Will Palm Still Fly on Windows Mobile?

According to research and consulting company Strategy Analytics, the Palm Treo 650 smartphone from Palm is the highest-rated converged device in the United States. Guess what – it runs Palm OS. How will the devices fair when they run Windows Mobile next year?

The Treo 650’s ‘Best in Class’ performance rating comes from a head-to-head consumer test against the RIM BlackBerry 7100, the Samsung SCH-i730 and the UTStarcomm PPC6600. These results come from hands-on consumer testing by the Strategy Analytics Advanced Wireless User Panel, the analyst firm said.

Kevin Nolan, director of the Advanced Wireless Laboratory at Strategy Analytics, praised the Treo for “Palm’s hallmark user experience”, among other things.

Let’s face it, that user experience is thanks in no small part to the fact that it runs Palm OS – the operating system that until recently was part of Palm itself. Now that Palm OS has been spun off (and latterly acquired by another vendor), Palm may no longer have the advantage of such tight integration. And it will certainly not have that advantage when it comes to its forthcoming Treo phone that will run Windows Mobile.

You may remember that in a previous story I quoted Palm’s CEO, Ed Colligan, saying that he would “probably not” have spun off the Palm OS had the decision been down to him, but it wasn’t. He had gone off to start another mobile device venture, Handspring, when that decision was taken.

The question for a mobile device maker like Palm is whether it is able to build more innovative, differentiated devices if it can control, integrate, and manipulate the operating system as well as just the user interface and application layers. Now that Palm does not own Palm OS, that option is no longer open to it.

But Research in Motion (RIM) has its own BlackBerry OS, which is a Java operating system. Nokia has its own OS, and on smartphones it runs Symbian, an OS owned by a consortium of vendors, of which Nokia is the largest shareholder.

But Palm’s Colligan was adamant when I talked to him that all is not lost. “Is it possible to make great products if you own the platform? Yes,” he said. “But is it also possible to make great products when you don’t own the platform? I’d say yes to that too.”

“Apple has owned its platform and people think it has some of the best designed, easiest to use products out there,” he continued, “but they kind of forget that Apple has about 4% of the PC market. It’s also been shown that others have been successful by leveraging Microsoft’s platform.”

Still, the fact that Colligan would “probably not” have spun off Palm OS says to me what he really thinks about the issue. It may still make sense for the company to support Windows Mobile on other Treo devices expected next year, opening up the Palm platform to all of those Windows mobile developers and also enterprises that prefer to stay with Microsoft on all of their devices.

Nevertheless, it will be interesting to see whether the forthcoming Windows mobile-based Treo is still able to win awards for its user experience against similar devices from RIM, Nokia and others – when they still guide the direction of their operating systems while in the case of Windows-based Palm handhelds, Palm no longer does.

My take? Palm just put out some good numbers that suggest its Palm OS-based Treos are selling well. When it comes to Windows Mobile, it will need to work hard to ensure that its devices still have differentiation from the many Windows Mobile 5.0 competitors. It could just do it, you know.

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