Apple and Palm Seem Like an Odd Mix

In this Boston Herald article, Brett Arends says that Apple should buy Palm. On the surface, there are some similarities between the companies, but my gut says that the two just wouldn't mix well. In any case, there are some things the author says that I wanted to talk about.

[iPods] are heavy and the battery life isnít that great. Rival products the size of your thumb include a radio.

If there's a 60GB music player that's the size of my thumb, I'd sure like to see it. I'm particularly interested if it can display photos and video (though this negates the whole thumb thing).

Perhaps the author doesn't know about the Shuffle? It's hard to tell. The Shuffle is certainly not heavy. It's true it doesn't have FM tuning. Maybe this is something Apple should add.

Apple is trying to build a defensive moat around its business. Only an iPod will play iTunes music and use iPod accessories.

Not sure why it's so strange iPod accessories would only work on an iPod. Am I missing something? As for the iTunes/iPod connection, the iTunes store seems to do little more than break even. It's a tool for Apple to sell iPods. More to the point, they're designed to work as one, consistent product. I think this helps create an experience that is hassle free.

Consumers demand freedom and choice. Microsoft offered more of both and won the computer war, even though its technology was worse.

Oh the irony. If consumers demanded freedom and choice wouldn't there be more than just Mac and Windows computers in Best Buy?

Microsoft won round two of the ongoing operating system epoch, but it had nothing to do with freedom, choice or consumers at all. It did it through manipulation. Microsoft hasn't given any indication that it cares about choice except when it serves its business purposes.

Today, Iím fed up with carrying multiple devices. I donít want a cell phone, an electronic organizer, a music player, and a radio. I want one device that does it all. I suspect I am not alone.

Now he says he wants one device that "does it all," but I think what he really wants is one device that does all of these well, which is a much different thing. I'm skeptical a hyrid phone/music player/organizer is going to be able to match the experience of an iPod anytime soon.

A mobile phone is, for better or worse, built around phone calls and text messaging. It's hard to make a 5,000+ song library (not to mention videos and photos) work well in this context. In my experience, most multi-function devices end up being more interesting to gadgets freaks than the average consumer.

The iPod succeeds because the thing is designed to play music and do it well. The typical phone user experience is barely good for phone calls, let alone any secondary functionality. And there's another challenge -- what about battery life? I really don't want my talk time eating into my music/video time or vice-versa.

Once again, Microsoft gets it. You can already buy multi-function Pocket PC devices. The music player may not be as good as an iPod, but the products do more.

The fact that they "do more" is the very problem. This is the Microsoft mentality: more features equals better. For most people, though, the question is do the most important things work correctly?

I know Apple doesnít do takeovers, but buying Palm would be a terrific deal. It would instantly give it a huge presence in organizers and multi-function devices, with its own huge network of third-party software. Palmís revenues were $1.3 billion last year.

On paper, this actually does make sense. The purchase price would appear to pay for itself within a year or so. Of course there's much more to it than that.

The cultures would fit well: Palm is an entrepreneurial, creative, design-led company that hates Microsoft. Palm organizers already work with Macs.

With all due respect to the author, this sentence is mostly buzzwords. It doesn't tell us how well the two cultures would mesh. This is a problem with a lot of high-profile mergers.

My basic objection to all of this that I really don't think the approach that Palm takes to organizers is the right one. I don't think their products are a clear fit for the problem space. I knew a lot of people that had Palms them when they first came out, and I can't think of a single person now that actually uses them as their organizer. Silicon Valley should have more users than anyone. Somebody must be buying them, though, because Palm appears to be making money.

In theory, I could put all my scheduling and notes on my iPod, but I just don't see the point. The few things that I need away from my desk can just be put on paper.

The only value I could see in a deal like this is Apple could have a launching platform and expertise for entering the mobile phone market. The question is how well it would integrate with their current investments.

A lot of business run hastily into mergers because executives see "synergy" on paper but don't understand the details of what they're trying to do. Apple tends to not be so reactive, so I'm not so sure we're going to see a Palm purchase anytime soon.

Although it would be ironic for Apple to end up with the assets of Be.
Design Element
Apple and Palm Seem Like an Odd Mix
Posted Dec 22, 2005 — 12 comments below


Craig S. Cottingham — Dec 22, 05 620

The Shuffle is certainly not heavy. It's true it doesn't have FM tuning. Maybe this is something Apple should add.
I've never understood the marriage of MP3 players and FM tuners. Choose the music I listen to, or let someone else choose it for me.... This is why I bought an iPod shuffle, and why my Walkman-sized FM tuner sits in a drawer gathering dust.

Uli Kusterer — Dec 22, 05 621

I basically agree. Palm is the *last* company I'd merge with Apple. With the iPod and Ink, Apple have the basic technology already available for what Sculley would have called a PDA. The marriage between phone and PDA is already well underway, but right now MP3-player-phones are still at the high end.

Palm has (finally) realized that and are trying to play catch-up with the phone makers. So, while Palm is nicely bite-sized and Apple could easily buy it (compared to Sony or Motorola, which are a little big), it would merely give Apple a head-start compared to starting on a phone of their own. The rest they already have, and thus a lot of Palm's assets would be wasted. At most Apple would get back some former Newton developers.

And as to radios: For a long time I bought 'walkman'-style portable tapedecks with built-in radio. I find them quite convenient for radio news. Heck, you can even (legally!) tape any songs that come around that you like. I think in that combination it's actually a worthwhile feature (as long as it's readily accessible: It's useless if the song is halfway through by the time I start recording).

When I want to choose music, do MP3s. When I want to discover new music, try the radio.

Scott Stevenson — Dec 22, 05 622 Scotty the Leopard

When I want to discover new music, try the radio

So you don't live in the U.S. then? :)

James — Dec 22, 05 623

Besides Apple already did Palm a long time ago. It was called Newton.

Charles — Dec 23, 05 624

I thought that Palm was founded by a bunch of former Apple employees and coders who left and they all hated Apple passionately. This usually came up whenever there were discussions about why the early Palm devices had such crappy Mac connectivity.
So Palm does not sound like a good fit for Apple. I suspect Apple has more expertise in PDAs than Palm has, but Apple is just sitting on it, waiting for the time it makes sense to release a product. Remember Jobs said that there's no money in PDAs when companies like Palm are in a rush to cut prices down to nothing.

Roscoe Spinoza — Dec 23, 05 625

The Treo 650 is already almost all of what the author wants. Cell phone, text messaging, basic internet - plus it plays MP3s, Videos & has room for all the contacts, datebook appointments & to dos you'll ever generate. Plus thousands of apps - productivity, games, you name it.

As for the radio question, again, the Treo is almost there. PocketTunes plays internet radio streamed as MP3 (i.e. and other stations in iTunes' radio preset section); support for Real streams would enable the rest of the 'internet radio' most users would want to listen to.

The iPod, of course, has bigger capacity, a nicer interface, and longer battery life. And it can use a TV as an output device. So, have an iPod also, if these elements are important to you.

All that being said, I agree - Apple should not buy Palm. No need at all. They considered it at one point, and wisely passed.

Paul D — Dec 23, 05 626

I can't see what Apple would want in Palm. The devices aren't great (I don't know anyone who uses them any more), the engineering isn't remarkable, and they're abandoning their own OS. Apple doesn't need their engineering expertise, their software, or their brand recognition; Apple has all those in spades, if they ever choose to make another handheld computer.

John Y. — Dec 23, 05 627

A quick note about radio in the U.S.: if you live in the correct places, there are some flatout excellent radio stations out there. A few:

* WXPN, Philadelphia, Pa. (with transmitters as far as Baltimore and Harrisburg)
* WRNR, Annapolis, Md.
* WFMU, Jersey City, N.J.
* WFUV, New York City
* KEXP, Seattle, Wash.
* KCRW, Santa Monica, Calif.
* KUT, Austin, Texas
* KGSR, Austin, Texas

And that's without even considering some of the great stuff you can find on college stations across the country.

Michael — Dec 23, 05 628

I suspect people like the Boston Herald writer need to file copy regularly, and so they get into the habit of extruding enough verbiage to fill the column inches. They don't necessarily think very hard.

The notion of convergence between devices has become something of a given among tech columnists. But I'm not aware of any evidence that most of the public - the people actually buying the devices - want that. Since the columnist says he's "fed up" with separate devices, I suppose he must be.

For myself, I find slipping a phone (Nokia 3650) in one coat pocket and an iPod (30GB photo) in the other is no terrible hardship. And both of those are considerably larger than my thumb. These devices are as small as they usefully need to be by now. If my Nokia phone were any smaller the screen would be too small and/or the keypad would be barely usable.

As for my iPod, well, it fits comfortably in my hand and consequently is "just right". (Frankly, I think it could be argued that Apple has gone a little overboard on size-reduction with the Nano, and it's not surprising that Steve Jobs has been caricatured as offering an iPod "inviso" on a comedy show.)

And I don't want any more "functions" on my iPod anyway. It would only complicate the interface. I can see the attraction of movies, but that's still multimedia, and that is the point. The iPod is a multimedia device, and that's what I want it for: I don't want to make phonecalls on it and I don't want to enter appointments into it. I certainly wouldn't want to go editing Word documents on it with some stylus thingy.

Brian Tiemann — Dec 24, 05 631

A phone is too small to do any multimedia/PDA stuff usefully; so make it bigger and what do you get? The N-Gage.

The iPod has too few controls to do any full-scale interactive PDA stuff. So add more controls! óAnd you ruin its user experience.

A PDA is too big to use as a phone and its OS is too specialized to make it a usable music player in the car or jogging when you can't look at the screen easily. How to solve that? Hell if I know. Maybe that's why PDAs are the least compelling players of the three.

The "convergence" of PDA functions in the iPod, music-player functions in PDAs, and camera/organizer stuff in phones is a matter of adding what's easy to add to each device without ruining its basic premise. You can only go so far down that path in any of these cases. That ought to tell us something, namely that these devices don't want to converge. Not all the way.

Any good UI designer knows: let a device be what it wants to be. Far too many good ideas have been killed by a designer who got too clever for his own good. And I don't know of any successful UI designers who started their careers as tech columnists.

Jonathan — Dec 29, 05 636

Palm needs what Apple has. Palm was always designed just like a Mac, and now they're going through their "beige box" years. They need a Jobs-alike to come along, dump the miserable Zire/Tungsten/LifeDrive/Treo soup and come out with an iPalm. Full stop.

They need to dump the half-baked PalmOS 5 and build a PalmOS "X" (VI?) with an entirely different architecture, and they need someone very bold, brave and charismatic to do it. They need someone with taste and vision to make a useful, beautiful, desireable piece of technology. (And that likely means NOT being an all-in-one windows-wannabe brick)

If you don't look at it exclusively from the "what Apple can gain" angle, you can see why this is a good idea, and why maybe only Apple can save Palm. They might get a little bit of value out of it, too.

Dave Schultz — Jul 24, 06 1467

I think carrying a cell phone, camera, and an mp3 player in my pockets is a massive pain, especially in the summer. It's more things to weigh down my pants, more things to keep track of, more things to charge, more things to potentially lose, more things to worry about replacing, and with satellite communications resources (potentially) at the helm of our music listening experience, more things to need a subscription for. Are you a mobile person, travel often? Then you might relate. Merging these devices sounds like a hokey idea to some, but this is because the current states of these devices are somewhat incompatible. If a merge is eventually done well, the public will devour it like vultures. It will happen.

critical factors: music player interface, battery life, memory, and size... cell phone clarity, battery life, and size.... organizer size, interface, OS, bandwidth.... camera memory, resolution, interface, display, and size

order of importance: size, interface, battery life, memory, clarity, resolution, display, OS, bandwidth

I guess though that this order would depend on how often you use each feature. If I had the 1st 6 factors maxed out I'd buy this product and never need another device (besides my computer) ever again. Max out the last 3 and I won't need a computer, maybe just a spare backup hard drive. Hokeyness depends on the personality (or lack thereof) of whoever designs this merge. Practicality and feasibility depends on the engineers.


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