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Innovation

Rubinstein's iPhone comment could haunt him, Palm

Palm CEO Jon Rubinstein says that he's never used an iPhone, a single comment that could hurt the credibility of both the CEO and the company.
Written by Sam Diaz, Inactive on

It's safe to say that's not an iPhone in his hand

With just one passing comment at the Consumer Electronics Show last week, Palm CEO Jon Rubinstein may have damaged not only his own credibility but also that of his company.

In case you missed it, Rubinstein said - during an on-stage interview with All Things D's Kara Swisher at CES - that Palm really doesn't "pay that much attention to Apple" and that he himself has never used an iPhone.

Never.

Swisher immediately told Rubinstein that she didn't believe him. I'm with her. I don't believe him either. And, in all honesty, it also has me feeling not-so-good about Rubinstein or Palm's whole rebound strategy - that slow-paced "we're running a marathon, not a sprint" approach that he was pushing during the company's last earnings call.

My reaction may be a bit harsh, but I can''t help but wonder what Wall Street will think about Rubinstein and his comment when the market opens Monday morning. After all, investors gave Palm a whipping last month, one day after it released disappointing earnings.

Here's why Rubinstein's comment is especially troubling:

First, Rubinstein is a former Apple executive who led the iPod division until he retired from the company in March 2006. One might imagine that a guy who was so instrumental in the development of the iPod would at least be interested in how the iPod influenced the iPhone and how the family of products has evolved.

Second, the Palm Pre originally launched with an iTunes-sync feature, which was quickly squashed when Apple updated iTunes. For months, there was a back-and-forth of software updates that re-enabled and re-disabled the feature. It only seemed logical that the company was trying to emulate one of the best features of the iPhone - the ability to double as an iPod music player.

What was especially interesting about that back-and-forth is that Rubinstein still sees it as Apple doing a disservice to its customers. That's been the message all along, even after Palm ratted out Apple to the USB Implementers Group over the Pre-sync feature and found the tables turned as the industry group that oversees the USB standard scolded Palm, instead of Apple.

Finally, what bothers me most about all of this is that Rubinstein is failing to use smart business sense. In a competitive market like smartphones, I would hope that each of the CEOs of the companies in the game would have a working familiarity with what the competition is doing. That's just smart business.

It might be a a double-standard, but I wouldn't be as bothered if Apple CEO Steve Jobs or Google CEO Eric Schmidt had confessed to not using a Palm Pre. For one, the Palm products so far haven't been big threats to the iPhone - or the relatively new Google Android phones, for that matter. Second, Google and Apple are big companies with a lot of research teams and product managers and other lower-level executives that are surely very familiar with the competition. Palm is a smaller company and I can only imagine that Rubinstein, who has been on-board since June, would want to be more involved and hands-on.

Palm is already taking some big risks with this strategy for a new mobile OS, new products, new carrier partners while the company's financial performance clearly is not resonating well with Wall Street and others, namely Google, are on the fast-track to become a contender in the smartphone game.

Rubinstein should have just let Swisher - and all of us - assume that he had, at some point, used an iPhone and instead offered up some sort of "It's a fine device but we're focused on making ours better" response.

Instead, the headlines focused on this iPhone revelation and away from anything Rubinstein might have said about new devices, new carrier partners or his vision for continued rollout of WebOS.

That's too bad.

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