When Palm announced earlier this week that it will start bringing paid webOS apps to its platform, it had me wondering how the Pre, with its current lineup of about 30 applications, can simply add commercial apps and expect to compete with the iPhone.
At this point, it’s a tough sell. With so few apps, a carrier that can’t muster the same number of subscribers AT&T can, and a somewhat suspect product, the iPhone might have claimed yet another victim.
When the Palm Pre was announced, it enjoyed some major hype. Some publications were wondering if it would be the iPhone killer. But once it hit store shelves and the reviews started hitting the Web, all that changed. The Palm Pre was recognized for what it really is: a fine product with some promise, but due to such a small number of apps, it’s a device that can’t quite live up to the iPhone. It seemed destined to be an also-ran.
But with the addition of new, commercial apps to the Palm Pre, some might think that there is a light at the end of that tunnel. They might believe that Palm is finally doing what it must to appeal to consumers looking for more than what the Palm Pre’s software has to offer. Sadly, it might be another case of too little, too late.
Time Is of the Essence
In the cell phone industry, timing is everything. With such low margins, stiff competition and a major, almost insurmountable competitor to boot, if a company that’s not named Apple wants to make its mark, it needs to do everything right at launch. It simply doesn’t have the time nor the hype machine to help it roll out new features as they become available.
The Palm Pre is no exception. When it was released, it featured a glaring omission: apps. Prior to the announcement of commercial apps, the Palm Pre had about 30 webOS applications available for it. RIM’s BlackBerry currently has more than 2,000 applications available for its users. Google’s Android Market houses more than 3,000 applications. Apple currently boasts more than 65,000 apps in its own store. That’s a real problem for the competition. And it’s especially an issue for Palm.
Applications have become a requirement in the cell phone industry. Without them, a phone looks old and obsolete. But it gets worse when we consider the fact that Palm has applications that don’t easily fit into the standard created by Apple’s store. Applications that can be readily ported from the iPhone to an Android-based device can’t be ported so easily to Palm’s Pre. It’s a different platform, technology and idea. It’s a problem.
More Than One Problem
But the Palm Pre’s troubles go far beyond applications. It’s not nearly as robust or reliable a phone as we originally expected. Consumers keep complaining about its low battery life. Its multitasking, while a fine feature, isn’t as useful as some had hoped. Worst of all, it’s on Sprint’s network.
Sprint Isn’t Helping
Although the iPhone has once again popularized exclusivity deals in the mobile phone business, it’s on a major network. AT&T has millions of subscribers. It’s currently one of the top U.S. carriers (thanks in no small part to the iPhone). Even better, it has a relatively ubiquitous 3G network.
Sprint isn’t so lucky. Since its acquisition of Nextel, the company hasn’t been able to provide the kind of experience users want. Its widespread high-speed data rollout is taking too long. Its ability to attract customers is dwindling. And the Palm Pre, the device it hoped would bring a huge wave of new subscribers, isn’t quite holding up its end of the bargain. Most end users don’t want to switch to Sprint because of those problems. And that’s leading to even more troubles for the Pre.
But just because the Palm Pre is suffering under the might of the iPhone, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it doesn’t have a chance to rebound and become a major force in the industry. In fact, it’s entirely possible that it could make its mark. But that all needs to start with a total revamping of its focus.
See, the Palm Pre is a fine device, but it can’t match the iPhone on any level. Due to so few apps, it’s not appealing to consumers. Although it has some nice enterprise features, they aren’t able to stack up against the BlackBerry or even the iPhone’s 3.0 software. Simply put, Palm finds itself in the middle of two major markets.
Realizing that, it needs to decide if the Pre is a consumer device or an enterprise product. If it’s the latter, it needs to build more enterprise-friendly features into the device and market it as the corporate world’s phone. If it wants to be a consumer product, it needs to work far more diligently at getting apps to users.
At the same time, Palm needs to address its software and battery issues. Multitasking is nice, but it needs to be done better. Plus, it won’t really show its value until there are more apps available for the product. Moreover, Palm needs to ensure that updates made to the Pre will ensure a better battery life. That single problem is causing some to think twice about the Pre.
So as we look ahead at what the Palm Pre might become, it’s clear that it’s at a crossroads. Sticking with the status quo will practically ensure its demise. But the wrong move could cause the same result. Palm’s strategy needs to start by solving the application and battery problems. It also needs to decide who it wants to target going forward. Something needs to be done. And soon.