Will it be a facePalm moment for HP?

Before there was the iPhone or iPad, there was the Palm.Back in 1998, Palm was the Apple of its days.
Written by Eileen Yu, Senior Contributing Editor

Before there was the iPhone or iPad, there was the Palm.

Back in 1998, Palm was the Apple of its days. Every tech geek wanted one, and anyone who was cool or hip wanted to be seen with one.

Okay so I wasn't exactly hippy, a hippo more likely, but I was a wide-eyed rookie reporter who ooh-ed and aah-ed along with everyone else over the much revered Palm device. Back then, personal digital assistants (PDAs) were the flavor of the month and the new hot acronym on every vendor's lip.

Just as I was running out of "S" pages in the contacts section of my overstuffed overused paper-based organizer, I was given my first PDA, a colleague's hand-me-down. The purple device, which came with a plastic flip cover, was one of the first generations of the HP Jornada and ran on the Windows CE operating system.

I didn't like the sluggish feel of the platform so it wasn't long before I switched to my first Palm device, the IIIx. It ran on AAA batteries and replacing them had to be done promptly because the PDA has just enough energy to prevent data loss for 10 to 15 minutes without the energizers.

That was the start of my love affair with Palm. After the IIIx came the V, then the Tungsten T3 which featured the slider, and the T|X, which is still available in some stores today.

I stuck with the Palm OS because it was light, smooth and easy to maneuver. Apps were streamlined and easily accessible, and the handwriting recognition system Graffiti was simple to pick up because it was designed to recognize natural writing.

Apps weren't cheap, though. You couldn't get any at 99 cents a pop, not even close. I remember paying S$30 for a Merriam-Webster dictionary, which came in an SD card, and almost $60 for a game card. Needless to say, there weren't many apps on my Palm...I didn't want any cracked versions on my device.

But, it was my indispensible work tool. It held all my contacts, schedules, side notes and even some of my Word documents.

It was upsetting therefore to watch Palm slowly wither on the downward spiral. The company that had introduced the industry to mobile computing just didn't keep up as newer, sleeker PDA phones and smartphones started hitting the market. And then, of course, came the iPhone and the final nail in the coffin was sealed.

The Palm OS remained stagnant for years before WebOS was unveiled and if its then-CEO Edward Colligan indeed had plans for the software to expand beyond the Pre, these ambitions have yet to see daylight.

I had hoped against hope that the folks at Palm would wake up and drive a comeback plan that would put the company back on par with today's market leaders in mobile computing. But, news broke that it was up for sale and after much market speculation, that HP would buy Palm for US$1.2 billion.

The handful of people I spoke to weren't too optimistic about the buyout, pointing to how HP had let its own iPaq handheld languish. I am, however, more hopeful.

The mobile devices market today has never been more vibrant. With slates, tablets and mobile apps development expected to continue driving the growth momentum, HP has more reasons today to want to make its Palm acquisition a success. Most importantly, it has the deep pockets to invest in such efforts and the depth in experience to make them work.

Calling the buyout the "best deal" for Palm, Ovum's principal analyst Adam Leach said WebOS offers a good technology building block for HP to start beefing up its managed device platform. He underscored the importance of the mobile developer community for the Palm OS, urging HP to prove that WebOS devices can generate revenue for developers.

Leach said: "HP needs to bring compelling and possibly, unique content to Palm devices. It needs to establish the commercial partnerships with content owners but also needs to ensure that billing and settlement infrastructure are built into the WebOS platform."

He noted that while there is some "residual brand loyalty from Palm's glory days", HP will still need to first transform Palm into a globally recognized and relevant brand for today's market. The analyst said HP has the operational scale and manufacturing expertise to introduce efficiencies to the Palm business, as well as the global distribution ecosystem needed to support the operator channel to bring Palm devices to consumers. HP also has the financial muscle to support Palm's route to recovery without expecting immediate profitability, he added.

For these reasons, I'm pretty pleased that HP is Palm's new parent. I make up that "residual brand loyalty" and would love to be given a reason to find my way back to Palm. But, Leach is right, HP has its work cut out.

The WebOS was designed with the smartphone in mind, not tablets. If HP's plans for the Palm OS to "create a unique HP experience spanning multiple mobile connected devices", which many are guessing points to slates and tablets, then much development work still needs to be done to get WebOS ready to support this vision.

Until then, I'm keeping my fingers tightly crossed.

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