New president reads Palm's future

When Alan Kessler took over in June as president of Palm Computing, his job description called for a lot more than keeping the Palm computer at the top of the handheld market. The 3Com subsidiary is on an aggressive mission to expand its territory by licensing the Palm platform to manufacturers for use in a range of devices, including "smart" cellular phones and rugged handheld computers that can be used on the factory floor.

IDG: What's been your biggest challenge at Palm since you took the helm?

Kessler: The biggest challenge has been to manage all the opportunities, because so many people are coming to us wanting to support the Palm and to join the Palm economy. We're running at a hundred miles per hour to just support everybody.

Palm recently licensed the Wireless Access Protocol (WAP - a technology for browsing Web content on handheld devices) as part of an effort to target the Palm platform at the smart phone market. Is this part of a broader strategy to expand into new markets?

Absolutely. We are in the licensing business and our goal is to do what we need to do to ensure that the Palm economy grows, that our business grows, and that our licensees are successful. The way we do that is to attract more licensees and application developers, and there are a variety of different devices for which we will license the OS.

What sort of benefits might the Palm OS in a smart phone bring to consumers?

We are not in the phone business and that's a great question a Qualcomm or another licensee can answer. But think about it, [you have] your address book with phone numbers, and just a quick touch of the screen dials the number for you. Have you ever tried to program a phone with names and addresses? Maybe there's a way to beam the information from your handheld device to your phone.

Can you give me another example?

Maybe you want to surf the Net and you have a wireless phone, and you've got your Palm and they talk to each other in some way. Maybe you run a software application on your Palm that lets you use your phone for Net access.

What other markets do you see Palm expanding into besides smart phones?

One of the important markets for us, and I'm talking about the Palm platform which includes HotSync and Web clipping and everything that we do, is clearly the enterprise. Not through the back door, which is you and I buying one and bringing it to the office, but through the front door. Any enterprise that has sales and service professionals who meet customers . . . has an opportunity to unleash enormous competitive benefit using Palm solutions, and in particular the Palm VII.

Will you tackle the enterprise primarily through the Palm VII, or will the platform find a way in through other vendors?

I hope other vendors as well. And it won't just be the Palm VII from Palm. You'll see different synchronisation technologies, different service programs - everything a business needs. An enterprise doesn't just want the latest greatest whizz-bang device. They want the complete package: they want a vendor they can trust, they want development tools, they want service and support, they want the application developers - SAP, PeopleSoft, Oracle, all the folks who support the Palm platform. They want them to be standing with us.

What new features for the Palm are you preparing specifically for the enterprise?

One of the most important things we're doing is enabling the Palm for mission-critical applications. I talk to CIOs and CEOs all the time who view the Palm as a really powerful tool to help them be more competitive - in terms of selling more to their customers, lowering their cost of operations and being more competitive in the market.

What enhancements to the platform in particular are important for the enterprise market?

One huge one is supporting the micro version of Java. Whenever I go in to a room with IT executives I tell them, 'OK, everyone who's working in Java raise your hand'. They all put their hands up. What we are allowing them to do is make portable applications and use the tools and skills that they have to enable Palm solutions.

What else can you do to accelerate Palm's adoption by corporations?

Partnering with the SAPs and Oracles, having relationships with VARs (value-added resellers) and others who can provide complete solutions, enhancing our system so that synchronisation has different capabilities that are enterprise-class added to the solution. All of those things are in progress.

The Palm computer has enjoyed a long run of success against rival devices like those based on Microsoft's Palm-size PC. What's your strategy to maintain that success over the next 12 months?

My number-one strategy is not to build the Palm-size PC because when you take a PC and try to shrink it in the palm of your hand, that has created to date a bad user experience. The Palm experience is to find out what customers need and want, and simplify it, make it usable, wearable and reliable. And that is different from the PC model. The PC model has more mem-ory, more lines of code, bigger OS, more giga this and mega that, with more features included so you can keep the price as high as you can. And that's not what Palm is about.

Any new features in particular you can highlight that will keep the Palm computer ahead?

Lots. Clearly the whole Palm VII is hugely innovative, the whole out-of-the-box experience, the enthusiasm of many corporate accounts. Lots of new applications are coming to market as well, not only for the Palm VII via our Web clipping service, but also through our Palm economy.

As PCs head for ubiquity the trend has been to drive prices down to reach new customers. Do you think it will be necessary to drop prices on, say, older models of the Palm? If so, how low will the price go?

It's not really a price-driven audience, it's a user-experience driven market. We're still in the early days of the market so there is an opportunity to reach a broader market, maybe a more youth-oriented market, just in general a broader audience by packaging the right set of features, capabilities, the complete experience at different price points.

Analysts have said Web clipping is an extremely efficient way to download short bursts of text to the Palm VII. Do you see the need to deliver broader Web-browsing capabilities in the Palm computer in the future?

We see the need to deliver more and more content, based on the need that our customers have. But remember that a broad, untethered Web-surfing experience in any handheld needs to keep the user experience in mind. You don't want to download a normal Web page from the Net onto a handheld over a wireless network. That's what Web clipping is all about; it's really simple for content providers. Go to Palm.net and look at the many, many applications there.

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