Summary: At CES this year, Palm introduced the Pre. And, while it is a pretty device, and might make sense as a hardware buy, the fact that it runs a new phone operating system (dubbed "WebOS") from Palm leaves me confused: do we need another phone platform?

Not yet.

It's that time of year again. I don't mean that it is cold and time for a Chinook. Although it is that season here. No, it's "big shiny gadgets on show" time.

Apple's Macworld (their "last") was recently. The 2009 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) just finished.

I've been in radio-silence mode to some extent. Tweaking my balance of outside communication. I didn't catch much of CES or the announcements (whoop-de-doo, a 2TB SD card). I did watch keynotes for both above mentioned shows.

And today I read about the Palm Pre.

Palm is a company that I had forgotten about. I saw someone with a Treo (or a "one" or a Palm1ne or "life drive" or whatever it is...) today and thought to myself: "People still use those?"

Even if I can get past the name (is it pronounced "pree" or "preh"?), it still doesn't make sense.

She who owns the platform, gets the gold

What I mean by platform here is any system that runs computers software: Windows, web browsers [sorta], websites, etc.. If you have a different platform, you need different software: software that uses that platform. Software written for Mac doesn't run on Windows and software for Windows doesn't run as a Facebook app.

If your platform has the most people using it, it gets the most people writing software for it. More software & people using it generally lead to even more users. And round the cycle goes: with you cashing in every time someone buys your operating system or website or mobile phone.

The platform of choice used to be Windows. In non-geek terms: people wrote software for Windows. You bought, borrowed, or stole software for your computer than ran on Windows.

Then, through a combination of increased web browser power, increased non-Windows computer usage, and better and more available internet access, the platform became the web. Hotmail, Google Search, Flickr, Facebook, LinkedIn. This isn't as cohesive a "platform" as what we're used to with PCs: Windows or Mac.

But, if the world outside than North America is an indication, the mobile space is the next platform that will matter. And whose platform will it be in the mobile space?

Mobile Platform

Cell phones are everywhere. And, increasingly, really "smart" cellphones are very common. You can't get on public transit or go to a sporting event without seeing a smartphone that can take pictures, surf the full web, connect to social networking sites, and use email (and, of course, actually function as a phone and do text messaging).

But having fewer kinds of mobile "smartphones" is beneficial to us and to companies. Companies want you to use just their kind of mobile phone (RIM wants you to use a Blackberry, Apple an iPhone, Microsoft a Windows Mobile device) - of course, theirs. But you and I want fewer kinds phones too: if we borrow our friends' phone, we want to know how it works without thinking. We also want our phones to be cheaper and having many of the same kind = commoditization = cheaper.

It's inevitable then, that we'll end up with 2 or 3 kinds of smartphones that account for the majority of the mobile market. That's fairly common in markets: you start with lots of kinds, then you standardize on a few (sometimes just 1).

So eventually we'll have our mobile platform of choice. And the owners of those platforms, will get paid.

Current mobile platform status

Blackberry is everywhere. This is a very strong platform. I can't see how anyone will get rid of them anytime soon.

iPhone has made significant inroads. It's currently the 2nd most prominent smartphone after Blackberry. This is also a strong platform, with a strong developer community. You can find an iPhone application for most anything you want to do - just like PC software.

Windows Mobile is a nice, very computer-like, platform. But it's never caught on. There are many reasons for that, but this is currently stuck in the third spot for popularity.

Back to the Palm Pre. It's a good looking device: it looks like the HTC Touch (I mean that as a complement). If HTC made the TouchSlide, this would be it. And HTC is a Windows Mobile device.

So why does the Palm Pre run "WebOS" - not an existing platform (previous palm smartphones have run Windows Mobile)? They are trying to make a platform.

This is what I don't quite understand the Palm Pre. Do we have room for another platform? What need is it solving?

What we don't have is a cheap smartphone platform. At least, not a cohesive one - yet. Maybe Blackberry goes that route eventually. Maybe you start seeing cheap phones that run Google's Android 1. But WebOS doesn't seem to be "cheap" (rumors of $400 exclusively on Sprint, $500+ later on other networks). So what's the play?

Palm could leverage their brand and build a quality phone on another platform (or, preferably, a couple of other platforms). But they are still trying to be more than a hardware provider. I hope that goes well for them, but it makes no sense to me.

Wrap up & Notes

I plan to post later this week a more thorough rundown of some mobile platforms: their use, consumer familiarity, and its utility to developers.

Note 1: I'm ignoring the Google Android platform here. It's too early to tell if this gets past the hardcore geeks into the mainstream. If it does, it may well be that cheap platform that I mentioned. If licensing is cheap and any cell phone maker can license it - some cheap Android phones will come out.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009, 12:00 AM

tagged: ces2009, mobile, palm, palmpre, platforms