Light at the End of the Tunnel: 7 Things We Need From Nova
It's been a long hard slog for Palm OS fans, these past five years. Since 2004's grand unveiling of the stillborn Cobalt, Palm OS has been lost in a nightmarish software limbo, with the "latest" iteration, Garnet, caught between the dated design paradigms of the past and the increasingly punishing demands of the future. With PDAs having fallen by the wayside and the always-connected cell phone taking their place as the de facto mobile computer years ago, Palm has been in desperate need of a capable, home-grown platform on which to build their next generation of devices. Following a disappointing false start with the Linux-powered Foleo and with the siren song of flashy new devices from Apple and RIM beckoning users to foreign shores, many were ready to give up on Palm altogether.
Now finally the end is in sight. In early December Palm sent out press invitations for an event to be held during the upcoming Consumer Electronics Show in Vegas, pledging to unveil some "New-ness". Without a doubt, we're going to get our first look at the top-secret OS known only as Nova'. With Ed Colligan's promises of "game-changing hardware" and a "new era for Palm", the expectations for Nova are great indeed and anything less than a spectacular debut could well be the nail in the coffin for the company's dwindling fortunes. So keeping all of this in mind, here's a list of seven items we consider to be must-haves for Palm's new baby.
(1) ENOUGH with the candy-bars, alreadyor, variety is the spice of life
Spot the difference. If you can.
Long ago, a little company called Handspring itself nearly a spinoff from the original Palm invented the Treo, an absolutely smashing unit that sensibly combined a Palm OS PDA with a cell phone. Handspring eventually re-boarded the Palm corporate mothership, bringing the Treo 600 along with them: a brilliant design that Palm has foolishly allowed to stagnate by virtue of a curiously stubborn refusal to vary the basic candy-bar chassis.
Sure, we've seen it slowly become smaller and thinner, but where's the large-screen version? The tiny flip-phone with a standard keypad? The larger mobile computer with a slide-out keyboard? By sticking to the QWERTY candy-bar for so long, Palm has acquired a reputation for playing it safe and become tired and stale in the eyes of the tech world. In this fast-moving industry, being boring is a cardinal sin.
Personally, I love the QWERTY design. It's fabulously functional and makes messaging a breeze. But if there's one thing to take away from the massive success of the iPhone, it's that the market is more than ready for variety in their smartphones. So by all means, Palm, keep pumping out the candy-bars, but give us other options too. Make the best-looking one your flagship. You won't get anywhere without taking some risks.
(2) Mission: MediaIt's the new killer app, don'cha know
So, Nova will be targeting the "prosumer" market, eh Palm? In order to hit that mark, you're going to have do much better on the media front. Once upon a time, information management was the killer app for a mobile computer. But that was long ago, and now it's not what consumers are looking for first and foremost.
No, what people are looking for what they need is a way to easily manage the myriad forms of media available to them. Music, movies, photos, streaming: getting media right is crucial to success in the mass-market. Currently, one has to turn to third-parties for optimal solutions on Palm OS: PocketTunes, Kinoma, Coreplayer... No longer, Palm. Give us an integrated media solution that combines the all-you-can-eat format support of the aforementioned apps with the visual pizzazz of an iPhone and the simple, intuitive navigation that is your trademark.
And for the love of God, please don't force us to sync with iTunes. Which leads us to our next item...
(3) Superior Sync
Palm Desktop and Hotsync: these were once great answers to the age-old problem of personal information management. But just like the classic Treo form factor, they're looking more than a bit long in the tooth come the 21st century. It's time for a revolution in sync and Palm, with their history of great PIM solutions, are uniquely positioned to do something about it. Palm Desktop and Hotsync need either a total makeover, or to be completely junked. A modern solution should give us:
- Choice in how, and with what, we sync: by cable? By Bluetooth? By Wi-Fi? Do you want to manage your media with iTunes, with Winamp, or with WMP? Your information with Outlook, Lotus or maybe Google? Or do you want it all in one neat, simple package? Whichever way you go, your particular needs should be catered for.
- Application management: The current method of managing your installed apps on Palm OS is an ungodly mess which can at times be confusing to even the most hardcore techies. Installation and especially deletion is far more complicated than it should be, with many apps often leaving behind unrelated files that force you to navigate the unfriendly Delete menu. Ideally, you should be able to manage everything on your device from your desktop with just a few mouse clicks. A built-in one-stop shop for applications similar to Apple's App Store would not hurt either.
- Multimedia: Palm Desktop handles photos fairly respectably, but there's still room for improvement. And with no support whatsoever for music and very little for videos, this is an issue that needed to be addressed years ago.
(4) Banish Blazerit's so very tired
This one doesn't take much explaining. We need a new browser. We need one of near-desktop quality, just like mobile Safari on the iPhone. It needs to render pages far more quickly than Blazer and should be able to intelligently switch between cellular and Wi-Fi connections. It's a no-brainer.
(5) Spectacular Specsor, It's no use putting a lawnmower engine in a Ferrari
How long has Palm been skimping on their hardware? Far too bloody long. Pathetically pitiful amounts of on-board storage combined with anaemic CPUs have been Palm's hardware trademark for years and enough is enough. The requirements of mobile operating systems, the modern Internet and highly compressed media formats now demand something faster than a 312mhz ARM. And while external storage certainly has its uses I'd hate to see Palm drop the Mini/Micro-SD card slot it needs to be supplemented by a generous amount of on-device space. That means gigabytes, Palm let's say 4GB at an absolute minimum.
You made great strides with the Treo Pro, finally including Wi-Fi, GPS, a 3.5mm audio jack and a flush screen. Keep up the pace!
(6) Love the Developerseven if they do smell a bit funny
If there's a common complaint you hear from iPhone developers, it's that Apple places strict limitations on what they can and can't do with the hardware, with undocumented APIs that remain Apple's exclusive domain. Another sore point relates to the "extremely convoluted and strange" development process and what it takes to get yourself accepted into Apple's program. And we all know how hellish Palm OS development became over the last few years, which each minor hardware refresh often requiring apps to be re-written.
The challenge for Palm, then, is to make development for Nova a relatively painless experience. That means things like well-documented internals, a fast & simple certification process and most importantly, a unified platform: where you can create an app for any one Nova device and be assured it will run on others with a minimum of effort. First-class Java support wouldn't hurt either.
Limitations imposed by the wireless carriers will undoubtedly make this difficult, but that doesn't mean all efforts shouldn't be made to make Nova as developer-friendly as it can possibly be. The advantage is obvious: the more developers you have on board, the more likely it is they'll come up with that one killer app that the buyers of your device can't live without.
Get em hooked and they'll keep coming back for more. Which makes for a nice segue into Wish Number Seven:
(7) Leverage the HeritageDon't forget what made you great!
Why do so many users and there's still millions of them stick with Palm OS? It's obviously not the amazing graphical experience. No, people stick with Palm OS for two reasons:
It's simple, intuitive, and user-friendly: despite their competitors having had years to catch up, there's still none that do PIM as well as Palm. The core PIM software is still wondrously easy to pick up and once you become accustomed to the Palm way of doing these things, it's very hard to go back. Not to mention the one-handed navigation pioneered on the Treo 650, which remains a powerful deal-breaker for Yours Truly.
The huge selection of third-party apps: everyone has their favourites and for many there's one or two that they simply couldn't do without. To this end, Palm would be foolish not to include some form of backwards-compatibility with the classic Palm OS and entice those developers like DataViz, Normsoft, Resco, Tealpoint and SplashData to develop new versions of their popular apps for Nova.
PIM may no longer be The One True Killer App, but it's still a massively important part of the experience. We all crave "new-ness" from Nova, but Palm should not run away from what made them successful in the first place. Keep it simple and that doesn't mean cutting out stuff like copy-and-paste. (glares at Apple)
Failure Is Not An Option
It's make-or-break time for Palm. With the success of the cheap Centro, devices powered by the original Palm OS have become a commodity item and the Windows Mobile market remains crowded territory where it's difficult to maintain a foothold as softer-than-expected sales of the Treo Pro have demonstrated. Combine these factors with an extraordinarily tough economic climate and you have plenty of potential for a big-time bust. With a capital B.
Thanks in part to their obsessive secrecy regarding the upcoming Nova devices and the long development process, Palm have led many of their fans, the tech press and the financial community to write them off as serious contenders in the smartphone market. This is it. Their last shot at showing the world they're not dead yet.
Can they do it?
We'll find out come Thursday.