Sunday, August 06, 2006

PDAs, the future of Palm? – and my Palm LifeDrive

I’ve been using PDAs for about 12 years now, I started on a Psion 3a, then a 3c, then I moved to a Series 5, didn’t like that and moved back to a 3mx and finished on a Revo. As you can tell I love the things, the 3mx is still my favorite PDA but it was obvious at the time that it needed to move forward. The Revo should have been that move but it had two flaws: a poor case design and persistent battery problems.

In the end Psion got out of the market. Another British IT company that couldn’t crack the US market (the US OEM deal was too little too late) and consequently couldn’t compete worldwide. The company still survives and through Symbian the software is competing worldwide on phones not PDAs.

Anyway, I still like PDAs and I can’t imagine life without them. So, four years ago, when it became clear what was happening to Psion I jumped to Palm. The hardware was good but the software lacked functionality, still, it was a good product and I used it. However, it never quite merged into my life the way the Psion did – this may well have been changes to my lifestyle.

A couple of months ago I came to the conclusion I needed to do something about my aging Palm – the case was cracking. So I looked at the Palm website and go hooked on the idea of a LifeDrive.

I’ve had it over a month now and I have to say I’m disappointed with it.

In theory the LifeDrive is a great idea. Its a Palm PDA, and its an iPod (4Gb hard disk), its a voice recorder and a portable web terminal (Wifi and Bluetooth onboard). Sure it does all these things, but it doesn’t do anything really well. The PDA software (diary, address book, etc.) hasn’t really moved forward in 4 years; the music software is difficult to use and only seems to want to play 3 tunes before you have to do something; the voice record isn’t a patch on my Sony SX-56 and the Wifi takes for every to get a connection – and half the time tries to connect the wrong network.

So I’m disappointed with the LifeDrive. I probably should have done more research and maybe I should have jumped ship to a Microsoft based product.

But there is a bigger question: just what is Palm playing at?

Failing to move your software forward and poor products are not a route to success. Then I read that they have product delays coming up.

This goes back to their decision to split hardware (Palm) from (Palm Source) software and concentrate on the hardware. Which actually sounds like the Handspring strategy from a few years back. Remember Handspring? The Palm spin off that produced PDA’s using Palm OS. In fact, one could say that Palm has become Handspring. (Maybe not surprising as Palm actually bought Handspring about 4 years ago.)

In the early days of PDAs - and I should know, I was a summer intern at Distributed Information Processing, DIP, the guys who developed the Atari Portfolio – it made sense for hardware and software to be together because they evolved together. So we had the Apple Newton, Psion, Palm, DIP, Poqet and so on who produced hardware and software.

When the market matured it made sense to split, and specifically get out of hardware. So Psion spun out Symbian, Palm created PalmSource and HP, Dell and everyone else started using Microsoft Windows CE/Pocket/whatever. Nothing really surprising there, the same pattern happened with microcomputers (i.e. the machines before PCs) were we had TRS-80, Sinclair’s, etc. etc. each of which had its own software for its own hardware. And the same pattern is playing out in phones as manufactures increasingly use standard platforms from Symbian, Microsoft, Nokia and others.

(It is interesting to think of other devices were this split could happen next. Already there are signs of it happening in the TV and set-top box market, what about cars? There is a lot of software in them these days, or kitchen appliances?)

(And Apple are the exception, they never split hardware and software. Arguably they should have done and some reports say they may still have some kind of play lined up.)

Palm have done well to survive this long but don’t think they’ve got much of a future. They are a small hardware player in a large market, they can’t innovate (or even update) through software and their products seem to lack focus. They’ve done well to survive this long but I don’t think they can continue.

People tell me that PDAs are a bad sector to be in. The convergence of phone and PDA will leave one winner: the phone. But, having used PDAs and phones for so long I think there will always be a niche for PDAs that do things phones don’t, or are unsuitable for - like running my wine database. Unfortunately I’ve not seen a PDA product that is suitable. Maybe this is just me, maybe I’m in a minority of one.