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Tech Update Networking Upgrades
David Nagel Unplugged: Can Palm re-connect?
By David Berlind
July 17, 2003

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If anyone has the pedigree to guarantee that the Palm operating system remains a contender in the market for personal information management, converged phone/PDAs, wireless terminals, and other embedded mobile systems, it's PalmSource CEO David Nagel.

Prior to joining Palm as head of its platforms division (now PalmSource), Nagel was a CTO at AT&T and oversaw a huge chunk of that company's R&D efforts. He knows networking. Before that, he ran R&D for the Macintosh OS at Apple. He knows usability. But is executive pedigree enough to reaffirm PalmOS' place in a market that it was largely responsible for establishing?

PalmOS faces some determined competitors. Although late to the game, Microsoft appears determined to dominate the handheld space and has the marketing war chest to make up for any technical shortcomings. Canada-based Research in Motion upped the ante with a wireless package that redefined real mobility to be communications-centric--first with e-mail communications and then with voice.

Symbian, once the power behind the Psion handhelds, has regrouped as the pre-eminent operating system of choice behind most cell phones without a proprietary OS. In the great convergence, these phones take on PDA functionality as PDAs take on phone functionality.

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Finally, Sun seeks to ensure that, regardless of what the kernel on any handheld looks like, the development platform of choice for deploying applications across all of them is Java. For Nagel, the heat is on.

During our interview, Nagel left no mobile or handheld stone unturned. He admitted that the perfect converged device doesn't yet exist and batted around a few ideas on what it will look like. But Nagel made one goal of PalmSource's absolutely clear. With the mobile phone market orders of magnitude bigger than the PDA market, PalmSource has to win there and win big. To that end, PalmSource will have to enable many more licensees in the global mobile phone industry beyond Samsung, Kyocera, and Palm (by virtue of the Handspring acquisition) to bring the sorts of the devices to market that will get the wireless carriers excited enough to add them to their lineups.

Now that Palm is just a another licensee of PalmSource, and PalmSource is free to go its own way, can Nagel take it to a whole new level? Or will the operating system provider suffer at the hands of a crowded market with firmly entrenched competition and some of the levers out of its control?

'At the bare minimum, out-of-the-box, you should be able to read any document someone sends to you.'
--David Nagel

Nagel: As far as I can tell, things are going pretty well. We're getting some traction on the phone side. We've got some really great products like the stuff from Samsung that's coming out.

ZDNet: I saw that phone. In the clamshell category, it looks like a Kyocera-killer.

Nagel: I prefer to think of it as the PocketPC Phone Edition-killer. I prefer to kill the other platform than my own licensees.

ZDNet: Actually, I don't think the software in the Phone Edition is particularly well done.

Nagel: It hasn't gotten any traction in the marketplace at all.

ZDNet: Actually, I don't think the PalmOS is much better. If you ask me, the software in the BlackBerry phone sets the bar for…

Nagel: Mail?

ZDNet: No, for integration of the personal digital assistant functionality with the phone functionality.

Nagel: Really? It must have gotten a lot better because I thought it fell down on that point. When I tried the BlackBerry, I found that I was never using the address book in

it. Never. Or the calendar. I just found it awkward to use. But, I never had the phone edition. I just had the plain BlackBerry.

ZDNet: What's nice about the BlackBerry phone is the way they've integrated all of the inbound and outbound communications into one place. I want to call it a universal inbox, but that's not what it is. It's an in/outbox that tracks all your in or outbound mail, phone calls, and SMS messages and you can very easily respond to a communication from someone that came over one channel using another channel.

Nagel: That sounds like a good idea.

ZDNet: You don't have to hop around like I've had to do on the Phone Edition of PocketPC or the PalmOS-based phones. For example, replying to email with a phone call or vice versa. As long as the person is in your address book, the BlackBerry phone makes that very easy to do.

Nagel: That's actually a very good idea. That's something we could do in the software very easily. What about the new Treo 600? Have you seen that?

ZDNet: I did more than that. I reviewed some of its features on ZDNet.

Nagel: What did you think of it?

ZDNet: With the Treo 300, there were some times where you had no choice but to thumb the screen or take the stylus out and use that to get past a certain point or function. I thought the Treo 600's North-South-East-West jogger button, which moves the user between all the available fields and buttons on the screen, was a great improvement. I also think Handspring improved the way the phone keypad is embedded into the thumbboard.

Nagel: Yeah, they've done a better job on that. Before, on the Treo 300, those buttons were too obscure.

ZDNet: But now they've colorized those specific buttons.

Nagel: Right, they colorized the buttons and made them much more prominent.

ZDNet: Also, if you use any of these data-capable wireless handhelds for data operations, they can eat up a battery pretty quickly. If someone like Handspring is going to put a data-capable device in the field, guess what? Someone might actually use it for data.

Nagel: All the time.

ZDNet: I think it was a big mistake not to have a replaceable battery.

Nagel: I actually don't understand why they didn't do that. What do you think of the merger between Palm and Handspring?

ZDNet: I don't think Palm was any more or less capable of producing something like the Treo.

Nagel: They were about a year behind.

ZDNet: My sense is that, since the wireless carriers are in complete control of the distribution channel for converged devices, and because Handspring has some good relationships there, that's what Palm was really after.

Nagel: [Handspring] has had those relationships for a long time. Looking at it from a platform point of view, [PalmSource] has relationships with almost 60 carriers through our licensees. So, there's quite a bit of acceptance of the Palm platform. But, you're right. Getting those relationships with the carriers is a much bigger barrier than anyone could ever imagine.

ZDNet: That's what I'm hearing. When you talk to the device manufacturers, they'll tell you that the most difficult thing is getting their devices added to the carriers' lineups. Palm may have had a relationship with the carriers with the Tungsten W, but it wasn't being marketed as a telephone. When Palm came and told me that it really isn't to be treated as your primary phone, I thought that was ridiculous. Why should I have to carry two big wireless devices and maintain two separate wireless accounts if it all could be merged into one?

Nagel: The W was never positioned very well. People really didn't know what it was. The [802.11-eeuipped] Tungsten C is much better in that regard. It's pretty clear what it is.

ZDNet: I keep wondering whether maybe we should break these devices down so that you have small radio for WAN like a CDMA 1xRTT or GPRS radio, and one for LAN like a Wi-Fi radio and then you can have a bunch of devices like PDAs, laptops, and whatnot that use Bluetooth to share those radios at will.

Nagel: All of this is sorting out. It's going to take another cycle or two for what I call the canonical form factors to emerge. I do think there are different people who like different things. Some people really want a phone and want a little bit of paging, instant messaging, or email and some people come from the other side like the BlackBerry guys, and I think there are some form factors that haven't emerged yet.
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Next page 

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1. David Nagel Unplugged: Can Palm re-connect?
2. The best converged device?
3. The problem with Java
4. Most applications work
5. Soft-keyboards, Europe, and CDMA vs. GPRS

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