands; if not a common HotSync port, then at least expansion and program compatibility. They needed to learn the lessons of the PC industry and how it succeeded because of that one thing: compatibility. That's actually happened to some extent, they even went a step further and standardized on one processor.

Meanwhile, the Palm OS has been diverging, as my last column explored. I argued back in May 2001 that, unlike the Pocket PC, the Palm world was mature enough to make the expansion with a reasonable expectation that the market had grown enough. I still think that's true, but I think PalmSource has to be aggressive in shepherding the future expansion of its OS, something I discussed with David Nagel of PalmSource (see page 22). But the teenager unfortunately needs more than direction. What it really needs is self-discipline.

Excuse the cliche, but the fact is that these are growing pains from recent growth spurts.

The best example of this is Sony. They're extremely proud of their rapid product development cycle. And they should be. But there are rumblings of frustration from customers. Users who are still paying the six hundred dollar ding to their credit card for an NR70V last Summer are now finding it hard to find compatible peripherals for their "old" device. That NR is gone from the stores, and gone from Only the upper-middle-class NR owner with lots of disposable income would have been inclined to so quickly upgrade to the NX70V, with its higher resolution digital camera, faster processor, and new OS. But more than a few NX owners are angry that now, only three months later, their extremely advanced and unique device is just last quarter's news.

This rapid pace has also alienated a lot of customers who are frustrated with poor tech support. One quarter is not long enough for a tech support department to catch up with the latest stuff. It's great product, but the impression is that Sony's only interested in moving onto the next big thing rather than supporting their existing customers.

Sony's fast dev cycle isn't the only growing pain, at least not in the Palm space. Rapid shifts of personality have left a lot of confused customers as well. Handspring has completely remade itself in the past year and a half, removing itself from the standalone organizer business. With the silent death of the Treo 90 at the beginning of 2003, they've dedicated their course to a phone-only strategy, completely abandoning the two-device idea in favor of one device for everything. This comes even as new expansion peripherals continue to arrive for the Visor, like the FreeStyle Tracker from TheraSense, a Springboard-based diabetes test kit that allows users to track their blood glucose. This is a useful tool that has no way of continuing to exist. You can currently still buy Visors on their site for such a module, but it's clear that soon there will be no more. At the time I argued that they'd be crazy to delete the Visor line, or even to de-emphasize it. Keep it going, I said, killing it early is like quitting your job before you have a new one. It's impulsive, very risky. But they knew their bottom line better than I, so who was I to argue? Perhaps their experience told them that they couldn't make Treo succeed if people were still buying organizers instead of phones. I submit that it's better to have customers buying your product than to alienate your loyal base, who are always your best customers in a fast moving market.

Treo is a good product, no question. But there are customers and developers out there still smarting from the investments they feel they lost with the death of the Visor. As long as Treo's been here, I haven't seen many peripherals for its USB connector. There might be a technical reason, or maybe Handspring hasn't encouraged it because they don't think a bunch of stuff hanging from a cell phone is a good idea. Whatever the reason, they're not going to get many of the customers who liked Visor for its ability to become whatever they needed. They've remade themselves, and it'll take the third generation of products to see how committed they are to this new look, this new style. The quite visible audience-all fans of the founding Palm trio (Hawkins, Dubinsky, and Colligan) is waiting, and hoping.

Palm has also remade itself, splitting itself in two. But it seems to be sitting in a better position. Its product strategy is to try all angles. They have a low-end PDA that syncs with a PC, a powerful high-end PDA that can talk to a cell phone wirelessly, and a mid-range (though high priced) Internet-centric, keyboarded PDA that can also be a cell phone. This is still their multi-tiered approach that we've seen in years past, so they're not messing with success. Although they've introduced a lot of new product this year, it was only after a long product cycle. They still use the same Universal connector, they still use SD and SDIO, even as they switched operating systems. Cases are not compatible, but connectors and expansion still are, and that's important in this market.

Palm is not necessarily the hero here, it's just that where they are in their development strategy, which started with the m500, makes them appear more mature. Like Kyocera with their third generation 7135, their experience shows. Sony's incredible strength, that of engineering dazzling product, might end up a liability in this marketplace, because people also want a device they can be pleased to own two years from now, with some assurance that the company they gave their hard-earned money to will still care about them. As complicated as these multimedia wunderkinder are, it takes some investment in time to learn how they work, and to meld them into your life. I certainly don't want to go back to the days when the cool stuff stayed across the Pacific, but if they can't slow down, they might want to improve support, supply, and updates for older machines. They could also deliver a modem for the low end models so you don't have to spend US$1,000 to get both an NX90 and a T68i just to browse the Internet with your PDA.

What Handspring could use is a broader strategy to reach more than one type of customer. Not everyone wants their PDA to be a cell phone. At the end of the day, if you have reasons (like expansion modules) to keep your name in front of the customer, that money's more likely to keep rolling in.

Thankfully, this isn't the end. One has chosen band and drama, one has chosen communications, and one has chosen to try all three. There's lots to learn, but they're all capable and smart; all they need is time.

-Shawn Barnett,

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