OPINION: Can HP succeed with Palm?

Ah, poor Palm, we hardly knew ye.

Actually, we’ve known you from a long way back. Back to before you had to drop the “Pilot” from your product names because of that pesky pen manufacturer.

As I write this, I’m reading reports that Hewlett-Packard Co. will buy Palm Inc. for $1.2 billion.
It’s hard not to have a soft spot for the company that created the personal digital assitant market (remember PDAs?), the pocket-sized special-purpose computer that would evolve into the smart phone.
As recently as a year ago, with the launch of the Palm Pre and webOS operating system, it looked like Palm was back with a vengeance after years in the wilderness. A stunningly engineered smart phone, with an OS more intuive than Research in Motion Ltd.’s BlackBerry, and vastly more useful than Apple Inc.’s iPhone, the Pre should have launched Palm back into the portable device big leagues.
It didn’t.
Palm was launched in 1993, but didn’t have a hit until its 1996 Palm Pilot. A measure of how dominant Palm was in the PDA market: Even though Pilot Pen Corp. sued, and won, for trademark infringement (a gross miscarriage of justice, it says here — who would confuse a PDA and a pen?), PalmPilot still became the generic term for PDA.
The company was gobbled up by US Robotics Corp., which was in term bought by 3Com Ltd. Company founders jumped ship to form Handspring in 1998, at odds with the direction 3Com was taking.
Over the next few years, the ownership situations of Palm and Handspring (which brought us the Treo, a funky, translucent PDA with modular plug-in capabilities) muddied almost by the week. First, 3Com spun off Palm, only to see the share value tank in the dot-com crash.
Palm eventually spun off its operating system division as PalmSource. Handspring and  Palm merged, becoming PalmOne. PalmOne once again became Palm Inc. Bono’s Elevation Partners invested in the company (which some, at the time, likened to an act of charity).
During this ownership manoeuvring, the handheld market was changing dramatically, and Palm took its eye off the ball.
RIM continually developed its BlackBerry two-way pager until it became the new generic name for smart phones. Apple re-invented the handheld for the consumer market, and the enterprise began to follow.
The timing made Palm’s webOS launch seem like a desperate last gasp, but the quality of the product looked anything but. Solid, innovative, intuitive, webOS is what other smart phone operating systems wanted to be when they grew up.
The question is: Is HP the company that can save the Palm brand? On the one hand, HP doesn’t have a mobile profile, so it can focus its efforts on the Palm brand, something an HTC Corp. (rumoured to have been in the market for Palm) couldn’t do.
On the other hand, it doesn’t have a mobile footprint because it botched two promising products, HP’s own Jornada and the iPaq it inherited in its Compaq purchase.
If HP messes with webOS, trying to integrate it into its wide stable of products, the Pre will fail. HP must leave the Pre, the Palm brand, and especially webOS to chart their own evolution.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Dave Webb
Dave Webb
Dave Webb is a freelance editor and writer. A veteran journalist of more than 20 years' experience (15 of them in technology), he has held senior editorial positions with a number of technology publications. He was honoured with an Andersen Consulting Award for Excellence in Business Journalism in 2000, and several Canadian Online Publishing Awards as part of the ComputerWorld Canada team.

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