Is the Palm OS Dying?

Should you care?

Recently, I was talking to an executive at a smartphone software developer. The company had recently released new versions of its software for RIM BlackBerrys, Windows Mobile Smartphones, and other devices — but not for Palm OS smartphones. I asked why.

"It's a dying platform," she replied, matter-of-factly.

Her reaction wasn't surprising, given Palm's long, slow slide from top PDA maker to third-tier smart phone vendor. There's been uncertainty about the Palm OS's future for years. Palm Treos running Windows Mobile became available in January 2006. And Palm has been developing a new, as-of-this-writing-unreleased Linux-based OS for what feels like an eternity.

Still, the software executive's comment aroused mixed feelings.

I've been a Palm loyalist since 1997, when I became hooked on the Palm V. Currently, I use a Treo 755p. I've always found the Palm OS to be easy-to-use and efficient. Palm devices are reliable and sturdy; I've rarely encountered problems with the five I've owned.

And yet.

My Treo has been looking extremely dowdy of late, compared to the Apple iPhone, the AT&T Tilt, the LG Electronics Voyager and other slick smartphones. Neither the Palm OS nor devices running it have evolved noticeably in years.

In short, I've got a strong urge to stray from my Treo. I have no doubt many of you have felt similar urges — and even acted upon them.

What you get

Does that mean it's time to ditch our Palm devices? Not necessarily. Here are four reasons why Palm OS smart phones are still worth owning.

1. The Treo touch-screen isn't too 'touchy'.

The iPhone/iPod Touch screen is gorgeous, bright and big, by smartphone standards. But it can be a bit too "touchy." For instance, on my iPod Touch I've often clicked accidentally on an e-mail and opened it when I was simply trying to scroll through the list of messages. The more I use the iPod Touch for e-mail, the less it happens, but still, it's annoying. The iPhone/iPod Touch screen also makes it a bit too easy to accidentally click a link on a Web page. I've rarely had these problems with the Treo's touch-screen.

By the way, current BlackBerrys don't have touch-screens, though there have been rumours that a touch-screen BlackBerry is on the way.

2. Palms come fully loaded.

Palm smart phones ship with tons of useful software preinstalled, including Dataviz's Documents To Go (for editing and viewing Microsoft Office files), Voice Memo, Camcorder, Camera, Memos, Tasks, e-mail, instant messaging, text messaging, Web browsing, Calendar, Contacts and software for playing multimedia files.

Windows Mobile devices offer a similar variety of included software, but I find the Palm OS versions easier to use.

The iPhone currently lacks a camcorder, voice memo, document editing and other capabilities. BlackBerrys don't include document editing software, though a few third-party options are available, and enterprise models don't have built-in camera or camcorder functions.

3. There are beaucoup third-party applications.

More than 30,000 third-party Palm OS applications are available, according to Palm. It will take the upstart iPhone a while to beat that. Admittedly, some Palm OS apps are junk. But you're bound to find goodies by cruising through sites like PCW Downloads or Handango.

4. The keyboards are actually usable.

My Treo 755p's keyboard keys are nicely spaced, for a smartphone. They're firm but not too stiff, and I rarely hit the wrong key. The Palm Centro's keys are smaller and closer together, however, and aren't as easy to type on as the Treo 755p.

By comparison, I find the iPhone/iPod Touch software-only keyboard frustrating to use. Others I've talked to have revealed wildly diverging iPhone keyboard experiences. One friend says he's able to easily touch type on his iPhone's keyboard using two thumbs. Another says that because of its keyboard, he uses his iPhone primarily for viewing and rarely for input.

What you don't get

That said, Treos and Centros lack some features other smartphones offer.

1. Built-in Wi-Fi.

Current Palm models lack built-in Wi-Fi, though Palm CEO Ed Colligan said last year it would be added to future Palm devices.

2. Built-in GPS.

Given how clueless GPS-based driving directions can be, I don't see this as a terrible loss. Also, Google Maps came preinstalled on my Treo, and it has often served me in a pinch.

3. A pleasurable Web browsing experience.

Surfing the Web on my Treo is painful, even using Sprint's fast EVDO network. If a meaningful mobile Web experience is crucial, your best smartphone choice currently is the iPhone.

4. Style and a large screen.

I'd love to see a sleek new Palm OS handset that combines a large touch screen with the usual sturdy Palm keyboard.

Boiling it all down

In my opinion, Palm's smartphones still offer a strong mix of features, software, ease of use and affordability.

People looking to buy their first smartphone or to replace their aging Treo or Windows Mobile Smartphone, might consider the Palm Centro. At $US99.00 (with a two-year AT&T or Sprint contract), it's one of the best value smartphones today. PC World (US) gave the phone a rating of 82 (very good).

If it's excitement you crave, however, a Palm smartphone is definitely not for you.

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James A. Martin

PC World
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