Analysis: Palm reaches for enterprise

Palm Solutions Group is attempting to reinvent itself as a serious participant in the enterprise.

As Microsoft's rival Pocket PC platform gathers enterprise momentum, Palm is looking to entrenched enterprise players IBM and BEA Systems to help it convince corporate IT to give Palm serious consideration.

According to executives from Palm SG, Palm is already on the procurement short list at more than 70 percent of enterprise-level companies.

Until now, membership on that list may be just a courtesy to senior managers who have brought their own devices into the office over the years.

Automaker Lexus is piloting a project that puts all the specifications of its models, along with competitive comparisons, on a Palm. Yet there are still no dynamic links to back-end systems in the solution.

"The Pocket PC was looked at, but we felt with the proliferation of the Palm -- [with] 24 million units -- that the sales people were more than likely to have some experience with it, and [its] price makes it a better solution," said Robin Pisz, the national interactive marketing manager in charge of the pilot program at Lexus, a division of Toyota Sales America in Los Angeles.

The case illustrates what Palm executives understand is the company's need to prove itself as an enterprise player at a deeper level.

Hardware-focused Palm SG's first step will be to separate itself from Palmsource, Palm's OS division.

Part of Palmsource's road map includes Web services support in devices, said Chris Morgan, director of strategic alliance at Palm SG.

"Palmsource has a [larger] OS community to support. They have their own schedule, but we have a short-term goal, and if the OS doesn't have some of the things that our customers need, we will implement them on our own," Morgan said.

And indeed Palm SG is doing just that, buying connectivity infrastructure from the acquisition of ThinAir Apps earlier this year, and announcing partnerships last quarter with IBM and BEA.

ThinAir Apps gave Palm its RT (Reliable Transport) technology. Resident on both the server and the handheld, it provides developers with a series of APIs that make calls to the server and to the handheld to facilitate wireless communication handoffs.

"It's the part of the infrastructure that developers don't want to be involved with," Morgan said.

IBM's WEA (WebSphere Everyplace Access) will also support Palm devices, allowing developers to create client-side applications that access back-end systems.

Meanwhile, BEA is embedding Palm support into its WebLogic 7.0 J2EE application server as well as giving Palm SG the client-side Web services technology the company needs to tell an enterprise story.

"IBM delivers the corporate application to a handheld and the BEA solution delivers a customized execution environment to deliver responses to the device," said Ken Wirt, senior vice president of marketing and product management at Palm SG.

The first release of IBM applications that support Palm is scheduled for later this year. "We are trying to sync two product cycles, IBM's WebSphere EveryPlace Access and ours," Morgan said.

WEA 4.2 is due out in several weeks, an interim release will surface in January or February, and a major release of WEA in May will give Palm the total support it desires.

"Connectivity between Palm and WEA will be bundled into the IBM product including installers to push apps down to the handheld," Morgan said.

Gartner analyst Ken Dulaney said that on its own, Palm has no business on the server, calling RT a short-term server solution. "Their real play is with IBM to sell to enterprises," Dulaney said.

The vision of WEA is from any application through any network through any device according to Dulaney. "Microsoft has the same vision, [but] it's not unified yet," he added.

Palm SG's strategy includes the promise that it will deliver custom enterprise SKUs for its devices that include a SOAP engine, a JVM, and a corporate image burned in at the factory for its larger customers, Morgan said.

Carl Zetie, a vice president at Giga, is "optimistic" about Palm's chances in the enterprise, saying the company as left its slow innovation history behind.

"There's no safe choices in this market but nobody today in the enterprise could be looked on as being foolish for buying Palm, and that is essential to their viability," Giga's Zetie said.

IBM makes a handheld grab via back-end apps-- P.J. Connolly.

Dagnabbit. I had the handheld computing space all figured out, then those rotten so-and-sos at BEA Systems and IBM had to go and spoil it.

You see, my premise was that the Palm platform was the Apple II of handhelds. In both cases, we're talking about groundbreaking hardware that established a market where none existed. The Pocket PC was to be the original IBM PC, representing the commoditization of the technology and acceptance as the dominant paradigm.

After all, it's become commonplace to write off Palm as being not quite friendly enough for Windows. The premise behind Pocket PC -- according to the theorists who claim every move of Microsoft's is a giant monopolistic landgrab -- is to extend the reach of .Net into the handheld space, and ultimately to wipe Palm off the face of the earth.

But IBM is maintaining its adroit ballet, always managing to get in Microsoft's way without overtly seeming to do so.

Making WebSphere a back-end enabler for the Pocket PC's rival is an astute move on IBM's part. The advantage isn't in IBM getting the Palm loyalists in their camp, but rather the opportunity to deliver real product while much of the .Net family remains little more than slideware, or at best beta software.

This isn't just good for IBM, but rather it's good for just about everyone who wondered if IBM had a strategy for dealing with the relatively immature market for pervasive client computing. It's certainly a smarter tack than for IBM to go out and try to build and market its own handhelds -- I shudder to think of the abominations that could result from that.

Of course, IBM's customers come out ahead because they can now use relatively mainstream tools to fit their applications to Palm's hardware. Even if you're talking about a relatively simple view into an inventory management or another business process application, that's still not a simple task given the constraints of the platform.

How does IBM exploit this? Well, the real prize is getting apps into users' hands. If the developer community finds that adding Palm access to the homegrown legacy application is now child's play, IBM gets a new market, Palm gets a lease on life, and some nerds at Microsoft will get some nasty e-mails from the Big Guy.

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