Crash of the mobile titans: What happened to Palm, BlackBerry, Nokia, and HTC?

Summary:Apple and Samsung are dominating the smartphone world. Founding companies in this space are down and out with a couple possibly able to make comebacks in the years ahead.

Image: iStockphoto

Last weekend Apple set a new record and sold over 9 million new iPhones . This incredible sales rate and continued success by Apple prompted me to sit back, look over the last 16 years since I started using mobile devices, and ponder how far four pillars of the industry have fallen.

Apple and Samsung rule the mobile phone space with nearly 50 percent of the worldwide market share with LG, Lenovo, and ZTE all experiencing significant growth .

However, Palm, Nokia, HTC, and BlackBerry are either gone or going, or starting over.

There are many reasons for the failure of these four smartphone vendors, including failed leadership, stubbornness to adapt, poor marketing, and success from competitors. It's a shame that these companies couldn't be competing at a time when the mobile phone space is hot and everyone seems to be writing and talking about the latest smartphone in their hand.

Let's take a walk down memory lane and reflect on the good times.


In early 1997, US Robotics reached out to my small team of marine salvage engineers and asked if we wanted to start carrying a couple of Pilot 1000 devices out with us when we responded to marine casualties. I was immediately hooked on these small portable computers and started following PDA websites, participating in online discussion forums, and saving up for the next great Palm PDA. I set aside my Franklin Planner and embraced this new handheld device.

I still clearly remember the anticipation of a new device arriving, especially the iconic Palm IIIc that was the first color screen Palm device. I remember having a CompactFlash adapter that connected via cable to my Kyocera mobile phone that dialed up my ISP and provided me with the latest news via AvantGo. We were rocking for weeks with our AA batteries and the future was seen in Palm.

We saw spinoffs and new companies releasing Palm OS devices, including Handspring, palmOne, PalmSource, Handera, Sony, Tapwave and more. The Handera 330 pushed memory expansion, Handspring had slick designs and then took us into the smartphone space with Treos, Sony rocked the world with its CLIEs devices, which were focused on media, and Tapwave's Zodiac was a gamers dream.

I owned all of these and have vivid memories of visiting CompUSA to exchange an old Sony CLIE for the next latest and greatest that seemed to launch every other month. Tapwave's Zodiac was an awesome gaming machine that reminds me a bit of what is being done today with the NVIDIA Shield.

The Treo line was extremely popular and made our Palm devices even more valuable with constant wireless connectivity. At one time it seemed everyone with a mobile device had either a Palm Treo or a BlackBerry. There were still very capable Palm and Sony PDAs too, but the phone was the future.

Back then, Microsoft's Pocket PC was seen by many as the evil competitor to the Palm devices. However, Palm's lack of attention to multimedia and pushing innovation forward, along with Microsoft's efforts to bring the desktop to your hand, resulted in Microsoft overtaking Palm and eventually Palm using Microsoft's Windows Mobile OS in its Treo line.

Palm OS eventually went away and they reinvented themselves with webOS. This was a revolutionary mobile operating system and we see signs of it today in Apple's iOS 7, BlackBerry 10, and more. The problem there, in my honest view, was the rather poor quality hardware and limited carrier support. No matter how great the operating system was, not enough people were using it and the slide-out keyboard didn't give you a quality found in competing devices.

HP then took and killed webOS after its Palm purchase and a great operating system failed after three short years. For those of us who started using Palm Pilots, it is sad to look back and see that Palm is no longer with us when they were the ones who brought us into the mobile world in the first place.


As Palm was working on PDAs, then-named Research in Motion (RIM) launched the BlackBerry 850 in 1999 as a two-way pager. And businesses were immediately hooked.

I remember seeing BlackBerry devices on the belts of doctors, lawyers, and other successful business people. Our salvage team ended up getting these so that the team was always reachable in time of emergencies. In the beginning, they were definitely seen as communication tools for work more than anything related to a consumer device like Palm Pilots were.

BlackBerry devices moved from pagers to devices with keyboards and the hardware QWERTY keyboard became synonymous with the BlackBerry. Who remembers side-mounted scroll bars, monochrome displays, batteries that went forever, trackballs, then trackpads?

BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) was a standard across the BlackBerry world and in many cases people continued to use BlackBerry devices to stay in touch with their BBM friends.

BlackBerry tried to compete with modern smartphones a couple of years ago, but its touchscreen Storm devices were failures. They continued to launch QWERTY devices running an operating system that was getting a bit dated when compared to Android and iOS devices and then they basically took a year off to work on BlackBerry 10.

BlackBerry 10 is actually a refreshing and functional mobile operating system that was launched in early 2013. I like the ability to quickly get to a central communications center and you can see that BlackBerry devices still place a premium on communications. Apps are still lacking and in today's modern smartphone world the apps seem to mean more to people than a solid base operating system.

Unfortunately, it appears that BlackBerry 10 was too little, too late as we see private investor interest possibly purchasing the company for less than $5 billion .

RIM ruled the enterprise world and in the late 2000s started making some real progress in the consumer market. I think a lot of that success was due to BlackBerry Internet Service (BIS) and the fact that a consumer could go into a carrier store and walk out with a connected smartphone that had data at a lower price than the iPhone. We then saw way too many BlackBerry models and even people who followed the smartphone industry were confused by the overwhelming number of available models, often with actually numbers in their names.

The competition became better, enterprise markets started looking at iOS and Android, and RIM took a year off to figure things out with BlackBerry 10. The mobile space moves fast, and BlackBerry was a year or two too slow to compete.

Topics: Mobility, BlackBerry, Microsoft, Smartphones


Matthew Miller started using mobile devices in 1997 and has been writing news, reviews, and opinion pieces ever since. He is a co-host, with ZDNet's Kevin Tofel, of the MobileTechRoundup podcast and an author of three Wiley Companion series books. Matthew started using mobile devices with a US Robotics Pilot 1000 and has owned more than 2... Full Bio

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