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...

680 Hardware

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.

Software-Constrained

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.

680 Software

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.

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Round Robin: Palm OS, The King is Dead

21 Comments

Being a Palm fan, I have to agree that the final nail in the Palm OS coffin has been hammered down, practically by Palm Inc, themselves. By disclosing that they are pretty much back to the drawing board after wasting years of development on Palm OS II, this is probably the best indication that they have dug their own grave. Okay, they may not really have spelled it right out, but if they disclose that Palm OS II isn't coming until 2009, they can't seriously be "that close" to the final product.
I have decided that I will jump ship as well, although I still love my Treo 650 but with developers leaving, a stagnant and limited OS that won't be updated ever, and everyone including software vendors leaving, there's no reason why I should continue to buy the same device several years later only for limited RAM upgrades and a higher resolution camera. It seems the Windows Mobile for now, looks so much more exciting. Unfortunately, we don't have the pleasure of getting hold of the iPhone (not yet) but I'm sure eventually we'll get it (hopefully Rogers Wireless will drop their ridiculous data rates).

Mike - what an honest assessment. It is so sad, but so true. If only the alternatives were more appealing ...

All of the phones in this comparison have strengths and weaknesses that makes the best choice a personal thing for now. Looking ahead the Palm has nowhere to go until its new OS is finished, but which of the other phones will pull an ace? Can Palm survive long enough on the strength of the hand it was dealt amid an increasingly impatient user base and fleeing software developers?

Great Article Mike ! I have to agree that development for the Palm OS 5.4.9 has stopped already.
Palm should have foreseen that they should have made the successor to this Palm OS Garnet 2 years ago and not go with the Foleo OS. I don't care if they call it a different name, the most important thing is that they ensure that it is their OS so that they have full control of it. They should have focused on this first rather than getting their name back.
I have also moved on to an iPhone, but I sometimes go back to the 680 due to 2 softwares that I need sometimes. Hopefully, those 2 software will migrate to the iPhone in the future after the SDK is released. But other than that, I am a very, very satisfied iPhone customer. I haven't had this stable OS since my Nokia 6150 :)

Yes, that was a great article Mike! And I agree with Cascade's thoughts that it's sad but true. Very sad because I love the Palm OS as it's what I've come accustomed to using and am so comfortable with it. I'm hoping that Palm will surprise us in the coming months and blow us away with something great and new.

Being uneducated in the "mindset" of Palm, I will not attempt to discuss where they are going. As a 680 owner, and a casual user vs. a power user, I am impressed with both the hardware and the software. It is the perfect phone for today... so far so good Palm. I will trust that Palm will deliver again when the time comes. Naive? Maybe. Optimistic? Always.

Mike- This was an excellent closing to your segment with the 680. Everyone has covered the particulars well, but I think you were thorough in placing Palm where it stands today.
As you reviewed the limitations of the Palm Garnet OS, I felt an analogy to aviation in the pre-jet age. Palm has essentially taken the reciprocating engine as far as it can go, but others are working with jets and passing them by. In order to truly innovate with todays demands- GPS. wifi etc, it's clear Palm sorely needs a new powerplant. Let's hope they're able to implement amazing things with the new Linux OS. At this point, it's really not worth upgrading until they do.
And I like how you dropped the comment that you'd be buying iPhone 2.0 before Palm is even close to releasing their new Linux OS. Amazing really.

Excellent write up. I used Palm devices for years, and there' really no excuse for the lack of development over the last 5 years. They coulda/shoulda/woulda given us something on the level of iPhone *years* ago. They had all the head-start and talent in the world.
What's more appalling is that the Linux OS isn't not only done and shipping, but not even on the realistic horizon.
I think only the strength of their past accomplishments makes it such a passionate disappointment.

I tend to agree, but at the moment there is still nothing I prefer. WM 6 still has the worst interface in the business, and now that I have a BB from work I find it isn't much better. Too damn many scrolling menus and sub menus, not remotely intuitive, and I'm not the least impressed with the calendar aside from Outlook sync. And most of the apps are just plain ugly and disorganized.
iPhone? Maybe someday, but for now it's too limited, and frankly I fidn the rows-of-icons interface to be less than elegant, as is the need to always go back to the icon page to change apps. The hard buttons on the Treo may not be as 'cool' but they're more functional. As is the hard keyboard.
Maybe in 2 years P-OS will be dead, but not yet.

Well, as much as I love my 680 (it does everything I want it to do and more) I still get phone envy. Man, if they just touched up the UI a little...but that's an old story. Old and, shall we say, "dead"?

The 680 is my phone because it does everything I need it to do. Not that I wouldn't want it to do WiFi, etc.? :)

I have read Mike's article and the other comments with interest. I have been using Palm OS devices for 10 years and it is sad to see it starting to look fossilized!
I am still using a Treo 650, the longest that I have used one phone for (3 years). At the moment, I cannot see any compelling reason to change it. I don't want to invest in another Palm device until the new Palm Linux OS is out and none of the alternatives are particularly compelling. However, I think that the smartphone environment is going to change radically over the next 12-18 months in response to the iPhone and I really hope that Palm do not miss the boat. I am not feeling optimistic :(

Great article Mike,
As you stated Palm was once the industry leader but they let that slip, they seemed to rely on PalmOS too much back in the day.. almost as if they got the feeling that nothing was gonna beat it...so why bother working on it...yes it has a TON of apps that are currently available for it, but even those apps are aged now and no longer really fresh or new items..while I think it's great that Palm is working on their new OS and I am excited to see what exactly they come up with, I also get the feeling that when it does get released, it's still gonna be far behind all others, the dev team claim it's being constantly being worked on but this has been a long time coming and yet we still have no answers as to when EXACTLY, and I think with the addition of the iPhone into the mix, that probably set their new OS back even further, they now have one more OS to compete with and with that new OS, they are once again going to have to redefine the PalmOS to meet up to those standards as well...with each new mobile OS released whether it be the iPhones OS or WinMob 6.1, they all set the new PalmOS back to day one cause their are new options within those OS'es that people are gonna want..that maybe Palm didn't think of at the time, for example....maybe they had completed the Browser for the new OS, then the iPhone dropped..Palm would be then forced to re-evaluate their new browser to put it inline with Safari on the iPhone...The longer it takes Palm to get the new OS out to the public....the further behind they fall..so once again Palm was once the industry leader, but I doubt they will ever return to that position.

Once Palm finishes their next-generation Linux operating system the situation will be different. At that point, Palm may leapfrog everybody out there.
Agreed. In the meantime, while I'd describe Garnet as having become "cramped," I'm not at a point of moving to something else--especially as there isn't a device I've seen that I'd consider a truly viable alternative. Compare it to test-driving a car--while I may not be able to find something that's the same as my old car, how comfortable are the new ones out there? So far, I can't find one that's as good a fit for me. Android or ALP, maybe--when we see hardware running either of them available.
Palm has licensed their operating system before, they may again.
Don't think so. Look at their perpetual license agreement with ACCESS--they can't license anything using/emulating Garnet. And if Palm's goal with the new Linux OS is to standardize their whole product line on it and include a Garnet emulator, that says they're not going to license their OS to anyone else.
While I'm hoping that Palm can somehow beat their mid-2009 estimates for the new OS, I still want it to be stable. In the meantime, I'll probably just keep looking around and using multiple devices.

Woa!!! Q, where is your avatar?...
Mike, thanks for the article. Finally someone informed me on the reason that palm left out the wifi out of the Treo family...the OS' inability to support more than 2 radios (I think that's what you said)
That has always bothered me since palm faithful remember the wifi cardsthat could be added to earlier palms and the TX and LifeDrive which both had integrated wifi..
But the king is not dead, he makes performances in Vegas and in sprint/verizon store near you...lol

Treo 680 remains my phone of choice even after spending a good bit of time with iPhone and several Windows Mobile handsets from Palm and HTC. I would like to have HSDPA on my phone; so the recent update for Treo 750 on ATT is attractive - calls and data at the same time. But other than that I am holding my imputed luddite position that Treo 680 is a superior phone to others. I know this is largely subjective but here are a few factors to consider:
1. My phone is supremely stable for a smartphone. I rarely have resets or freeze ups.
2. Simplicity is a hard won luxury. The UI of Palm OS 5 is a masterful statement of usability and functional elegance. Try writing a quick note to remind yourself of something later on an iPhone to seee what I mean.
3. Multitasking is achieved on Palm OS but to a limited practical extent. I really dont care that leaving the browser terminates the session. I have lived with Windows Mobile and once in a while commenced a download and left IE to go elsewhere but it was a blue-moon event. Where multitasking matters, 680 delivers. For example, media streaming for online radio. No problems. You can use the device for other things while it does this. Ditto MP3 playback. You can text while on a phone call - v useful feature. You can go to any appplication barring one that makes a Inet connection to use it while on a call. I do this all the time with calendar or to look up cconference call access code in my email.e
In terms of pushing the industry to new levels of web 2.0 support and UI elegance, iPhone is an undeniable force of healthy competitive development. Motorola, Nokia, LG - in fact the whole industry is shaken up. It's like the arrival of Tivo only much bigger.
I believe that iPhone has a limited target audience. There is a lemming effect in the market right now. I am not criticizing the purchasers (I want one too in a way) but I don't feel that iPhone is for everyone. If you are a big media person, it's a great phone. For me though, texting and email are critical. I can't work with a touchscreen keyboard input. It's accuracy is poor. I also don't really need the level of UI polish on the iPhone. I love Mac OS but I often turn off UI animations and some of the zoom effects

Woa!!! Q, where is your avatar?...
One of these days I'll find a good picture... got to be [the late] Desmond Llewellyn, though. As much as I'm a fan of John Cleese, it's just not the same.
Finally someone informed me on the reason that palm left out the wifi out of the Treo family...the OS' inability to support more than 2 radios (I think that's what you said)
That has always bothered me since palm faithful remember the wifi cardsthat could be added to earlier palms and the TX and LifeDrive which both had integrated wifi..
That says it doesn't matter whether the radio is built-in or added... there can [still] be only two!
For now, anyway.
But the king is not dead, he makes performances in Vegas and in sprint/verizon store near you...lol
Thank yuh... thank yuh vera much. :cool:

+1 to franklymydear's comment.
The review got it *** backwards. The treo UI is still far and away the easiest and most responsive interface for a smartphone. nokia's is a mess, I have to wait for windows to catch up to me, and iphone is just not streamlined enough. The iphone is the closest in terms of usability, but loses major points for not having an open development platform.
I'm dyin' to get new features. I tried the n80 when it came out, n95, several winmo sets and I keep sending them back because they lack easy ways to access most basic functions.
dan

Boo hoo. What's wrong with you babies ?
My Treo 680 is the best phone, short of a 755.
I like the iPhone packaging and screen, but for a phone I think I'd be dropping it a lot due to its size. The iPhone had issues syncing with Outlook, is not expandable and it is Apple limited.
Wake up people.

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