Palm Takes A Seat At Smartphone Table

Last Updated Jun 26, 2009 4:07 PM EDT

Palm CEO Jonathan Rubinstein doesn't think he has to beat the brains out of former employer Apple, or any other smartphone vendor, in order for Palm to succeed. It's a remarkably calm assessment from the leader of a company whose future depends largely on the success of a single product launch, and even more so in the context of the testosterone-driven culture we inhabit, where from sports stadiums to Silicon Valley we're more accustomed to hearing macho posturing than reasoned discourse. According to Rubinstein, the smartphone market has so much growth in store for it that "there's room for three to five players to win in this space. We don't have to beat each other to prosper."

Yesterday's earnings report didn't include figures from the release of Pre, the hook on which Palm is hanging its only hat, so Rubinstein prefaced his comments with a few nuggets about the company's prized new handset. The most impressive factoid, given that the Pre launched less than a month ago, is that customers have already downloaded over one million apps, even though Palm has been very slow bringing them to market and only offers eighteen apps to date.

More importantly for the future of the company, Rubenstein noted that Palm is spearheading and anticipating important developments in mobile Web technology "for the next 10 years and beyond.
Palm Web OS integrates information and services from the cloud, offers a true multi-tasking environment, and we believe takes better advantage of the benefits of Web 3.0 than any other mobile platform out there today.
Rubenstein has been subject of some ridicule for his Web 3.0 claim, but he was clearly referring to the advent of HTML 5, which the new Palm WebOS supports. New standards-based browsers will allow developers to create significant advances in applications, like so-called augmented reality, which allows customers to view metadata about their surroundings layered over images their smartphones capture through their viewfinders in real time.

In a way, Palm has a huge advantage over its competitors because it doesn't have a bunch of legacy mobile phones to support -- all the market and its customers will care about is the Pre -- and can thus devote all its resources to this one line of smartphones. Nor does Palm have to update any of its models -- the Pre starts with a clean technology slate that will be easy to keep ahead of the innovation curve because it will be able to integrate enhancements to HTML 5 seamlessly.

Rubinstein clearly wants investors to understand the importance of the operating system Palm has developed to support new mobile applications.
The capabilities of Palm Web OS will become increasingly important over the next several years as the smartphone market shifts towards software-driven devices... Hundreds of millions of users... will demand innovative functionality that delivers fast, reliable performance, access to the Web and applications, and most importantly, ease of use."
The "three to five players" evoked by Rubinstein clearly include Apple, Nokia, Research in Motion and Palm. That's four. The other one? Perhaps one of the group of handset makers like HTC, Samsung and Motorola, using Android (the open source operating system sponsored by Google). One company he certainly doesn't mean is Microsoft, which is stuck in a world of slow development cycles and a proprietary operating system that doesn't offer support for tools customers increasingly demand.

[Image source: Wikimedia Commons]
  • Michael Hickins

    Michael Hickins has written about technology and business for BNET, InformationWeek, InternetNews.com, eWEEK -- where he was executive editor from 2007-2008 -- The Curator, Pseudo.com, Multex Investor, Reuters, and Conde Nast's WWD.com. Hickins is the author of The Actual Adventures of Michael Missing, a collection of short stories published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1991. He also published Blomqvist, a picaresque novel set in 11th century Europe, in 2006. Hickins remains passionately interested in the intersections of business, technology, politics and culture, and endures a life-long obsession with baseball. He is married with two children and lives in Manhattan.