Palm: I’m ready to wallow now

And here we are. After 23000 words covering so many different aspects and such a large time period, it’s virtually impossible to come up with a satisfying conclusion that would touch upon all the topics discussed. As such, I’m not even going to try; I tried to give every chapter its own conclusion. Instead, my final, closing words will be of a personal nature, and will probably not sit well with everyone.

Palm showed the world exactly what consumers wanted out of a mobile device. It did this not by trying to put a desktop computer into a smaller device, or by piling on the features and specifications, but by actually trying to understand the problems users were facing. The company’s relentless focus on speed, efficiency, and price, combined with the concept of Zen of Palm, led it to a mobile platform that serves as the archetype for all the popular mobile platforms we have today.

And yet, in 2013, Palm no longer exists. While conventional wisdom has it that Palm died when webOS failed to catch on, it is my view that Palm was already long dead before webOS ever even arrived on the scene. The company doomed itself the moment it decided to spin off its software division, tearing apart the hardware and software integration that Jeff Hawkins knew was crucial to creating a compelling handheld product, after having experienced first-hand the disaster that was the Zoomer. That faithful day in the company boardroom, when they all agreed to spin off the Palm OS, Palm sealed its fate.

From that decision onwards, Palm continued its long slide into irrelevance. If it hadn’t been for the Handspring acquisition and that company’s forward-looking Treo, Palm would have died earlier. The Treo gave the company a stay, but the bad decisions just kept on coming. Without control over their own operating system, Palm could no longer add the features it needed in a properly integrated way, nor could it modernise the platform in a way that made sense for them. The situation got so dire that the company had to sink to extraordinary lows when it decided to sell devices with Windows Mobile. The Windows Mobile Treos were a slap in the face of the company’s own heritage, its fans, and the ideals it had stood for since its very inception.

So far, I’ve barely touched upon webOS, and this may have surprised some. The reason for that is simple: webOS failed to impress me. I didn’t get to try webOS when it was current, since the platform never made its way to The Netherlands. So, it wasn’t until last year that I finally got my hands on a Palm Pre 2, which one of our readers loaned to me.

I was incredibly excited. I expected a quick and snappy modern Linux-based operating system that had Zen of Palm written all over it, running on the kind of well-built, quality hardware that I had come to expect from Palm thanks to my Tungsten E2 and T|X. Instead, I got something that had absolutely nothing to do with everything I loved about Palm. WebOS turned out to be a battery-sucking, unbearably slow monstrosity of an operating system running on low-quality hardware.

Sure, people will talk about how I should have used a Pre 3 or TouchPad, without realising that’s exactly why webOS is not a true Palm product: Palm never hid itself behind specifications. Palm never had to say “sure, this sucks, but just you wait until our next device, when our hardware has finally caught up with our features!” That’s not how Palm is supposed to develop products. That’s not Zen of Palm. I don’t care if the Pre 3’s or 4’s or 5’s hardware specifications finally made webOS bearable – as a Palm user, I never had to care. Why should I start now?

WebOS plummeted Palm in the spiral of doom.

The entire operating system reeks of limited resources and shortcuts, so many shortcuts. Instead of a custom, specifically adapted kernel, designed for speed, they took the Linux kernel without really having the manpower to really adapt it to their needs. Instead of creating a proper API and UI layer specifically designed for handheld devices, true to the Palm way, time constraints forced the company to settle for WebKit, using HTML and JavaScript to create applications. And so on.

We all know why they had to take these shortcuts: they spun off their operating systems division, and all the knowledge, expertise, and manpower that came with it. All this was now wrapped up in a company they no longer controlled. Thanks to a deal with ACCESS, Palm only had the code to Palm OS 5.x to work with – not the much more advanced and more modern Cobalt.

In my completely and utterly speculative view, Palm would have been better off if they had used Cobalt as a base for their next-generation mobile operating system. Cobalt, as it existed at the time, was not ready to take on iOS or the then-nascent Android operating system, but had Palm combined the lightweight, Cobalt core, capable of all the things we ask of modern systems today, with the innovative multitasking-oriented card user interface Matias Duarte had designed, they’d not only have had a fast and modern operating system, they’d have had it far, far earlier.

My original plans for this article – made before the Pre 2 arrived on my doorstep – were much, much different from what you’re about to finish reading. The Palm OS and Pilot parts were always going to be in there, but the main body of the article would be made up of an intricate look at webOS, a celebration of a fantastically innovative company’s last great hurrah, its final encore before the curtains closed.

After actually using the webOS and testing it for weeks on end – insofar I could, as the battery would only last for four-to-five hours before running out – it dawned on my I just couldn’t do it. This product doesn’t deserve a celebratory eulogy. You can’t write an article about how great an operating system is – and I’ve been around the block when it comes to operating systems – just because it has a cool card UI. A cool UI doesn’t hide the fact that it’s slow and unresponsive. A cool UI doesn’t hide the fact that the underlying system is unoptimised. A cool UI doesn’t hide the fact that it sucks battery like a there’s no tomorrow. A cool UI doesn’t hide the fact that the hardware was of appallingly low quality.

A cool UI doesn’t hide the fact that the operating system has absolutely nothing to do with what Palm is supposed to stand for.

So, I threw all my original plans in the bin, and started from scratch. I was going to write a celebration of Palm, its innovations, its unique approach to hardware and software design, and its defining role in the mobile computing industry. After weeks and weeks of work and months of planning, I hope I succeeded in doing just that. And, I hope you enjoyed it.

Palm, thanks for the fantastic products.

Me, I’m ready to wallow now.

For the first time in OSNews’ 16-year history, this article is also available for purchase as a PDF. Since this article is quite long (22,000 words), and took a lot of time, effort, and even funds (buying hardware) to write, we figured some might be interested in buying a PDF version of the article for a better reading experience. In addition, you’ll support OSNews.

For just $4.99, you’ll get a beautiful PDF version of the article (55 pages!) – no DRM, no usage restrictions, nothing. Use it on any device or with any reader that supports PDF. This article – both the online and the PDF version – are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license. As a bonus, you’ll also get 15 additional photos and a bunch of Palm OS screenshots that didn’t make it into the article.

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