IS Survival guide: Fearing for Palm

No, I'm not predicting victory for Microsoft in the PDA (personal digital assistant) wars. For that matter, there's no reason to predict that only one product will survive. This isn't Highlander, where in the end there can be only one. Any product that can sync with all of the popular e-mail clients, calendar management systems, and contact databases will be viable.

This isn't really a big worry for you right now, unless you're trying to establish and enforce a PDA standard in your company - and that would be a very bad idea. You're far better off letting users choose whatever they want. There just isn't that much downside to it. Anyway, in the end there will be only two: Palm (and its cousin from Handspring) and the PocketPC (or three if someone digs deep enough to discover the Psion). But I fear for Palm Inc.

Sure, Microsoft blew it big time with the first two versions of Windows CE. They flopped, and many of the hardware vendors who backed those versions are off the bandwagon for a while.

Sure, Palm has the inside track in the form of a large, loyal customer base made up of many who want Microsoft to fail. Sure, the PocketPC has a mountain to climb in the form of the huge, third-party-created catalogue of applications available for the Palm.

But I fear for Palm because it's showing the kind of lethargic arrogance that inevitably ends up dBasing a company in the marketplace. When was the last time Palm innovated?

OK, it has colour (and a backgammon game!) on the IIIc, and it stuck an antenna on the Palm VII. Whee! Now I can do remote e-mail, so long as pure ASCII will do the job. But even here Palm missed the obvious: a microphone to record thoughts as you drive, coupled with an Internet speech recognition service to transcribe recordings when you get to the office. That would make the antenna truly useful.

Oh, darn . . . I probably could have received a patent for that.

In theory, Microsoft has positioned the PocketPC as a consumer device to make an end-run around the Palm's business focus. In reality, it's positioned for business travellers. Listening to music, reading electronic books, or playing video games will be big with road warriors wanting distraction from the long delays and lack of food endemic to modern air travel. And with music and games, can a plug-in DVD player for personal in-flight movies be far behind?

Meanwhile, Palm relies on third-party software developers for innovation. The platform itself is moribund. Palm reminds me of Ashton-Tate in the mid-1980s. Not only isn't it providing technological leadership, it isn't even mimicking leadership of others. So don't set a standard right now. The impact on IS will be small . . . making sure your help desk helps when PDAs won't sync anymore.

Professional landscape architects don't plan the footpaths when they design campuses any more. They wait until everyone on campus has done a lot of walking. Then they pave the paths that happen naturally. Because I fear for Palm.

Make this your PDA strategy: let your users choose the path for you. You can pave it once you know where it should go.

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