Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Understanding the Palm OS 5 die-hard

With such a wide variety of smartphones out there, some may be puzzled as to why there remains not a few Palm OS 5 die-hards apparently so unwilling to join the rest of the world in the 21st century, yours truly among them. This article is an attempt to contribute to the discussion and help support understanding.

To begin with, I really appreciate Philip Haine's article 1995 Palm Calendar creams the 2008 iPhone's. He methodically breaks down a comparison of doing things on both calendars and deftly demonstrates what Palm OS users have difficulty parting with - its productive functionality. Do yourself a favour and read the article - it's extensive, not glib at all, and puts in real practical perspective the relative ease of using Palm OS vs the more modern OS of today's leading smartphones. The comments below further speak to the real difference.

I'm on a mailing list for a community of users of a piece of software I use in Ubuntu that helps me continue using my Treo 680. This membership is full of software programmers, engineers, university professors and other professional and educated people, all of whom can't let go of their Palm OS5 (and earlier) devices. It's most reassuring for me to know that, if I am crazy, at least I'm not alone and in fairly good company.

The question that comes up for us quite regularly is "where do we go from here?" Is there a modern platform that finally can stand up as the functional next step beyond our trusty Palm OS devices? The answer is a resounding "no".

Each of the leading platforms - Blackberry, iPhone, Android - have their niches and strengths. None of them separate from the pack as the obvious heir apparent to the Palm OS loyalists.

Returning to Haine's article, it's clear that the people at Apple had a different demographic in mind when they designed their functionality. Apple designers, both hardware and software, are pretty good. They didn't get the calendar wrong due to trying and failing to get it right; they got it wrong because the kind of calendar use that typifies the Palm OS devotee is not a priority for the demographic that has bought up iPhones. In other words, while the calendar functionality is woefully inadequate for us, it's not an issue for all those who love their iPhone, because they didn't get an iPhone with calendaring functions as a primary concern.

The iPhone is essentially an iPod with a phone in it so that iPod users didn't have to carry many devices and gadgets. In other words, it was initially an entertainment product, a toy, something more for fun, not work. Yes, iPhone is growing and has become a rather viable work platform - but work wasn't the initial driver of the company's foray into the smartphone space. That brings up Blackberry.

There was a time when "smartphone" was only the Palm Treo, adapted from the Handspring Visor which was developed by the original Palm Pilot designers after they left Palm (Palm's corporate history is quite a melodrama, I'd seen a more entertaining article on ZDNet but can't find it now). Anyway, businesses had started deploying the smartphone for its managers and road warriers, but it was awfully unstable. One of Palm OS's strengths was that it had a broad software development parameter that allows all kinds of 3rd parties to develop applications for the Palm OS (long before there was an "app store", there were Palm apps available). This would accommodate too much instability and Palm became known for crashing and a nightmare for IT to support.

Research in Motion (RIM) saw the opportunity and entered the space with a solid, stable handheld communicator - the Blackberry had a closed, proprietary OS by which RIM could control the user experience and take more responsibility for providing a stable platform. Blackberry's focus was communication - phone, email and text was the name of its game, and it delievered almost flawlessly, to the degree that Blackberry became the #1 smartphone on the planet, a ubiquitous device that dominates the corporate space.

However, its controlled environment and focus on stability had to come at some cost, and what the Blackberry ecosystem lags in is that "app store" buzz and variety of applications. Again, since most Blackberrys were deployed from an IT department for business use, end users were not going to be installing their own apps with any frequency or regularity. As such, the Blackberry OS is not the most stimulating in terms of customizability, or even the kind of functionality/flexibility that, again, are hallmarks of the Palm OS loyalists priority.

I've heard quite a few postulate that the OS to bet on is Android, but it is still a bet and they're not sure they'll be right, so haven't been able to rush in and "just move on" with an Android device. One of the key issues with Android is that it is right at the opposite end of the spectrum from the success model of Blackberry and iPhone - both OSs are proprietary while Android is open and is too fragmented for proliferation of 3rd party apps that have too many different devices/specs to account for in the code.

Ah, HP webOS. It showed promise, but as of the date of this post, it's still a disappointment. No stylus (so engineering/schematic and other applications that require pinpoint data entry are a no-go); devices with no expansion card/slot, and an arm-twisting push to "the cloud" with no local hard drive data sync is just too much of a slap in the face. Data - and its security - is a key priority for the Palm OS loyalist, and "the cloud" is just not trustworthy enough for such a paradigm shift.

And, clearly, the hardware itself is designed for some other demographic than the Palm OS loyalist. That pebble design looks like a make-up compact, perfect to toss in a purse, but hardly the rugged appearance that speaks to the majority of Palm OS loyalists (don't get me wrong - there are plenty of ladies who love Palm OS 5 as well, and Centro was the best-selling Palm OS device of all time, so small and cute has its value; but with the Pre and now the Veer, HP has established small; they need a device with a bigger screen than the Pre that is still a smartphone, the TouchPad is a nice competitor to the iPad, but it's a pad, not a smartphone).

One day, we will be forced to move on. Progress is what it is. We will reminisce of simpler, better times, fondly recalling 8-track tapes, rotary phones, cars without airbags, and it will be a topic of conversation to recognize that not all that is labeled "progress" is better than what we had before. Palm OS 5 will fall into this conversation - with all its faults, and so many alternatives available, it's still around because it works. I do wish I could install Dropbox on my Treo, and hope against hope that webOS fixes the few complaints and shortcomings so that I can move on and stay (relatively) within the "Palm" family (even though HP is killing the "Palm" brand).

But for now, Palm OS 5 lives on.


Genghis7777 said...

I'm far from a Microsoft advocate but I note that you didn't mention Windows Phone 7. In fact, I'm more of an Apple Newton fan.

Yet most reviewers seem quite positive about it and third party support for it seems to be progressing significantly.

DA said...

Well noted :-)

Way back when PocketPC was trying to be what Blackberry would become, I tried one, and I was absolutely lost, notwithstanding my experience with PCs. Nothing was intuitive, doing things was abjectly cumbersome compared to the simplicity that was Palm OS.

Since then, Microsoft offerings have continued to come up short. I have held a Phone 7 device in my hand...just doesn't do it for me.

I've got an article cooking on my migration from Windows Live Mesh Beta to Dropbox (look for it within the week) that further cements the general trend - alternatives to MS product are increasingly refreshing to me; in other words, with all the choice out there, I simply have little confidence that even trying an MS product is worth the time, especially for use as a core platform for the management of my life's data - I just don't trust MS to that degree.

Having said that, I'm an Excel guy, and have posted on using CodeWeavers CrossOver to run MS Office in Ubuntu, so MS isn't 100.0% bad.

Anonymous said...

I couldn't have said it better myself. When my 3rd refurbished Palm zire died, I tried to go the android, but the cloud is problematic for two main reasons: one, it takes much longer to pull up my contacts on gmail than it ever did on palm desktop, and two, why would I ever trust my confidential contact info to google? My palm desktop is backed up every day online to a company whose main purpose is to keep my valuable data secure and confidential. In addition, there was no one-button sync--my todo items were at (or whoever they are), my contacts and calendar at gmail, my memos elsewhere, etc. I had to run a special program every day to back up my entire android onto my desktop. In addition, I could not believe that I could not change the file name of a picture I took-the only way to label it was to connect it with a contact. So I have all these contact names now--"Judy's Bday 2010", etc, so I could track my pictures.

On top of that, who thought a qwerty keyboard was a good idea on a tiny phone? I tried fitaly for android, but it had a few bugs, and the android graffiti writing apps are very slow. Plus, how does anyone in a cold climate use a touchscreen? Taking off my gloves in 20F weather to write myself a reminder is not something I want to do. People complained about the stylus, but truly the Palm OS is a touchscreen also, you just don't need to have bare hands--I can work my palm with a gloved finger, the blunt end of a ballpoint pen, or a shard of plastic.

I tried Windows 7 , but couldn't figure out the wireless sync thing with the Palm, so I backgraded to Windows XP and the USB sync. I know in a few years I'll have to go with Windows 7, and my guy in Minnesota who refurbishes Zires may eventually stop, but until then there's really nothing like the Palm for all the reasons you mention.

This article actually made me kind of depressed--what am I going to do? With memory problems, a demanding job, and a reliance on my Palm to do everything from reminding me to eat lunch, to editing MS office documents, to showing me pictures of my clients so I don't forget what they look like when I'm going to meet them for lunch, to managing my migraine medication, I hate to think of the productivity I will lose when palm OS finally dies forever. I always wondered why I couldn't find a good substitute--surely there were lots of people like me out there who needed a one-button desktop sync, avoidance of the cloud, and hated the qwerty keyboard. Now I know there are--just not enough of us.

Thanks for putting things in perspective!

DA said...

Take heart, mate. Palm OS 5 will be around for some time yet (after all, here's a community of Apple Newton loyalists still running their devices with pride

Palm OS 5 devices continue to be found on eBay or Craigslist.

I still use the version of Palm Desktop for XP that supported categories with colour-coding. The version that works on Windows 7 doesn't and it's ugly.

Unfortunately, XP is dying a slow death - although many will argue that's a good thing, it forces us to surrender the good Palm Desktop, unfortunately.

Check out for a Linux Palm Desktop that is functional although does not support colour-coded categories (if my memory serves correct, my Ubuntu partition won't boot anymore, and I have neither the time nor the chops to resuscitate it, so I haven't hotsynced on the Linux side in a while) and a very tech-savvy OS 5 community, but if you're inclined to run Ubuntu (or whatever Linux flavour), there might be a version of jpilot that works for you.

Having said all that, one of my fellow Palm OS 5 buddies (he nursed a limping, well-worn Centro long past its honourable service life) has made the jump to Android (the Galaxy S5) and he is positively loving it, and that device has an expansion slot so I've no doubt that some 3rd party app developer has got a backup tool for saving data and system info to the expansion card.

I know that sinking "what am I going to do?" feeling, it is definitely real but, thankfully, there are still fax machines, printers, cassette players and record players, and there will still be Palm OS 5 devices available for use, albeit in an increasingly disconnected manner; and there are still communities of OS 5 loyalists to share tips and let you know that you're not alone.

Hang in, hope to chat with you again.