Four and Half Years On

Forehead palm smack

Goodbye my beloved Palm. In May 2007, a month before the launch of iPhone 1, they made the disastrous error of announcing the launch of a lightweight wireless laptop, essentially a dumb terminal to service their Treo line of smartphones, which they called the Foleo. They might now claim it was a forerunner of the MacBook Air and other subnotebooks, but even if it we kindly agree that it was ahead of its time, there’s no doubt it was a huge disaster for Palm.

The Big Blue lesson

There was an old saying back in the 70s: “no one ever got fired for buying IBM”. What this meant was that if you ran the IT (or Data Analysis as it was called back then) department for a medium to large company you bought from IBM, or Big Blue as they were known (this was the colour of suit their salesmen and executives were obliged to wear. Oh yes, and there were schools where IBM told you to send your children too) – anyway, the point was that no matter how shite the machine you bought, you could say to your complaining Chairman, CFO and MD, “Don’t blame me, I bought IBM,” and everyone would murmur, “Oh well, that’s alright then… IBM. Mm. Fine company. Must just be bad luck.”

IBM of course, famously didn’t see Bill Gates coming and in what seemed like the blink of an eye they had slipped down behind the speccy upstart and were selling off their consumer business to a Chinese company, Lenovo. I told you the digital world moves fast.

Sinking without trace

Well now, Palm made the same mistake. Their wonderful proprietary Palm OS was aging and rather than spend R&D dollars reinventing it for the modern, post iPhone world, they assumed that everything would be alright if they chugged along with it (they produced the Centro in late 2007) and continued to concentrate their energies on producing Windows Mobile compatible devices. How could they lose? MS was the biggest company in the world. Their operating system accounted for over 96% of all computers sold. Everyone was always going to need a smartphone that synched to a PC , weren’t they? It was a cinch.

It took them almost two years to repair this mistake and decide that they should tackle Apple head on and produce a new operating system for touchscreen devices that might compete with the ever more frightening success of the iPhone.

Pre come…

Had they decided on this a year or so earlier when they still had the wind in their sails, they might not have been too late. As it was in 2009 the woefully underpowered and maddeningly undersized and plasticky Pre devices were launched, running their new Web OS, to the sound of rolling sagebrush and tumbleweed and the tolling of a great bell.

Such disastrous strategic, commercial and software engineering miscalculation and lack of vision brought the company down. Palm collapsed, the pieces were picked up by Hewlett Packard for $1.2 billion. HP promised to develop the OS and release tablets and smartphones running it. In fact, two years later they effectively dropped all such plans and announced that they were licensing the technology for others to play with and bring to market if they wished or dared.

Sony make believe

Farewell Palm and farewell too, Sony Ericsson. As of February 16th this year, Sony reacquired the whole joint venture from their Swedish partners and renamed it Sony Mobile Communications.

In my view Sony is the company that has most to blush about in terms of its performance in this sector of the consumer hardware market over the last two or three decades. Their brand image just couldn’t have been higher or better in the early eighties when their Walkman was cock of the walk. The company and its brand image seemed unassailable. The Apple of their day, they were known for fine design and innovation and for wit, elegance, desirability and finesse in their product range. Their Trinitron displays stood out in an area of cathode ray tube TV sets and monitors and their whole range of consumer equipment from My First Sony to camcorders more or less rocked in exactly the way that today almost everything they make in this arena sucks or remains incapable of standing out from the crowd. And don’t get me started on Vaio notebook: contemptible and contemptuous to the customer, there rarely was a more repellent and deceitful object put before an unbelieving public.

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This blog was posted in Techblog

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