Former Palm founder "nails it" on smartphone culture clash

Summary:I just got done listening to a recent DiamondCluster Wavelengths Podcast interview hosted by Dan Bricklin and  DiamondCluster vice chairman and global managing director John Sviokla.  Their guest interviewee was  Palm co-founder Donna Dubinsky.

I just got done listening to a recent DiamondCluster Wavelengths Podcast interview hosted by Dan Bricklin and  DiamondCluster vice chairman and global managing director John Sviokla.  Their guest interviewee was  Palm co-founder Donna Dubinsky.  After leaving Palm, Dubinsky went on to co-found Handspring -- originators of the Treo smartphone -- which was eventually acquired by the Palm hardware company (then called PalmOne, now just Palm, again), not to be confused with PalmSource (the Palm operating system company).  If you caught one of my earlier blogs about the rub that smartphones have created between the computing and telco worlds, (see Smartphones: Where the computer and telephony cultures clash), then you may have picked up on my aggravation about how much control the various cell phone carriers (aka "cellcos") assert over the handsets. 

From time to time, ZDNet gets mail from equally aggravated users who buy handsets based on certain features only to find that some of those features -- the ones they were most looking forward to -- are disabled by their cellcos.  This need to dial back the openness of today's handsets stems from the long-running cellco tradition of managing primarily "closed" systems.  In the interview, Dubinsky hits the nail on the head when she describes the cellcos' current "affliction:

This will become an open business very much along the lines of the computer business. But it's going to take a while. The carriers are from a different world and the carriers are really not from a computing world and a platform world at all.  What we're seeing from smartphones is a merging of communications and computing environments and it's a colossal shift and a colossal change and something that carriers really don't have any heritage in or any experience in.  Furthermore, it was something that was detrimental to them in the past. They need to control the network to deliver a good voice experience. You had to deliver 99.9 [percent availability] or whatever it is on the phone network and you certainly can't have people having phones that crash, that have to be reset, that have bugs and so it's a very scary world out there [to carriers] -- the computing world. 

And let's face it, consumers have different standards for those worlds.  We have, unfortunately, trained them in [the computer industry] to actually tolerate these problems (crashing computers and bugs and so on) and people haven't had to tolerate that in the phone world and so now you see these world's coming together and you see the carriers taking a little bit of the view of "Hey, these things have to work out of the box. Our customers are not going to be satisfied to be calling Tech Support and the only way we can deliver that high quality experience is in a very closed environment. Frankly, some of that's true. Smartphones have much higher quality than the old handset business does and a good deal of that is because of the openness and the complexity that openness delivers. 

For me, it was incredibly coincidental to hear Dubinsky so perfectly describe the culture clash.  Just recently, while on the phone with Verizon Wireless spokesperson Brenda Raney, I asked why the downloadable documentation for the Audiovox XV6600 that it sells (and that I'm using) doesn't include documentation for its built-in over-the-air desktop synchronization capabilities (by virtue of a private-labeled version of Intellisync). "It's in a separate manual," Raney said, and then she asked, "You come from the computer world, right?"  When I confirmed her suspicions, she launched into an explanation of how people coming from the computer world will encounter all sorts of differences like that when they come over into the telephony world and that, while Verizon Wireless has made improvements towards meeting the expectations of the computer culture, such change takes time.

Dubinksy had some other great quotes in the interview.   One of them was this reference to her early days with Palm:

When we did the Palm OS, one of our first products was the developer kit. It was a very high priority for us and to me, the robust developer community was in fact one of the most fantastic things that happened with the Palm. People came up with applications that we never would have dreamed of.  So it was really compelling.  

This of course is one of the reasons that the Palm platform took off (the other being the simplicity of the device and its power friendliness -- both of which were novel for their time).  Tangentially, Dubinsky talked about how Palm openly shared the code behind the applications it built-into the Palm OS almost as though it was open source:

We made the source code of all the applications available to the developer community.  This enabled the developer community to get a running start on doing enhanced versions of those applications. People did some wonderful work doing that. Developers would also just clip routines from it. They would clip certain UI gadgets or whatever to enhance their own applications and it really, by providing that source code, made a developer much more effective and productive much more quickly.

Today, however, as I have written many times before, there are other, more prevalent platforms with growing developer bases (.Net and Java) and programmable classes that do a huge amount of the heavy lifting programmers need their platforms to do and it would behoove the Palm OS people (PalmSource) to leverage one of them as Research in Motion has for its BlackBerries (more specifically, Java) rather than continue to cultivate the Palm OS or start a new one based on its recent Linux acquisition.  The Palm hardware guys are clearly thinking along these lines now that reports of Treos running Microsoft's Windows Mobile appear to be true.  Should Palm,  PalmSource's biggest licensee, start to deliver Windows Mobile-based Treos, Palm OS could very well become the next legacy operating system.  In describing another competitive advantage of Palm's devices in the early days, Dubinsky said:

People would buy Palm pilots to run specific applications.   On the desktop, people had three to five core applications that everybody had. In the Palm world, we built those in. You didn't buy those after words. They were an integrated part of the product.  The personal information manager, the contact list, the calendar - those were the core applications. But what we found was that rather than adding three to five applications on a device, customers would find one that was compelling to them and that, for them, was a make it break it thing.

Unfortunately, this, like some of Palm's other early competitive advantages are no longer the advantages they once were. 

Topics: Mobility

About

David Berlind was fomerly the executive editor of ZDNet. David holds a BBA in Computer Information Systems. Prior to becoming a tech journalist in 1991, David was an IT manager.

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