Palm’s Pre Gambit and the Joy of Starting Over

By  |  Monday, January 12, 2009 at 12:15 pm

Palm PreMy apologies if you think I’m overcovering Palm’s Pre smartphone here, but it’s not just a promising device that runs a promising operating system. It also represents a brave attempt at starting from scratch–something almost no technology company ever does.

Hardwarewise, the Pre looks nothing like a Treo. It doesn’t run PalmOS apps. The user interface probably has a fair amount in common with early Palm devices in terms of overarching philosophies, but there are only minor nods to the specifics of the old UI, such as the desktop full of icons. (Which come to think of it, looks as much like the iPhone as it does previous Palms.) I’m assuming that Palm’s new WebOS, which has Linux underpinnings and a top layer based on Web technologies, shares not a single line of code with PalmOS.

The Pre, in other words, is an entirely new phone built on an entirely new platform designed for 2009 and beyond–not a refresh of Palm’s existing hardware and software, both of which are evolutionary improvements to what the company came up with when it built the first PalmPilot in the mid-1990s. If the Pre is a hit, it’ll be because that bold gamble paid off. And it’s hard to imagine any Palm smartphone that wasn’t based on a completely fresh start succeeding.

Of course, Palm had the luxury of starting over, since it was so painfully obvious that the old Palm platform had reached the end of the line. The only viable alternative to not building an all-new platform was going out of business. (I’m reminded of what Matthew Broderick’s character said in The Freshman: “There’s a kind of freedom in being completely screwed.. because you know things can’t get any worse.”)

The only truly comparable moment I can think of involving another major tech company is when Apple scrapped the original Mac OS for the Unix-based OS X–a decision that it, too, made when the continued existence of the company wasn’t a given. And even Apple provided backwards compatibility with old apps (it wasn’t great, but it was there).

Other examples of starting over aren’t nearly as sweeping. Microsoft, for instance, did write Windows NT from scratch in order to modernize Windows under the surface–but it kept the Windows 3.1 interface on top. (It also kept Windows 3.1 on the market, and didn’t merge the old and new versions of Windows until years later , when it released Windows 2000.) With Office 2007, it sort of did the reverse, adding a new interface but keeping just about all of the Office apps’ existing features.

In both instances, Microsoft couldn’t really toss its old product aside and truly begin anew–the installed base of the old versions were huge, and sales were still good. The company has enough trouble getting the world to move to new file formats; asking it to make a great leap forward to an utterly different product would be untenable.

Or would it? Consider the state of Windows in 2009. We know that the next version, Windows 7, is completely evolutionary–in fact, Microsoft is working extremely hard to make it a smoother upgrade that asks less of users than Windows Vista did. But what’s next for Windows after 7? The operating system may still have a monopolistic market share that puts billions in Microsoft’s pockets every year, but the signs that Windows’ two decades of dominance are eroding are everywhere. I kind of like Windows 7, but but it’s an OS that’s mostly about overdue fixes to festering problems. 

We know that Microsoft is working on something code-named Midori that might be its take on what an all-new, Web-centric, post-Windows operating system could be. And that’s about all we know about Midori–it sure isn’t a given that it’ll ever evolve into a shipping product. In one way or another, I hope that Microsoft does try starting over with Windows–preferably before the company is in anywhere near the shaky condition that Palm finds itself in–and that its customers approach an all-new Windows with an open mind. 

And hey, if it wants to experiment on a smaller scale, how about replacing the dinosaur known as Windows Mobile with something completely fresh? (It shouldn’t even be a given that it can run old Windows Mobile apps if that would cripple its ability to go boldly where no Microsoft mobile OS has gone before.) The current Windows Mobile is only a little less of an anachronism than the PalmOS, after all. If Palm’s gutsy gambit with the Pre and WebOS pay off, it would be beautiful if it inspired other companies to worry more about leaping forward and less about clinging to the past…

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  1. Dale Larson Says:

    Great points! It is, of course, both a blessing and a curse to have a successful platform product with a large installed user base.

    Unless you started with absolutely brilliant forward-thinking architecture and were uncompromising in adding features and code in each release, you eventually end up with a mess both inside and out. The pragmatic reality of commercial software (and perhaps even more so with open source), is that there are always compromises. Their effects compound over time.

    At some point, you really need a fresh look at the whole space you’re in to understand the total user experience you want to create, to design a product, an interface, its underlying architecture and implementation. To start a new mess.

    Yet the cost of doing so is enormous. While simple base functionality may be relatively inexpensive to create from scratch, the depth of support for all the little odd cases and special needs can be truly daunting. If your product is a platform, the complexity of ripple effects is mind-boggling. Plus, you’re abandoning a whole ecosystem when you make this kind of jump. In both Apple and Palm’s case, as they made the leap, the health of those ecosystems reduced the cost of leaving them behind.

    With knowledge of issues brought up in and constrained by past versions (both in interface and internals), and freedom from starting over can come powerful simplicity, efficiency and effectiveness. Elegance in code and interface.

    Which brings us back to the Windows platform and the Office platform. (Are they even two separate platforms?) Plus Windows Mobile.

    (BTW, I loved that NeXT didn’t separate the word processor and spreadsheet from the OS. They were objects that any programmer could include anywhere in their interface. Regardless of how well that worked in that implementation, would another generation let us use data stored in the cloud and cached locally, wherever we log in, with whatever the local instances are for these interchangeable application objects, perhaps even swapping them out to suit our preferences, all abstracted seamlessly?)

    What would be the point of a new Microsoft mobile OS?

    Much of why Windows Mobile exists is to handle all the IT-department requirements around the world (as silly as any of them may be).

    While it may be POSSIBLE to do so elegantly, is it PRACTICAL to do so? The level of complexity required to balance so many constraints may be beyond human capability to see the whole picture to create that elegant architecture, interface and implementation, or at least be prohibitively time-consuming and expensive.

    MicroSoft in its current incarnation exists to make happy a whole ecosystem of corporate IT departments, hardware/software vendors, consultants and the rest. And to do so profitably.

    To change the platforms fundamentally would require fundamental change to that ecosystem. There would be mutiny. That’s why Apple (and perhaps WebOS and others to come), are computers “for the rest of us.”