Palm OS takes a minimalist approach

Those who use palm computers quickly find they can’t live without them.

This was part of the message delivered by Palm Computing Inc.’s newly appointed president Alan Kessler during his keynote address at Comdex/Canada ’99 in Toronto. According to Kessler, users of 3Com Canada Inc.’s Palm computers are very loyal to the handheld devices.

Palm OS devices have 84 per cent of the Canadian handheld market share, according to Toronto market research firm Evans Research Corp.

When handheld computing devices first appeared, they were first nothing more than smaller versions of the PC — and that was a mistake, Kessler said.

“The handheld paradigm is completely different. It’s not about having the most in the handheld solution. It’s about the right number of features, the right level of simplicity and capability,” Kessler said.

“Size matters,” he stated. The user interface for a Palm device needs to be different from that of a PC interface — it needs to be able to account for the difference in size and purpose.

“How do you put a mountain in [a] teacup? The answer is you dig for the diamond, you dig for the value, you dig for what the customer wants and you set aside what isn’t necessary,” Kessler said.

Handheld computers that use Windows CE come with more application capabilities and features. While the Palm OS is still black and white, Windows CE is in full colour, and some Windows CE devices come with voice recognition software and MP3 players. The choice not to adopt these capabilities in Palm computers for now has been a deliberate one, Kessler said.

“I’m often asked about colour. ‘Gee Alan, when are you going to have colour?’ We’ll have colour when the price is right, when the screen quality is right, when the usability is right, when it matches with the zen of Palm,” Kessler said. He predicted that Burlington, Ont.-based 3Com Canada would probably have colour within a year.

But the decision to keep the devices simple might be a mistake, according to Rob Enderle, vice-president of desktop and mobile technology at Cambridge, Mass.-based Giga Information Group.

“One of Palm’s advantages is that it has better hardware,” Enderle conceded. But he added this is not enough for Palm Computing to hang on to its current market share.

Right now, individuals and not businesses are purchasing the devices — and individuals want those fun applications. As the next generation of kids start buying handhelds, they will be more attracted to those with a MP3 player, and possibly video game capabilities, Enderle said.

By choosing to continue with its simplified approach, Palm Computing will eventually lose its hold on its current market share, he added.

But not everyone agrees with Enderle.

Research analyst Dave Armitage of Evans Research believes that Palm Computing’s tactics are well-suited to the company and the Palm OS.

Armitage doesn’t think the Palm OS and Windows CE are competing for the same market segments. Feature-rich Windows CE is geared for the individual consumer, while the pared-down Palm OS is aimed at capturing the business market, he said. One day Palm computers will be as much a necessity to most business employees as PCs and pens are today, Armitage predicted. And the simplified Palm OS would make more sense for businesses purchasing Palms for their employees, he said. Businesses would want to supply their employees with a tool to facilitate their work, not a source of distraction.

“Business people just need the bare bones — organizer, calendering, networking,” Armitage said. “That’s always been their strategy — don’t try to pack too much into a product like that because you’re going to jack up the price, you’re going to make it more complicated for people to use, and it’s just going to become a novelty item that’s going to wear off,” Armitage said.

But whatever the results, for now Palm Computing will continue its simplified approach to handheld devices.

Through a Web clipping service, Palm users will be able to access a text-only, minimized version of the Internet on their Palms. The minimalist approach is designed to facilitate faster downloads, saving users on the cost of connect time. Users will also be able to purchase stocks through their Palms, thanks to a partnership with Toronto-based Charles Schwab Canada, Kessler announced at the Comdex keynote address.

Whatever the Palm OS’s future, Palm customers remain extremely loyal for now, and can’t live without their Palms, according to Palm Computing officials.

“Palm technology is almost like their second brain. So it would be like taking away their second brain,” theorized Michael Moskowitz, Palm Computing’s national sales and marketing manager.