Solutions At Hand

Handhelds, smartphones, mobile technology and the digital lifestyle.

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    Michael is a trainer and consultant specializing in making mobility technology work in people's everyday lives.
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Recent deal does not bode well for Palm

Posted by Michael Brown on October 5, 2007

Given that Palm recently stated in the Q1 FY08 investor conference call that the next generation Linux-based Palm OS would not be ready until the end of 2008, and that it was being developed in-house, I have grave concerns that Palm will not get it out the gate in time to make it worthwhile. These concerns stem from the recent deal between Emblaze Mobile, Sharp, and ACCESS, where they announce they are developing a device which will “revolutionize mobile communication”. Emblaze claims they’ve been working on the device design for the past five years, and that Sharp will provide the hardware and ACCESS the software. Let’s look at this more closely to see why I’m concerned for Palm.

First of all, Sharp is involved. Sharp is a major manufacturer, one that makes a lot of parts for mobile devices; in fact, many Palm devices use Sharp LCD’s . They’ve also made the Zaurus line of Linux-powered PDA’s, which have quite the following in Linux circles. They’ve been making other PDA’s for years; my first PDA was the Sharp SE-300. They also manufacture Notebook PC’s, mobile digital audio players, projectors, professional video products, and other entertainment devices which are of interest to today’s consumers. So, basically they are a multimedia, computing, and handheld powerhouse, one that makes much of their own hardware, which lowers their parts cost (and thus overhead) greatly. Compared to Palm, which contracts out the building to companies like HTC, they are now at an advantage by being able to sell the devices cheaper, while still making a good profit.

Sharp is also the manufacturer of the Sidekick/Hiptop series of mobile phones, which gives them a lot of experience in the mobile communications space. Now, when you combine that experience with their other product lines, it makes them a very formidable player in the mobile space. What has been holding them back is the limited selection of 3rd party software for the Danger OS running the devices, and the fact that software is written and encrypted for specific versions of the OS on specific carriers. Not all carriers carry their devices, since they compete somewhat feature-wise with the Blackberry, which limits their brand recognition and market penetration of the mobile space.

Now, we all know that ACCESS owns the former PalmSource, and it’s present and future versions of Palm OS (Garnet and ALP). ALP, the Linux-based successor for Palm OS, has been in development for years, and is now available to licencees. The Access Developer network is open to developers, and the software development kits and compatibility test tools are available now. That means the ALP software is available to manufacturers NOW, although we just haven’t seen any devices based on it yet. So, where as Palm is still working on “their version” of Palm OS Linux, Access has ALP ready to roll.

Now, enter Emblaze Mobile, centre stage. They’re the makers of the Emblaze Touch 7, a multimedia feature phone which was targeted at the youth market in the UK and Europe. They’ve got hardware experience and software experience, much like Sharp, but they’re a small, albiet creative, player in the mobile space. Think Handspring when they first came out with the Treo 180.

When you look at them individually, it’s just “business as usual”; different players in the hi-tech space. What should have Palm very worried is this deal, making them a direct threat to the Palm Inc. device lines. Emblaze mobile is kinda like what Handspring was before Palm bought them up, bringing the Palm founders back into the fold. A small, passionate company looking to create a wave in the communications world. Sharp brings manufacturing muscle to the team, as well as their own experiences with the Sidekick/Hiptop and Zaurus lines. Access brings instant Palm OS compatibility to the mix, allowing Palm device owners an easy migration path to the Emblaze/Sharp platform, while bringing thousands of existing Palm OS applications over to their platform. This mashup platform, (part Zaurus, part cell phone, part Palm device, part multimedia platform), should have Palm very worried. All the Palm OS goodness running on a Linux Kernel, with all the hardware people have been asking for, and by the looks of it, earlier than Palm can deliver their OS. Very concerning for Palm indeed…

Now, this is all my analysis and conjecture. No specs have been released, no dates finalized. But given the fact that a) ALP has been finished for a while, b) Emblaze has been working on a hardware design for 5 years, and c) Sharp is involved, it’s really looking like a better Palm device is about to be released, but not by Palm. Of the 6 Palm OS devices I’ve owned, 3 were not designed by Palm (TRG Pro, Handera 330, and Treo 600). Many people loved the Sony Clie’s for the same reason. Those companies were making better Palm OS devices than Palm was. It’s looking like we’re going to have the same situation again in Sharp/Emblaze.

Now, what really concerns me about Palm’s decision to write their own OS instead of licensing ALP like I suggested in postponing the Foleo, is the fragmentation of the developer community. Some of the smaller developers are not certain they’re going to write for the next generation Palm OS, because they’re already tired of fixing Palm’s device-specific “improvements”. If they take the same approach with their OS, and developers are faced with a choice of developing for ALP and it’s licencees or Palm, they may choose to develop for ALP. If Sharp brings this ALP powered device to market, and it’s a better “Palm” than Palm’s product/OS, then developers will choose to go with the greater opportunites for sales. And if Sharp/Emblaze does come out hardware-wise with a “Better PalmPhone” than the Treo, the ALP Palm OS compatibility will ensure they have a best-seller on their hands. Everyone who has been frustrated with the lack of Wi-Fi, OS resets, and NVFS issues will take a good look at a product which has those issues addressed, and yet will still run their existing applications.

Palm, learn from your Cobalt mistakes; you can have a great OS concept, but if no one wants to develop for it, it’s worse than worthless – it’s a moneypit. If you’re busy writing an “ALP clone”, then it better be compatible with existing applications, and it should be compatible with applications written for Linux/ALP with a minimal amount of rewriting or just a re-compile against the different headers & includes. If you make it incompatible, you may find your products going the way of Cobalt; into the trash can. This Emblaze/Sharp/Access announcement means the pressure’s on, Palm; get it right, or don’t bother.

Originally posted to Palm Addicts here.

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