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

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, HTC, Nokia, BlackBerry, Smartphones

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  • I loved Palm

    and some of their innovations are still around, albeit on other OS! HTC is a hard one to figure. Their hardware is exceptional and they run the most "popular" OS, yet they get swamped by the samsung marketing tidal wave. I think HTC will have to sell itself or die, it just can't compete with samsung's size.
    • I still use a Palm Treo

      I still love and use my Palm Treo and AlphaSmart Palm Dana Wireless everyday - just so something isn't made anymore does not make it obsolete
      Jason Gray
    • HTC

      I'm still trying to wrap my head around it - killer hardware, their Sense UI looks great... out of the Android smartphone devices I've owned the TBolt is my favorite.
      • HTC was killed by legal bully!

        If you followed HTC news, you probably knew that HTC got largest market share and then a court ruling forbade HTC selling phones in US and thus HTC suddenly lost its market leading position. When Samsung gained the majority of HTC's market share, the legal bully stopped blocking HTC because HTC and Samsung has more competition. Unfortunately, HTC lost the market share too long and it might take very long if HTC can revive.
    • My Palm Tungsten T5

      is still with me everyday. It is often that I put down my iOS device and get the Palm because it has much more useful apps. I use scientific calculators very frequently and I have yet to find one for my iPod Touch that is even usable. I find traditional games easier to play with a stylus too.

      Is there anything like DataViz Documents To Go for iOS?
      • switched

        I finally put my Palm Tungsten away when I moved to window 7 and I couldn't synch to my desktop. I now have a galaxy s4 that does all the things I want and did with my Palm. I still have fond memories and am glad I din't have to carry both my palm and my cell phone around.
      • Open the calculator on your iPod touch and turn it sideways.

        The calculator will switch into a scientific calculator.
        • Nope.

          It'll switch into an improved basic calculator or a not-so-scientific calculator. Really useful and usable scientific calculator apps are hard to find.
          Aristarco Palacios
    • Samsung doesn't sell because it runs Android, but because

      it makes Android more bearable to use with its TouchWiz front end. Which, of course, provides the answer to the author's question. Why did those other companies fail? Because their products were a PITA to use. Apple showed how to make a smart phone that wasn't a PITA, Samsung copied it, and the rest, as they say, is history.
  • Very good post Matt

    Very neat historical perspective. Google, Apple, Samsung and Microsoft should read this.
    Ram U
  • What this you say?

    People care more about APPS than than the OS? And that's a surprise?
    • There were literally

      thousands of apps for the Palm, and they were very cheap.
      So even if people care about the Apps, Palm had them all along.
  • my opinion

    I was a big fan of blackberry until they released the touch screen storm. After that i was done wit blackberry in general for both my business needs and personal use. I made the switch to android and ios soon after that and they really meet both of my needs. I also picked up a windows phone to see both my personal needs and business needs, but I have to agree with matt that my iphone and android phone have more business type apps and i have more of a selection. I use the windows phone for home use and thats about it for now. mainly my note and 5s are the tiop choices I use regularly. I liked palm but they too struggled like bb is going through. I know palm is nonexsistant now and soon blackberry will be too non existant, but I feel nokia has better shot of surviving over htc in the coming years ahead....
  • Palm

    Palm began it's descent when the founder and CEO decided that they no longer needed customer input to improve their products. I remember having an idea that would have been very easy to do and couldn't find any place on their website to make a suggestion. (And using the Palm Treo, LifeDrive, Tx, and a Sony CLIE about 12 hours a day probably made some sense that I might have a few ideas that I would have like to extend to make it better, even if they weren't implemented). I called tech support and offered my ideas after solving an issue with the Treo, and was told that "Palm no longer takes suggestions from customers as the policy is that all improvements have to come from the development teams." OK.... sort of like Microsoft and Windows 8.....

    In the end though, the software and ability to use the basic features of the Palm OS (before WebOS) made tracking clients and events sooooo easy and soooo efficient. Miss the Treo. Still have one but it doesn't fit the networks so well anymore.

    Great article.
    • Founder and CEO

      Did the founders come back to Palm after the Handspring merger? I know they left to start Handspring when 3Com bought them, but I don't know what happened after that.

      In particular I'm wondering whether there is an Apple-like situation there in which the original visionaries invented the category, got kicked out, invented The Next Big Thing (the Treo), and then went away, after which Palm foundered. [terrible pun -- ed.]
      Robert Hahn
  • Now You've Done It!

    "they didn't seem to give much validation to what Apple, and then Google, were doing with their modern smartphone operating systems"

    Stating the fact that Apple was first is sure to enrage the Android collective . . .
    • ...Really?

      Everybody knows that Apple was first. The iPhone was the first, the breaking point, of the “revolution”. Seriously ZDNet, you are WAY too fanboish. Propping up any particular company as somehow being royal or do-no-wrong is foolish, since they’re first and foremost CORPORATIONS. Their main purpose in life is to take money from you. And just like in politics, their nature makes them inherently evil in some way. Given an entity whose only purpose is to generate profits, guaranteed it will at some point overstep moral and ethical boundaries in pursuit of its goals, whether that be running child-employed sweatshops, ordering everything from China, abandoning customer support for a product they released 3 months ago, or worse.

      Seriously, THEY DON’T CARE that you support them over [insert main competitor of your favorite tech company]. You do not win a special award, you don’t receive any attention from them, you don’t get a discount or offer from them when you buy a product, you pay the same full amount as every other chump in the store. It’s us vs. them, and they’re trying hard to win us over before the other company does.

      Seriously, the only thing brand-identification does is justify that a purchase you previously made from the company was a good one. And guess what? If you enjoy the product, and felt like you got your money’s worth, IT DOESN’T MATTER what other people think. Grow up people. You gain nothing from choosing “sides”. So much gradeschool up in here it’s giving me a headache.
      • ?

        Apple copied all of these companies. Seriously. Quit it. I got my first HTC smartphone in 2006, the Cingular 8125. Apple was not even in the market at the time.
        Kenneth Leitch
      • No, the purpose of a corporation is to PERSUADE

        you to GIVE them your money. You are confusing business with government. Government is the only entity that has the power to TAKE your money without your consent.
  • simple really

    Elop's monumentally stupid decisions killed nokia, carrier apathy killed palm and lethargy to innovate killed BB. HTC is still a puzzle to me too but I believe they're delay to get the One to the market quickly enough coupled with some of their insane decisions like no sd card in this internet age did them in