Is Apple Afraid of Palm?

May 26th, 2009

We all know that Palm made the handheld concept successful, even though Apple’s Newton was there first. Sure, the Palm Pilot was cheaper and not as feature-laden, but it carved a decent niche for itself for several years. That is, until the smartphone took over and smacked it in the rear with a resounding kick.

Now a beleaguered company, Palm has tried to regain the lost luster with its latest contender, the Palm Pre, which is, as with recent BlackBerry products from RIM, considered by some to be an iPhone killer.

True past contenders haven’t done so well in times of product-to-product competition, although RIM, as a whole, with a wider range of carrier partners, is still ahead of Apple in total sales. But they’ve had extra years to get there.

So the question is whether the Palm Pre is going to be capable of hitting the iPhone head on. I suppose one reason why the company is being taken seriously nowadays is because one of its key executives, Jon Rubinstein, was also a key player at Apple during the years that Steve Jobs rescued the company with fancy new Macs and the iPod.

However, raiding a few executives from Apple — and Apple has done the reverse from time to time in recruiting employees from Palm — isn’t necessarily going to transform the company into a smartphone powerhouse overnight. But that hasn’t stopped some from praising the Pre to the skies, including its supposed superior multitasking and search capabilities.

Now where the tech media seems to regard Apple as threatened is the curious way stand-in CEO Tim Cook has responded to questions about the Pre. His hints about going after anyone attempting to heist Apple technology have been interpreted as a direct slam against Palm. In passing, Cook denies that he was referring to any particular company, but simply making a general comment about Apple protecting its legal rights.

Of course, both Apple and Palm have large patent portfolios, and I’m sure the former is examining the features of the Pre real carefully to see if there’s evidence of infringement. I suppose Rubinstein’s presence as a key executive at Palm may bring cause to wonder if he didn’t attempt to infuse the new products with ideas he gleaned during his tenure at Apple. Then again, he’s been in the tech industry for years and he understands the rules well enough, so it wouldn’t seem logical for him to allow anyone to steal Apple’s intellectual property.

Although the Pre seems attractive enough, the slide-out keyboard makes it resemble the fancier versions of the BlackBerry more than the iPhone. But the onscreen demos that Palm provides do enhance a surface resemblance to the iPhone. Even the screen text seems to be crafted in a similar typeface. How it will fare when it goes on sale, however, is another story entirely. Since I’m writing this in advance of the official release via Sprint, scheduled for June 6th, it’s quite possible the initial raves were written by preselected reviewers whom Palm felt would be sympathetic to the company.

In addition, partnering with Sprint, regarded as one of the worst mobile phone carriers in the U.S., would seem to be a curious choice. Then again, one beleaguered company trying to prop up another might have been a smart decision for both, as Palm might receive a more sharply-focused marketing campaign as a result.

As for Sprint, yes, I’ve had experience with the company. My two years as a customer seemed endless, as I encountered frequent disconnects and utterly horrible customer service. Sprint’s later merger with Nextel was clearly not a match made in heaven, as the combined company’s fortunes only seemed to worsen. As market leaders AT&T and Verizon Wireless routinely report subscriber increases, Sprint has continued to lose customers quarter after quarter. Not good.

What it means, however, is that the competition between the iPhone and the Pre isn’t quite direct. When you consider either option, your decision may depend on which carrier you have now, and it’s a huge question whether large numbers of potential customers would be willing to ditch other companies in favor of Sprint, even if the Pre is every bit as compelling as the early press suggests it might be.

In addition, Apple’s ace in the hole is the fabulous Apps Store, where tens of thousands of iPhone apps are available. By dint of its experience with iTunes, Apple knew how to craft a compelling online marketplace for developers both big and small. Palm’s experience is limited to selling overpriced and limited function apps for its handhelds. Even if the Pre is in some ways superior to the iPhone, not having all that extra stuff to download may be the biggest shortcoming in this head-to-head battle to the death. Or whatever you want to call it.

The June 6th release date is also fascinating, as it will fall two days ahead of the start of Apple’s annual WWDC gathering in San Francisco. During the keynote, to be delivered by marketing VP Philip Schiller, you just know they’ll be talking not just about the new iPhone software but will very likely be introducing the newest model, and perhaps even doing some direct comparisons to the Pre.

Then we’ll be able to separate the men from the boys or the women from the girls, if you prefer.

| Print This Article Print This Article

7 Responses to “Is Apple Afraid of Palm?”

  1. hmurchison says:

    The Palm Pre has done some excellent demos but to date I’ve not seen anything that I felt could
    remotely kill the iPhone.

    Much like Windows 3.x was a very poor facsimile for graphical UI computing back in the days its momentum
    and application support kept it moving forward and Apple, while offering the superior solution in aesthetics and more, was relegated
    to second place.

    When I compare the Palm Pre to the iPhone it’s claimed superiority is largely a myth.

    WebOS is a non starter with me because the web (being Javascrip, HTML, XML etc) simply cannot match the robustness of a native API like the iPhone SDK. I don’t care how fancy Palm attempts to make things sound you take the iPhone 3.0 SDK and attempt to offer those features in a web only framework it’s not going to fly.

    Synergy- I don’t have a clue what Palm sees in Synergy as a innovative features. Palm has submitted that with Synergy there’s no central data repository and that you sync to the cloud. Highly buzzword compliant but it’s balderdash. Centralized management rules the roost and if there’s a person on Facebook that is important enough to me they are in my “centralized” addressbook. Palm states that their goal is to eliminate the duplicate data editing but suprise I already have that with iPhones and MobileMe in addition to a plethora of other features.

    Multi-tasking- It’s a phone. I need it to make calls and manage my data. What’s important for me is to have a solution that doesn’t eat up battery life. As much as I’d love to leave a bunch of apps going the more important thing for me is the ability to shut an app down and launch it with speed. I see little value in another buzzword compliant feature that is better suited to desktop/laptops with multi core processors and more efficient input modalities (full size keyboard and mouse)

    Typically you have to be significantly better than the incumbent to take their spot and also you need to have an air of dissatisfaction in the performance of the incumbent. Palm has neither. They are not better from a software standpoint (no app store or established base of developers) and other than the bellyaching about the latest app to get denied there’s little public outcry about the app store.

    Palm Pre will slow the bleeding from Palm but the “iPhone Killer” stuff is just fanciful dreaming from a bored Tech Press. Witnessed by the dearth of groundbreaking features in the Palm Pre that support the “iPhone Killer” emotive pleas. Perhaps they simply cannot articulate these Pre advantages to a curmudgeon like myself.

  2. tom B says:

    hmurchison is right on all counts. In my view, the key reason the Pre is getting so much attention is because daytraders want to pump their Palm stock so they can sell. Apple stock also gets manipulated heavily, so traders can BUY..

  3. Frank says:

    Disagree here.

    First, let’s be honest here – the Pre is really Apple technology as Rubenstein and his designers were lifted straight out of Apple. It’s the phone Rubenstein wanted vs. iPhone which was a Jobs override of Rubenstein. This is not Palm technology – Palm just recruited Apple talent who were frustrated at Apple and looking for more creative freedom (and more fame, and more money…)

    That said, we’ve all seen a lot of smartphones and iPhone wannabes. None of them has come close until the Pre. It really does completely lift iPhone innovation, but succeeds in taking it to the next level. Synergy is a big advance, you finally have your hardware keyboard, and the unobtrusive notifications are a nice improvement.

    I do believe mulititasking is important – I didn’t think so when I first got iPhone, but I am wearing out the Home button from all the launch app -> Home -> launch app -> Home… Let’s face it, on a phone we are constantly switching between apps – from Mail to the weather, to the Web, to pasting a link back into an email, check stocks, IM, back to mail, etc. It is getting tedious to quit the app, go home, and launch the next. The Cards concept looks like it will work well. Sure, we’ll have to not leave three games open at the same time, but we can handle it.

    Even the aesthetics look great – from the fonts to the buttons to the pastel colors. My iPhone looks a bit industrial and cold in comparison. The UI does look like a big improvement.

    To early to say if this will be an ‘iPhone killer’, but from a tech standpoint it looks like a real winner.

  4. hmurchison says:

    How exactly is Synergy a “big advance” over having the contacts you actually want to use in your address book? A central repository that is used in Apple and 3rd party apps across Mac OS and iPhone OS.

    I don’t think many people care about a physical keyboard unless they’ve started their texting on a qwerty phone keyboard. What people “really” want is the ability to leverage the bluetooth in their iPhone for longer document input. Apple, quite surprisingly, prevents this.

    The Pre has a multitasking advantage because basically they’re only delivering Web apps which is like saying “I’m multitasking because I have multiple safari windows open”. When they deliver a full SDK with native apps it’ll be interesting to see how well the multitasking goes.

    Right now we know so much more about the nextgen iPhone OS features and frankly it blows the Pre away. If I’m a developer having “in app purchase” is more important to me. Having an API for better integration with iPhone docks could be huge. Having Core Data on the iPhone is a big thing for many developers. Having Spotlight searches across the OS is welcome. Bluetooth personal networking doesn’t sound like much but the very promise of PDA was the ability to wirelessly send and share data. We have that now.

    Apple has also reduced the need for switching apps. In app email should be supported by many vendors if only as a courtesy to the user. Access to iTunes library from within an app also allows apps to funnel through music without having to switch over.

    Apple right now is light years beyond Palm. First they told you Android was going to be a threat …then they told your RIM was going to vanquish the iPhone with the Storm and now the same sheep bleating are talking about the Palm Pre. And the beat goes on and on.

    Oh I’m not cynical either but I detest marketing bullshit. I’m about companies shutting their claptraps and proving to me their technology works. With over 30 million Apple devices using the App Store and iPhone SDK Apple’s proven they can deliver. Now we get to see if any of these other companies can do the same.

  5. DaveD says:

    I do not think that Apple is worry about Palm. It is all about not losing the user interface. A shot across the bow to all smartphone makers to not copy the “look and feel.”

    Microsoft took away Apple’s “crown jewels,” the Mac GUI elements for its Windows project. Apple spent four years going after Microsoft in court and lost on a technicality.

    A lesson learned.

    Forgot about Apple losing to Creative on the iPod.

    Two lessons learned.

  6. james says:

    I don’t see why multi-tasking is such a big deal if the phones processor speed can return an instant on/off feel between applications. I can see why you’d want certain apps like mail, music, stocks, and weather to run in the background but how many apps could just be “frozen” and return once you go back to that screen? Plus, why have the full app running, like weather graphics, when you just need a simple data feed in the background to keep it updated?

    Multi-tasking makes little sense on a smart-phone. Most multi-tasking requires extra screen space or way too many resources, like rendering, to be used on a smart-phone. This is little more that that a lame attempt at buzz word marketing with little benefit to the end-user.

  7. Constable Odo says:

    Where is this article coming from? I fail to see why Apple should fear Palm. I could see if were talking about the iPhone being a one-hit wonder, but I think it’s a little bit past that point. Apple is a company that is trying to secure every spot from high-end desktop to high-end mobile. They’re literally creating compatible platforms to bridge the gap. Apple has got a the longest-running, solid media delivery system than anyone else (iTMS) and now a developer-fueled game/application delivery system running (App Store). Apple has P.A. Semi and has hired top designers for turning support chip dreams into reality and don’t forget that $29 billion dollars sitting in it’s cash reserve. Oh, wait, there’s more. The Apple Retail Stores network backed by world-wide highly-praised customer support. There is a high possibility of Apple offering a $99 iPhone which easily steps into Palm Centro sales territory. Are you going to try to balance a Centro against an 8GB iPhone to find a clear winner? The iPhone 3/Software 3.0 combined with the updated SDK will create a larger gap that the Palm Pre has to jump over. Apple can pour nearly unlimited amounts of revenue into R&D to continue to widen the gap.

    Palm basically has the Pre running a brand-new WebOS and can barely manufacture enough Pres to meet the little demand.

    And yet someone believes that Apple needs to fear the Pre. Apple has been building up it’s mobile platform for a few years and is looking fairly far into the future. I honestly don’t think that Palm and the Pre are going to be holding back Apple’s plans from moving forward. I think Apple might be wise to watch what Palm does, but Apple is far past the point of needing to react to a competitor’s one product.

    Forget the Pre multi-tasking or it’s keyboard. Just remember, Apple can enable total app multi-tasking when the time is right and can certainly design a handset with a keyboard if necessary. I’m sure Apple won’t ever have a keyboard model, but they have the ability to do it. Those features do not guarantee high sales because full-featured, multitasking, keyboard smartphones have failed miserably (The EXPERIA X1 for a good example).

    This article is great for reinforcing that Apple has nearly nothing to fear from Palm and the Pre and that Palm cannot possibly face Apple head-on by itself or put even a small dent in Apple sales. Some people must be forgetting that Apple still sells well-built notebooks, desktop computers and iPods (and maybe soon that elusive tablet/pad device).

Leave Your Comment