Round Robin: Palm OS, The King is Dead
After a week of using the Treo 680, I have to say that it's pretty much the same as I remember it. I used the 680 as my primary phone for about half a year, and I've reviewed it twice already. I won't claim to be the most knowledgeable 680 user out there; that honor would certainly be bestowed to many, many users in our forum before I would even enter consideration for it. I've had a lot to say about Palm OS, generally favorable I suppose, but there are caveats. I've said as much in the TreoCentral TreoCast, but I've never had an opportunity like this one to really distill thirty podcasts and a few dozen hours of listening into a manifesto of what's good and what's bad about Palm OS, and what I really think about their Linux venture, and why Palm is on their current path.
When I say the King is dead, I don't mean that the 680 is a bad device, or that there's no reason to use Palm OS, or that anyone that uses it is dumb. Far from it, I think the 680 is pretty high up on my list. It's still a good phone. If I thought Palm OS was dumb or not relevant, I wouldn't do the TreoCentral TreoCast. It boils down to two things with Palm OS: the hardware and the software. The hardware will see updates. There will probably be more Palm OS GSM phones to come out. Better cameras, 3G, smaller form factors, the whole shebang. When it comes out, it will probably be a compelling upgrade for Palm OS users. But I don't think we'll see a significant software update for Palm OS in the next two years. While some may accuse that it's unfair to say "the king is dead" alluding to Palm OS, it's not accurate to say the king is alive, either. But still, there are always these persistent rumors about faked deaths and random sightings...
It's a bit of a shame that the 680 was what we ended up reviewing; Palm, for unknown reasons, tends to do all of their innovation on CDMA before they do anything new for GSM. Palm's Centro is actually a pretty neat phone, ,and it bodes well for what they'll be introducing in the future. The 680, though only a year old, doesn't seem to age quite the way that one would like. Two of the other phones in the Smartphone Round Robin are very nice and svelte -- the iPhone and the BlackBerry Curve -- and the other, though brickish, is packed with features like 3G, wi-fi, and GPS. The 680 seems paltry by comparison in many areas.
Palm can do better than they did with the 680; the Centro is proof of that. But Palm only releases a couple of phones per year, and we probably won't see anything to replace the 680 on the GSM side of things for another few months at least. This leaves the Treo 680 dated in terms of features.
If you're on CDMA, there's at least the option of the Treo 755P and the Palm Centro. Those two phones are technologically advanced, at least moreso than the 680. The 680 shipped with a VGA camera, almost criminally obsolete for a smartphone. What makes it worse is that it fixed a color balance problem the preceding 650 had. A lot of people thought the 680 was what the 650 should have been. I don't agree with that assessment, I think Palm traditionally innovates along a path -- they've chosen a form factor, and they'll continue to refine it. You could even say that they started the form factor, or at least popularized it when they invented their Palm Pilot.
The thing about Palm is that they've been the market leader before. They know what it's like to be on top, and they probably have a good idea of what they have to do in terms of engineering to get back there. They'd probably like to engineer a few things away; they've been humbled a bit by other device makers -- for example, the iPhone really showed a lot of people what a smartphone could really be capable of doing. But Palm has to wrangle with some inherent limitations. The biggest one is their software, Palm OS.
Because of the way it was written back in the day, Palm OS doesn't allow more than 2 radios at the same time. There are a lot of useful radios that go into a feature-packed cell phone. Of course, the integral radio transmitter is the cell antenna, which handles such things like phone calls, GPRS, EDGE, 3G, 1xRTT, or EV-DO. The first choice is pretty much made.
The second choice, that gets tough. Bluetooth requires a separate radio. Wi-fi requires a separate radio. For all I know, GPS requires a separate radio (in terms of how Palm OS would deal with it). Wi-Max requires a separate radio. If the new 700MHz wireless block gets bought by Google and they unveil a new, cheap-as-in-free wireless network, that will require a separate radio. Everyone can pick as many radios as they can stuff into a little metal and plastic candybar/brick shape and go from there. Palm can pick two radios altogether, and the die is cast: they have to have a cell radio (1) and they chose bluetooth (2). End of story. They could fix it, but they're not going to.
Okay, that transition was unnecessarily negative. Palm OS has a ton of strengths. In a lot of ways, Palm OS has more strengths than some of the other platforms out there -- their software is pretty easy to use, there are a ridiculous amount of 3rd party apps, and a large and vocal community dedicated to the platform. What good is integrated GPS if you have to dig into arcane COM ports before you can use it? But, there are some revolutions coming in the mobile phone world, and PalmOS, as it stands now, is equipped to miss them. Without wi-fi, the likelihood of using a PalmOS phone for VOIP calls is unlikely, for example. And Palm's mindshare and marketshare is slipping more and more with every passing year.
Once Palm finishes their next-generation Linux operating system the situation will be different. At that point, Palm may leapfrog everybody out there. Palm has licensed their operating system before, they may again. However, the last time they did license, they spun off their software division so the hardware and software sides of Palm didn't have any inherent advantage in working with each other. That led to a lot of hassles for Palm in the long run and they're probably not likely to repeat the same mistakes.
The bummer of it is that I think Palm is more constrained by their software than anyone else in the Smartphone Round Robin. Sure, the software on the Curve isn't all that advanced, but it's plenty stable and designed to do a much smaller subset of functions than the 680 -- people don't really expect as much, and RIM's OS gets better and better with each passing day. And since Palm wasn't able to sell the enterprise on the necessity of a touchscreen for smartphones, well... they lost a lot of customers.
The operating system on the 680 is both enabling and limiting -- once the software is on the device, there's a lot of things you can do. I have this feeling that it takes Palm a lot of work to get PalmOS on hardware in the first place. I could easily be wrong about this, but when I think about getting PalmOS on a device, I think about bolted-on compatibility libraries designed to run a bunch of code that was done in assembly for a different chip architecture. To give an analogy, the PalmOS is kind of like building something by hand. The iPhone, Curve, and Tilt operating systems would be more like building a something with robots on an assembly line.
Looking to the future?
Now I'll move on to what might be the toughest thing about the 680. Palm is done with the Palm OS. They don't want to put too much development effort into it as I stated in the earlier article. They probably wont' be buying some neato Palm OS widget and bolting it on as a cosmetic upgrade. It's not worth it to them; it's more important to get their Linux OS out the door faster. Unfortunately, that's probably the right thing to do in their case.
They'll probably have some sort of compatibility layer that runs the compatibility layer that runs the old dragonball assembly so that most of the old Palm OS apps run on the new Linux OS. They have all the rights they could possibly need for this due to a licensing-rights and code-ownership settlement with the seemingly-incompetent software company that used to be part of Palm that Palm perhaps mistakenly spun off and maybe wanted to buy back but was bought by Access instead. Are you confused? Yes? Good, then you're halfway there. Actually, you've probably pretty much got it covered. It was a debacle; the important thing is that whatever it was, it happened and it's behind Palm now. They can focus on the future, and they're now essentially doing so now with steely-eyed determination.
The Foleo could've been a good indication of what they're planning except for the fact that they revealed that the Foleo wasn't based off their next-gen Linux system. Palm was tight-lipped about the Foleo before it was introduced; they'll probably be tight-lipped about their new Linux OS will be too. We don't know what it will look like; we don't know how much it will build off of the current Palm OS. We don't know if they'll keep the interface similar; we don't know if they're going to blow everyone away with how awesome it is, we don't know when it will be out. We don't know if they can keep it a secret. We don't know if they're going to copy Apple or leapfrog them. No one knows, but you ask me, Palm is definitely the wild card in this race.
Snapped Back to the Present
In the meantime, we have the Treo 680. It's a good phone. My wife uses my old 680, and will continue to use it until the next iPhone comes out. I'll probably buy that new iPhone because Palm's next-generation Linux OS won't be available yet and it'll be my duty as an iPhone blogger. She'll gripe about the money I'm spending but I'll ameliorate her disquietude by giving her my current iPhone and her orange 680 will be gifted to whomever in our family or friends is on GSM and needs something more advanced than their current featurephone. The 680 will still be perfectly functional, and there will be a bunch of software they can use with it as long as they're comfortable with having a HotSync ID of mike.