Tapwave 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.
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.
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.
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?
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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!
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