Palm's mobile software platform story is a tortuous one. When the software was spun off into PalmSource to encourage third party licensees and to bring Cobalt to the market the future looked full of possibilities. However, with Cobalt devices never materialising and the subsequent switch to a Linux led approach, the future for PalmSource and Palm (then known as palmOne) looked less promising.
The time and complexities involved in building a new platform from scratch left Palm (the hardware company) without a viable new platform for the future. Moreover, rumours suggested that the two companies did not see eye to eye over future direction and strategy. Palm wanted a software platform tailored to its need whereas Palm Source saw more potential in creating a wider software platform incorporating everything from feature phones to smartphones.
The use of earlier arch-rival Microsoft's Windows Mobile platform and the later purchase of PalmSource by ACCESS largely confirmed these differences of opinion, although the announcement of the ACCESS Linux Platform (ALP) at 3GSM in 2006 offered some ground for optimism, but didn't seem to offer much to Palm who never seemed to raise much enthusiasm for the new platform.
The implications of today's news for Palm is not clear and, until we know more about the new platform, it is difficult to draw any meaningful conclusions. However, given the amounts of money invested in Symbian and Windows Mobile, it seems unlikely that a company the size of Palm can compete directly in terms of innovation and technical functionality. Moreover, Palm has clearly stated that it does not intend to license the software platform - the new Linux-based Palm OS will be a Palm hardware only affair. There may be some advantages in having the platform and the hardware inside a single company and it's these advantages that Palm will need to harness if it is to compete with the likes of HTC, Nokia, Motorola and Sony Ericsson.
While the Palm software platform soap opera story has been ongoing, Microsoft and the Symbian shareholders have invested heavily in their respective platforms. The release of OS 9.5 gives Symbian bragging rights to the most technically advanced mobile platform. Over the last few years, Symbian has gained a dominant market share, thanks to Nokia's S60 and the success of MOAP with DoCoMo. The recent acquisition of UIQ by Sony Ericsson and subsequent announcements offers an alternative to Nokia's S60 and renews interest in Symbian's third UI. Microsoft, meanwhile, is generally acknowledged as having successfully established itself in the mobile ecosystem and, with Windows Mobile 6 just around the corner, has bright prospects, especially in the Enterprise space. Several Linux platforms have also emerged, but there is a high degree of fragmentation and a true mobile platform, in the vein of S60 or Windows Mobile, has yet to emerge.
It seems unlikely therefore that Palm will be able to directly compete with the major mobile software platforms. It will therefore not be able to gain the full advantages of platformisation and will be poorly equipped to compete anywhere outside the high end market, at least in the mobile phone space. However, it has already demonstrated with its Palm OS Treo products, that it is possible to carve a niche outside of the mainstream mobile software platforms.
With today's announcement, Linux gains yet another mobile software platform to add to the ever growing number of Linux based platforms, with the goal of a unified Linux approach seeming ever further away. The implications of a fragmented mobile Linux ecosystem remain severe, whatever cost and time savings Linux may offer, be they real or illusory.
Perhaps the great irony of this announcement is that Palm, one of the original champions of the mobile software platform approach (along with Psion), seems destined to use a more proprietary software platform, one that can never hope to fulfil the original appeal of the mobile software platform. What this does to Palm's long term prospects is much less clear.
Rafe Blandford, AllAboutSymbian, 10th April 2007