Has Palm Missed the Boat?

Most of us here like gadgets. Things with displays, LEDs, or stuff that otherwise lights up in the dark and makes cool noises. There is this one gadget I had been waiting for to come out in The Netherlands for quite a while now, but at some point a limit was reached, and today I decided to do a complete 180 and buy a competing product.

Back in January of this year, a company on the verge of a massive financial abyss sent waves through the geek crowd by not only announcing a completely new gadget, but also a completely new operating system, based on the Linux kernel, carrying with it an innovative user interface.

Audiences at CES were stunned, the tech media were all over it, and the device became the star of the show. I’m of course talking about the Palm Pre and the webOS, the saviours of Palm. The device looked stunning, the software and its card paradigm was new, fresh, and interesting.

However, there was a major downside. Even though it was January, the Pre and its webOS wouldn’t actually ship until somewhere in the summer. This was a long wait for a gadget, but at the same time, the mobile phone world is filled with people bogged down by contracts anyway, so even if Palm released the Pre right away, it wouldn’t ensure massive sales. It may have made sense to announce the device early, only to keep the media interested in it for 6 months, keeping the audience enticed.

Finally, the Pre started shipping on June 6, 2009. Reviews about the device were overall positive, with the best aspect of the device being its operating system, and the worst aspect, well, the device itself. The hardware is simply not up to par, build-quality-wise, to that of, say, the iPhone.

Overall though, I personally really like the Palm Pre, and the webOS in particular. It seems like Palm has struck the perfect balance between Apple-like control and the Android-like free-for-all, giving users the idea they actually own their device, but without making any compromises to the combined webOS+Pre product.

I liked the Pre and the webOS so much, that I decided it should become my next phone. My current phone is the Nokia E71, a phone stuck somewhere in between the mobile phone days of yore and the modern world of iPhoneOS and webOS smartphones. It does its job fine, but I, too, wanted something more modern, something less… Business.

June came and went. The Pre was released in the United States. Canada soon followed, and in the past few weeks, the Pre has also been launched in the UK, Germany, and Spain. In the meantime, I patiently sat and waited for any news – any – regarding the Palm Pre in The Netherlands. A deafening silence was all we got.

Finally, mid-October, news came, but it wasn’t good. Dutch technology website Tweakers.net said various sources had told the website that the Pre wouldn’t arrive in The Netherlands for a long time, and that it in fact may not arrive at all. Several Dutch phone shops tried to get the Pre to The Netherlands, but Palm only wishes to deal with retailers directly, and no longer via distributors as is common in the phone world. On top of that, Palm wants to deal with a single carrier, much like Apple.

When it came to the UK, Germany, and Spain, rumours were abound long before the news was made official. There is not even a single decent rumour out there that the Pre will make it to The Netherlands any time soon. This is a bad thing.

Let’s forget the iPhone for a second. Its position is pretty much stable, and the Pre never had any chance of toppling Apple over on this one. However, it did have a chance to become a good second – but the longer Palm waits with making it possible for consumers to actually buy the darn thing, the more people will look at HTC and other Android phone makers.

Palm had a very good window between the release of the iPhone 3GS and the upcoming holiday season, but with the onslaught of Android phones currently washing over the market, this window is closing fast. More and more am I getting the feeling that Palm has missed its golden opportunity with the Pre.

In the US, the Pre is tied to a bleeding provider. Canada – as much as I love Jennifer Jones – doesn’t really make that much of a difference, sales-wise. In Europe, it is only available in three countries. I’m sorry, but to make a true mindshare dent – which is arguably a lot more important than market share, see the iPhone – Palm needs to make sure more people can actually buy the Pre.

Palm should’ve gotten the Pre on a GSM network in the US by now. The Pre should’ve been released Europe-wide by now. I get the feeling that Palm thinks it can be like Apple, that providers in Europe are standing in line to adopt the Pre. The problem is that while Apple is a major brand everyone in Europe knows, Palm is not. Maybe some 30-somethings will vaguely recall the Palm Pilot, but that’s about it. Palm is not a strong brand here – maybe not even a weak brand.

Palm is not in the position to make the rules here. They should’ve made it possible for any provider to ship the device in Europe, with the only requirement being that it cannot be branded. Had they done that at the end of the summer, they would’ve had a winner on their hands. It would not have beaten the iPhone (of course not), but it would’ve given them a decent presence.

As for me, it’s too late. My phone broke not too long ago, so I needed a new one; my contract renewal was up too, so I was lucky. I went to the T-Mobile Store today, and bought an iPhone 3GS 16GB White (I’m picking it up Thursday).

That will be EUR 99.95, please. And your soul, obviously.


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