Palm readies next-gen ‘Web 2.0’ OS

During last week’s Australian media launch of the Centro we caught up with Palm co-founder and CEO Ed Colligan for a chat on Palm’s past present and future. Colligan is in a unique position for all three perspectives.

He was one of the three co-founders of Palm Computing in 1992 matching his strategic marketing savvy to the skills of business whiz Donna Dubinsky and uber-geek inventor Jeff Hawkins to create the iconic Pilot and PalmPilot PDAs. In 1998 the trio split from Palm to form Handspring which created the modern smartphone in the shape of the Treo before the company was bought by Palm in 2003..

Today Colligan is at the helm of Palm. He’s guided the development of the Centro made the call to axe the much-maligned Foleo and is now overseeing the development of an all-new operating system to power the next generation of Palm devices due in 2009.

We’ve met Colligan before going back to his early days at Palm and the launch of the Palm III. He’s passionate yet also laid-back engaged yet refreshingly a little laconic. So we didn’t feel too bad asking him the question which so many people have pondered in recent years: in a world where BlackBerry pretty much owns the enterprise email space where the might of Microsoft has seen Windows Mobile make huge market gains where the iPhone is rocketing up the charts and now with Google’s Android on the horizon – well to be honest why does Palm bother any more?

Colligan has the grace to smile. He’s heard it before although maybe not as bluntly put. First come the numbers. “Palm’s got maybe 15 million customers and 50 million devices around the world it’s brand that’s globally recognised. We sold a million Centros in the first five months of it going on sale with one carrier in the US so to say were not an active player in the market is not really accurate.”

Then Colligan reframes Palm’s competitive position in the context of this fast-growing market. “There will be 1.2 billion new handsets sold this year there’s billions of users around the world so there’s a huge opportunity. And it seems to me that when there’s a billion of anything sold per year – well we don’t have to have Apple RIM or Nokia be unsuccessful for us to be enormously successful. I’m reminded of the automobile business: does everyone buy a Ford or a Porsche or a Mazda? No there are all kinds of people who buy all kinds of cars for all kinds of reasons.”

Colligan also takes solace from Apple which has itself been through similar highs and lows as Palm in the dark old days before The Return of Jobs. “If you look at Apple – and one of our board members Fred Anderson used to be CFO at Apple – at one point in time Apple was in a very difficult position and (Anderson) was there at that time trying to figure out how they had the resources and the cash to see the next quarter through. Apple was on the cover of every magazine (we saw) all these articles about the demise of Apple and now they’re one of the most successful brands in the world.

“So just looking at Palm’s situation today there’s no logical reason in a market with this kind of growth opportunity and the dynamics that are happening and how quickly things change – and again you could look at Apple and the iPhone as something that’s come out of nowhere essentially. and changed the dynamics of the smartphone space –there’s every opportunity to do that in our case as well. And so I’m bullish on the future of not only the company but the category. So I think rumours of the demise of Palm would be greatly exaggerated if that was the position anyone took.”

So let’s talk about the future – and specifically the forthcoming all-new Palm OS which is codenamed Nova and said to be built around Linux. Colligan calls it “Palm OS” and later “Palm 2.0” both times his fingers drawing quotation marks in the air as he speaks. Palm 2.0 as in Web 2.0 although he makes it clear that “I’m not coming up with the branding right now – whether it’s Palm OS 2.0 or Next Generation we’re not coming up with the branding right now. But this is something different to this” he says pointing to the Centro.

Colligan speaks of this as being a “next-generation operating system with much more capabilities driven around the Internet and Web-based applications”. It reminds us of a very modern take on the original OS as well as a revisiting of the strategy which saw Palm create everything from the OS to the handhelds. It worked fine for Palm in the early days and it’s working pretty well for Apple too.

“We’re focused on executing our own system mostly because we really believe that to create the most compelling solution it should be an integrated package much like we started with the Palm OS and doing the original Palm Pilots: we did the operating system we did the hardware and we did the whole synching architecture and the desktop tie-in which is equivalent to the Web these days. One of the things we wanted to do is to make sure that we had an end-to-end solution we really controlled and could deliver the end-user experience we want to deliver. We think it’s going to be stunning and breakthrough in its execution and we’re working on some very exciting new devices to go with it”.

Not all of those devices will be smartphones. While Colligan axed the much-maligned Foleo ‘mobile companion’ notebook he admits the concept (if not the brand) could make a comeback.

“I still believe the idea will be vindicated some day. But the core decision behind that product cancellation was really driven by that we were developing this whole new operating system that is going to bring a new user experience (but the Foleo) had been started under a different design centre a different thought process and a different set of system software. I really want there to be one Palm user experience and so we’ll come back around to that idea when we’re done delivering that experience”.

Indeed when Colligan canned the Foleo just short of the product’s debut in September 2007 he said noted that he was cancelling “the Foleo mobile companion product in its current configuration” and reiterated that  “the market category defined by Foleo has enormous potential. When we do Foleo II it will be based on our new platform and we think it will deliver on the promise of this new category.”

But that doesn’t mean the ‘classic’ Palm OS is going away – at least not yet. While the codebase itself was acquired by Japanese software house ACCESS in 2005 Palm paid US$44 million in 2006 for a what Colligan describes as a “perpetual licence” for the source code. The agreement includes the right to modify the code and use it “in whole or in part in any product from Palm and together with any other system technologies” – in short an open slather for the OS that Palm itself created.

And for at least the short term that OS will continue to be offered in low-end devices typified by the Centro. “Centro is our consumer line of products the start of a product line to hit that demographic and price point” Colligan says. “Centro will be strictly Palm OS”.

At the same time Palm will continue to promote the Treo line of Windows Mobile smartphones to business customers. “Microsoft is the de facto standard in corporate email and I think they should be the de facto standard in mobile email. If you have an Exchange server today you can already get mobile push email without installing a single other piece of third-party equipment so it’s pretty easy to deploy. I don’t believe we could ever create a position in the business community that competes with Microsoft it just wouldn’t make any sense.”

That ‘next generation’ Palm OS will slot in between the Centro and Treo lines under a new ‘prosumer’ brand that’s yet to be decided Colligan explains. “We’re going to continue to look at those three line areas – consumer prosumer and enterprise. Treo is today more of our mainstream prosumer product which is extended into the enterprise but over time you’ll see some branding work done on the top two to make sure they’re really well delineated.”