The Pre will be Palm's downfall

Palm said yesterday that sales will be well below expectations because customers are waiting for the company's fabled Pre to launch.The wait may be the company's downfall.
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor

Palm said yesterday that sales will be well below expectations because customers are waiting for the company's fabled Pre to launch.

The wait may be the company's downfall.

I recall the electricity in the air as Palm revealed its Pre smartphone at International CES 2009. You could hear the camera shutters clacking and people just couldn't help but murmur while offering hearty applause. Techies have fond memories of Palm. People want them to succeed. So it was no surprise that there was such an outpouring of excitement, and kudos to Palm for the deft decision to stage the company comeback and debut a smartphone at a trade show known for everything but mobile consumer electronics.

It was a wasted opportunity.

In exchange for showing how technologically in-touch the company is with the user, Palm has revealed how grossly out-of-touch it is with the consumer. And, however impossible it may have been, it's my firm belief that Palm should have had the Pre ready to roll on January 8, 2009.

That consumers are still waiting for the fabled Pre two months after the big reveal -- and may wait up to four more, according to the original "first half of 2009" timetable -- is shameful. Not because consumers are left anticipating a new phone, but because Palm revealed so very much about the device (and its revolutionary new operating system webOS) at CES and yet still hasn't made public a firm launch date, much less actually produced the thing.

Worse, the company has already burned through nearly all the money it raised to remain a viable company.

Allow me to indulge in a brief metaphor:

The shot clock is ticking down. Palm, you were just passed the ball. You're in the right spot on the court. You're open, but three guards are rushing toward you: Apple, RIM and HTC. The clock is ticking. The crowd is watching.

They want you to win. You're down by a basket. Shoot. The. Ball!

Well, you get my point. What was heralded as Palm's saving grace -- the Pre and webOS -- is now the very thing that might bring it down; the potential Chinese Democracy of the mobile world. (Ok, ok -- so the Palm won't take 14 years to debut. But with so much promise, six months feels like an awful long time to keep people (and shareholders) waiting.)

Palm should not have offered pre-registration at CES. It should have delivered. It's not as though the device was only on the drawing board -- Palm had working units that employees used to demonstrate for the press, in the flesh, in a private room. It is not managing that disconnect very well in the public sphere.

Since then, the only major news on the Pre front is that Best Buy may be its exclusive retailer, a confusing (rumored) move considering that the retailer's main rival, Circuit City, went belly-up.

And with every passing day, the competition gets closer to matching and surpassing Palm's innovation.

Look, I think the Pre and webOS are going to be great, Sprint notwithstanding. I'm looking for an iPhone, BlackBerry and G1 alternative just like everyone else. I anticipate having touch and QWERTY on one device. I am excited about the "card" interface, which I find quite innovative. I await the slick and seamless integration with Microsoft Outlook, AOL Instant Messenger and Gmail, altogether.

I await a phone that can please a power user who power-uses for work and home with equal fervor.

So I'm rooting for Palm, in that underdog way. There's a lot of promise there. The smartphone wars can only be good for the end user.

But Palm is frittering away its advantage -- the excitement and patience of those who anticipate the Pre and webOS (along with the money needed to deliver). To the point where the actual device may not be able to satiate what the announcement provoked.

And for that, the Pre will be Palm's downfall.

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