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Farewell Tapwave (Howard Tomlinson's Frontline Notes)

Published by Howard Tomlinson at 10:53 GMT, August 2nd under Frontline Notes in General || 16 Comments / Post New Comment
There's a lot of commentary around discussing the closure to Tapwave and the Zodiac platform. The wise man learns from the mistakes of others, so Howard Tomlinson (Astraware) has a number of thoughts on what was right and wrong with Tapwave's approach which could help others following the trailblazing path.

Howard TomlinsonTapwave this week shut its doors, no more employees, no new devices, that's all folks. I've heard some people sneer and say that Tapwave was doomed from the start, and this was inevitable. I don't believe that was the case, but its worth some reflection about things that Tapwave got right and wrong.

Design

In my opinion, Tapwave really got this right with the Zodiac. Not only is the physical design good, but the specs of the device were - and arguably still are - respectable. The Zodiac is comfortable to hold, sleek, and a nice weight. The buttons are in good places. The screen is a fair size. It looks like a luxury item.

Features and Specs

Given that this is a device running Palm OS - an operating system typically requiring minimal physical resources - the specs on the Tapwave were great. A nippy processor, good resolution screen, multiple input methods, plenty of memory, good audio capabilities, built-in Bluetooth and space for two SD slots, fantastic! This device was from the outset aimed to be capable of supporting games, and it certainly is.

Competition

When Tapwave were designing and building the Zodiac, their competitive analysis must have looked great! Basically the main competition was from other PDA devices that weren't really good for gaming, and competition only from the Nintendo Gameboy range, which really are aimed for a much younger audience. (Not to say that only the young might use a Gameboy, of course - but Tapwave must have considered that a higher end device designed for a more mature audience would be a hit.)

And so right up until launch, Tapwave had a clear shot at success!

Except they didn't. I believe it was only a day or so after the Tapwave launch that Sony announced the PSP. Without inside information, this was a real surprise. Nobody was expecting Sony to try to get into handhelds for games. Suddenly half of that middle ground - a games device for adults - vanished beneath poor Tapwave's feet, leaving them holding a coyote-esque "Oh no" sign. The only hope was that the PDA Games side could support them. Maybe that's a parachute in the backpack, not an anvil?

Price

The launch prices were right and wrong. Right, because they were reasonable for a device of these kind of specs, wrong because to gain the gamer market, they were just too high. Gamers aren't comparing against high end PDAs, they're comparing against sub-$100 Gameboys.

I reckoned that prices in retail had to be sub-$200 to be successful for the gamer audience. Perhaps there was no price that would have worked - too low and Tapwave wouldn't make their development and manufacturing costs back, too high and they don't get enough sales, and hence wouldn't make their development and manufacturing costs back - and maybe there wasn't a profitable point!

Games Business

Tapwave approached the whole business from the point that their device was going to provide the handheld gaming experience for the 16-25 crowd, the Gameboy graduates, so to speak. Tapwave here made a couple of mistakes. Firstly, they underestimated their audience, and secondly, they thought that their business would stand based on high profile licenses.

They approached a number of really big mainstream games companies, to sign up great games for the device. They got some good names committed, but very few actually delivered. Why was that? Well in hindsight, its pretty easy to see what happened. Tapwave representatives approach the companies to discuss licensing and the various terms. The games companies nod pleasantly, and agree to some games, without committing firm schedules to exactly when. Games industry execs have great smiles, and must have managed to convince Tapwave that they were fully supportive. Of course, those same execs really were thinking, we'll give them some crumbs to see if they'll succeed, then we'll actually commit some resources if it looks like it'll look good for us.

Whether it was before negotiating with Tapwave, or afterwards, those same Game company execs will have been making their deals with Sony to license for the PSP. And where are you really going to commit your resources? That's not a difficult question. So, they continue to string poor Tapwave along with crumbs, slow development, whilst giving hearty handshakes and backslapping, and not really playing the part they convinced Tapwave they would. They could see what was going to happen much earlier than Tapwave did.

As for the audience? Those who were really interested in the device were pretty much those cutting edge Palm OS geeks, completely unrepresentative of the real market. More executives will have bought the Tapwave than will their original target audience. And did they really buy it for the games? Not really, they bought it just as much for the custom capabilities and high specs and sleekness factor of the device.

Casual Games

Here, I suppose, is the bit that particularly affected me...

Tapwave continually wanted a range of games that were specific to their device.

Well, for a smaller games developer (whether it be a company like Astraware or just a small team of a few developers), the work to create a title is quite considerable. To make any money out of a game, it will have to achieve as many sales as possible, and that means supporting a wide range of devices. Tapwave were pretty disinterested in any game unless it required the features of their device. A game that was available on many devices wasn't good enough for them. Its an understandable position - though short sighted. What they wanted was a catalogue of maybe 50 titles which were only available on that one device. That way, the software availability drives the hardware sales.

Well, with the lack of big-company backing, and without Tapwave-only games from smaller developers, they didn't get that set of unique games.

What could have helped was encouraging developers to add in enhancements to their games to make them "better" on the Zodiac. Some of the Tapwave staff actually understood this, and tried their best to make this happen, but it really was much too late. By this time, the Tungsten T-3 was out, and in many ways provided many of the important features to support that were previously well embodied by the Zodiac : HR+, Good Audio, Fast processor.

Why would anyone make a Zodiac specific version, when those features were really available in devices elsewhere?

Astraware's business relies on providing good games with a massive appeal - and that means supporting many devices with lots of different styles of games. We would (of course) add the Zodiac into our support list, but it could never have made sense for us to switch to making Zodiac-only games. I was honest with Tapwave about this from the very beginning, which I think surprised their business team - they'd obviously been used to hearing "Yes!" at every turn. It was only much later on that they came back to admit "Okay, okay! You told us so...". I don't really like to be proved right this way - I'd much rather that they'd have figured it out earlier!

DRM

This was, behind the scenes, the other big oops. Most PDA games developers could see the drawbacks in the DRM (Digital Rights Management) system that Tapwave designed. It was a model that really assumed that the big-names part of their business would be successful, and that the existing PDA games business was irrelevant.

By locking games to a particular device, Tapwave broke the successful model that would have allowed them to tap into a much larger stock of games. This wasn't popular with developers who either had to do extra work, and then make business concessions (how am I going to support this user long-term?) or had to not support the Tapwave, and hence not get exposure with them directly. This wasn't popular with users either - they hated games being locked to a device, especially when many of the early adopters had to return their devices and get replacements.

Then there was locking Tapwave specific features to games which had passed a particular level of Tapwave signing. And Tapwave signing (for the higher levels) meant using the Tapwave DRM, which means making all those extra changes. Signing meant also that Tapwave became worried about being responsible for quality and potentially for the legality of apps that they signed.

Suddenly, really supporting this device started to become too much work for smaller developers, and not making good business sense for the larger developers. Was any serious developer going to let Tapwave do their customer support? My understanding is that even the developer of the system that Tapwave used, had reservations about what it would mean for other developers, and for users of the device.

This is all very easy to see in hindsight, but I do wish they'd listened much earlier, when we - and others - told them about this while it was still early enough to have rethought. I suppose, in the glow of knowing that all those big games companies were fully behind them, they thought that the existing PDA developers just weren't going to make a difference to their business.

Quality Control

My Zodiac seems great - no issues whatsoever, but there are (as always) plenty of stories about problems. Some of the early builds had problems with the controllers, and I think that led to a lot of returns.
Having been alongside enough prototype builds of devices, I know that ramping up the production scales to large amounts means there will be problems. I don't think that Tapwave experienced this any worse than any other company, though. Perhaps it was because they had less devices out - and mostly bought by early adopters, that the problems got reported much more and got proportionally more press than other devices.

Operating System

Tapwave basically used the Palm OS, but built their own launcher (which had a very mixed reception!), and created much of their own code for accessing the extra features. Some of these were well thought out, but others were not so easy to use successfully when integrating into an existing project. That meant (for us) quite a lot more work, and adding in more extra code than we would have liked. The choice for us was either separate builds (not nice for customer ease reasons) or making universal versions which are larger. Either way, not ideal, and with some earlier developer feedback, they could have made things a bit easier.

Distribution

It took Tapwave too long to get into retail, and then too long to get into Europe. Arguably, Europe wouldn't have mattered for them anyway, but I certainly think that getting devices early into retail would have helped. I remember people waiting for their online orders in the early days - Tapwave, following most other startup tech companies, had their fair share of technical problems getting the device ready on time.

Summary

I'll admit that my viewpoint is biased - I have to see everything in terms of how it directly, and indirectly, affected me. Basically, I feel Tapwave got

  • Hardware: Right (pretty much)
  • Luck: Wrong (PSP!)
  • Business: Wrong (Developer support is 2-way!)

I'm sorry to see Tapwave go. By making a device based around the concept of PDA gaming, it very much legitimised the business we're in. ("Look - they even made a PDA for games!") I really hope that some of their great staff find new positions elsewhere, and can take much of that hard earned technical and business knowledge with them!

I don't expect to see a replacement gaming PDA anytime soon from another company, but maybe some of the upcoming PDAs will have learnt from Tapwave, and perhaps a future company will do things differently? I hope so. Until then, here's hoping that my (and your!) Zodiac keeps on running perfectly!


Feature Article Discussion

Tank
Comment: I think your comments are right on. I approached Tapwave several times at conferences and through email about enhancing my games for the Zodiac. I was consistently left with the impression that my casual games were wrong for the Zodiac crowd and their growth. I collected many emails from users asking for an enhanced version for the Zodiac but these emails were not going to break down any walls. I will say that all the employees I talked with were respectful of my business and my games and were very enthusiastic about the Zodiac. I will continue to make sure my games are all 100% compatible for the Zodiac. I had always hoped the relationship would change as I thought it would be a lot of fun adding in the extra's the Zodiac had to offer.
StuBee
Comment: Yep...what killed the concept of purchasing the Zodiac for me was that it wasn't an open product. The required signing of games to use the graphics engine was a killer....Without the signing, my impression was the specs didn't match my current Palm (TC) for gaming.
bongo
Comment: Hi I do not know if the Zodiac was ever sold in Europe, but here in Norway they were impossible to find. If tapwave had tried to broaden their channel sales and maybe tried implementing a gameboy emulator things would have looked much better. Emulators for commodore64, SNES, Gameboy, Amiga, Zx Spectrum, old 1-20MHz Arcade games would have helped. Today Namco is making a comeback with an emulated prom version of Galaga, and it is one of the best selling palm games at the moment. The Zodiac would have been a great device for all the great old games.
StuBee
Comment: [QUOTE=bongo]If tapwave had tried to broaden their channel sales and maybe tried implementing a gameboy emulator things would have looked much better. Emulators for commodore64, SNES, Gameboy, Amiga, Zx Spectrum, old 1-20MHz Arcade games would have helped. [/QUOTE] Well....tapwave couldn't really implement an Emulator themselves without big legal issues. However there are a lot of emulators already available for the Zodiac (and also the PalmOS in general) that do Gameboy/SNES/NES emulation etc. This did drive a lot of the sales of the unit, but it wasn't really widely known that capability existed (unless you specifically researched the unit before purchase) As the article points out, one of the failings was Tapwave not opening up the specific zodiac graphic hardware accelators to these Emulators (and to all developers)
Unregistered
Comment: I actually bought the zodiac for games at the $300 zod1 pricepoint, but then quikcly returned it as THERE WERE NO GAMES. This was in august of 04. I don't know, just seemed like they made a lot of poor business decisisions and not enough advertising. Too bad they don't have the $$$ like Nokia does to correct those problems and release an even better handheld.
Unregistered
Comment: I bought a Zodiac. It's a great device, but I didn't buy any Zodiac-specific games, because of the DRM. I was actually pretty pissed off when I found out about the DRM, and had I known beforehand, I probably would have got a Tungsten instead.
Unregistered
Comment: [QUOTE=Unregistered]I bought a Zodiac. It's a great device, but I didn't buy any Zodiac-specific games, because of the DRM. I was actually pretty pissed off when I found out about the DRM, and had I known beforehand, I probably would have got a Tungsten instead.[/QUOTE] I think it's time to pull the plug on this website. Sorry, Ewie.
Unregistered
Comment: I dont know why people are complaining about the DRM, it doesn't have to be used. The Zodiac is better than a T5 anyday, since the T5 can't play games with its poor controls, it's pretty useless compare to the Zodiac. For movies, the Zodiac is probably 500% faster than a T5. Face it, the best Palm PDA out there right now is still the Zodiac. If you want media, the Zodiac is faster than anything out there. If you want to play games, the 400mhz processor for the T5 is good, but the controls are useless, so the best option is still the Zodiac. With 2 years past, it's amazing what the Zodiac is capable of.
Unregistered
Comment: I bought my zodiac2 way back at launch. Later I picked up a nintendo ds. I played it for about 1 week and it went on the shelf. I went back to my zodiac. When the PSP came out, I played it for 2 weeks before it went on the shelf. I have been back to my zodiac since. It was and still is a great product.
dewNdetroit
Comment: When the Zodiac was called the Helix it intrigued me as a gaming device. I really liked palm devices from day one so being a palm device was a plus. I did not become an early adopter because, I reasoned myself into wanting a psp when it was vaporware 2 years ago. So my plan was to get a psp and a palm pda. I just sold my crappy palm pda 5 months ago and was in the market for another when I stumbled across the Zodiac remembering it from years past. Paying only 200 american dollars for it, it was a great steal. I can run all of my old palm stuff on it. LJZ and TCMP are the greatest free programs ever. A friend of mine has the psp, yet marvels at my tapwave every second he gets.
Codejoy
Comment: I like this article, it hit on some great points. our approach wit tapwave wasn't to get rich but we wanted to break into the market as a developer. We did this quite well I thought by releasing our Zodtris game for free, and then taking the time to develop a for sale game that was published by tapwave. For them taking the chance on a smaller developer was nice and refreshing. Though the marketing I think they really messed up. It was (for the most part) a heck of a 2d machine, but not so much a 3d machine and they tried to hard to market it as a 3d machine (though spyhunter did look good). What brought us to the zodiac was the fact that the API was very close to DirectDRaw and that allowed us to port our PC game engine the zodiac suprisngly effectively. Their reliance on fathammer was a bad move though IMHO. I know that in porting our 2d engine to their API we uncovered an engineering flaw in the graphics card, which really just made me want to stop development then and there, their developer support in the forums was strong at first but then went to the wayside sharply. Oh well, its still my PDA of choice cause i am spoiled by the screen.
Surur
Comment: Whats you view on the addition of DirectX features to new WM5 handheld, and the implication this has for mobile gaming? Is MS trying to have a go at the PSP via the backdoor? Are their approach better than Tapwave's? Surur
Unregistered
Comment: I bought a zodiac on launch, i still remember the cradle/cable fiasco. I was at the time (still am) a PalmOS power user. I was looking for a palmOS device that could do all my organizer stuff but that also had a great screen and the power to play full length movies that were watchable and mp3 files. SO the screen, processor, memory, dual SD slots and bluetooth built in drew me as a palmOS user. But the prospect of games also was of great interest. THe games though lost their thunder really quickly. The 'big names' clearly didn't follow through and what they did bring to the zodiac table was for the most part garbage. THe PalmOS community developers were bring far nicer and far more polished games to the table than the 'big name' companies. BUt in terms of games, by far the biggest game release was LIttle John Z which for those who don't know, was a multi-platform console emulator that emulated SNES, Genesis, TurboGraphic16 and some others. With the large availability of ROMS for these systems, it wasn't hard to fill an SD card full of great games to play to fill in the hole of 'zodiac only' games that never materialized. The multimedia ability of the device is what kept the device in my pocket. It was almost a replacement for my laptop but not quite. BUt as 2004 came to a close, i bought an ultra light Sony Vaio laptop and supplemented that with a Treo650 on Cingular when they came out in March05. I sold my zodiac off on eBay to help pay for the Treo. THe Treo is doing all my Cell phone duties, PDA functions, MP3's and PDA games (have some Astraware titles :>), the laptop fills in the gapes for office stuff, real games and much nicer viewing of movies. The zodiac was a great device but I really lost faith in it 9 months after i bought it and saw Tapwave wasn't really doing any of it's business right. It got the hardware right but on the business end, it became aparent fairly quickly that they were doomed.
Aaron Ardiri
Comment: since this article has gotten a lot of exposure; i would like to point out that howard got the DRM concept all wrong. you only had to get your application signed in order to use the tapwave API's - you just needed to get it signed by tapwave. this basically included a number of extra resources (TSIG) that were checked when the application was loaded. *ZERO* extra programming from the developer. to prove this concept; look at the homebrew development that was released (yoyo's emulators etc) - he had to add code for the tapwave graphics accelleration - but, nothing for DRM. it was signed for public use. the tapwave certification was provided for quality assurance purposes; it wasn't a requirement in order to sell your software on the store. i just wanted to clear these issues up.
Aaron Ardiri
Comment: since i started a new technology blog - i put my 2c about tapwave. [url]http://www.mobilewizardry.com/blog/?p=7[/url]
Zfan
Comment: This is such a far cry from Ardiri's death of Tapwave here: [url]http://www.mobilewizardry.com/blog/?p=7[/url]. After reading his garbage, I was feeling that this is just the kind of stuff we've had to put up with as Tapwave customers: round after round of ass-covering. That article should've been called the "self-serving DRM defense - oops it was Tapwave's fault for not using it fully". What a joke Ardiri! Geeze. Thankfully, you wrote a thoughtful honest accounting which has been sorely needed by all Tapwave customers since the launch in November. I think you got everything right, though I would add that Bryon Connell's handling of the PR stuff to his early-adopter audience was a contributing factor here. Contantly lying (spin requires some semblance of the truth which Bryon never even bothered with) to your base customer is never a good idea for a start-up. Yup, if its not clear, I believe the lies, hype and utter crap constantly pulled on us was a major contributor to the death of this poorly managed company. I like to say good riddance to Ardiri, Crimson Fire and Tapwave except that would not be fair to the Z which is actually a great device. So I'll just say a sarcastic "thanks Ardiri, Kyple Pool and the Tapwave team for killing a great device into the ground." Good riddance to you three, at least.

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