Pavlos (pavlos) wrote,

Pavlos on Software: Why PalmOS is not my favourite PIM OS

In 1994, the very boring company US Robotics (a maker of modems, not Asimov-obeying droids) surprised everyone by making a remarkable product, the PalmPilot digital organiser. Unlike the Newton and other previous attempts, this one was properly product-designed to be a digital Filofax, and was usable and portable enough for that task. The geeks loved it, probably for silly reasons such as it having a TCP/IP stack and C compiler, and they convinced everyone else that the device was great, including its Grafitti and HotSync idiosyncrasies.

Soon, everyone wanted one, and the Palm product line was enjoying a runaway success. Accidental goldmine US Robotics was swiftly bought by equally boring 3Com (a maker of network equipment), where the Palm division continued to produce great organiser products in the late 90s, including the supremely elegant and functional Palm V, a 20th century design classic. Meanwhile, a whole new kind of product had been created, then optimistically called the PDA (Personal Digital Assistant) and now more properly known in geek-speak as the PIM (Personal Information Manager).

Unable to bear the excitement of such trendy products, 3Com spun off Palm Inc., which lost the plot and started building a confusing and confused product collection, the low point being the Palm VII, with proprietary wireless internet that worked only in some US cities (The US had a mobile communications standards war that lasted much longer than in GSM-based Europe). Palm also licensed the OS to several other companies, which apparently tried to "segment" the market rather than compete with each other, a strategy so successful that for a few years they were unable to build any good products between them.

Recently Palm re-merged with the one successful licensee (Handspring), left the other (Sony) to produce models with jog wheels, memory sticks, swivel displays and other user-aggravating features, and split off the Palm OS software house as a separate company. Palm (now called PalmOne) tidied up its overlapping product collection into something that looks like a product line, and along the way upgraded the CPU from a 33MHz 68000 to a 400MHz ARM. Amazingly, Palm customers continued to buy its products throughout this mess.

Now, I have the second-best model, a T3, which was top of the line last year when I bought it in a fit of consumerism. It is in my travel bag, running down its battery. I don't use it, and the only reason it's with me at all is that I haven't taken the trouble to manually copy old passwords from some shareware Palm password manager to my MacOS keychain. Somewhere along the line, PalmOS stopped being my favourite PIM OS, and there's little sign of improvement. What went wrong?

The core feature of PalmOS, other than Grafitti, which has been revised and questioned, is the HotSync operation: You keep the master copy of the PIM data in your real computer (in the Palm Desktop application or Outlook, the Mac PIM apps, etc) and synchronise with the handheld from time to time. The same with any documents that you want to work on: You keep the master copies on your PC and checkout/checkin to/from the Palm. Backups of your Palm handheld also go in your PC. In 1994, that was revolutionary. Today, this idea is soooo last century.

People no longer have "a PC". They have a home PC and a work PC, at least. Both of these are replaced every 2-5 years, and the OS probably fails and gets reinstalled more often than this. Having to choose one PC to keep all PIM data forces the user to mix work and personal data, and is a weak spot for backups. The PIM handheld is a much more constant and person-bound thing than a PC, so declaring that a single PC holds the master copy of PIM data is backwards. The PalmOS handheld should be the master, if one is needed. An improved design would be to give PalmOS the ability to sync with many sources of PIM data, presenting a unified view to the user. The Palm should also sync with devices other than computers (such as phones) and be able to store encrypted backups of itself in any PC or other device willing to accommodate them.

The other thing desperately wrong with PalmOS is it's effectively unaware of the internet. A lot of PIM data is today stored on servers such as Exchange, IMAP, or WebDAV. Same for documents. The Palm mail application for years synchronised with Outlook or other mail clients on your PC and not directly with your mail and/or calendar server. This is fine for conserving bandwidth but wrong from every other point of view. The point of a Palm is it's smaller and easier to carry around than your PC, so suggesting that you need your PC to pick up email is... never mind. Palm's answer so far has been an utterly misguided "HotSync over the internet to your PC" and a half-working IMAP/SMTP mail program (finally bought in from a smaller software house) that doesn't understand IMAP folders. A proper PIM OS would have fully-featured clients for contacts, mail, calendar, and file servers, and ideally the vendor should offer such servers on a subscription basis.

PalmOS's relationship with the internet is unsatisfactory in other ways. When attached to a PC via a cable/cradle, the Palm is not connected to the internet through the PCs connection! In a quaint US fixation with modems, the best you can do (without high geek skills) is allow the Palm to dial out with the PCs modem. Web browsing is even more embarrassing: Modern PalmOS browsers are powerful enough to let you find, pay for, and download PalmOS software, but don't let you install the package. You need to attach your Palm to a PC and use HotSync for that. It's similar with documents: The leading Office-style application is based on the idea that you keep the master document on your PC and HotSync a lightweight version to the Palm - clearly just a toy. There is a media player on new Palms, but no you can't download porn movies. You have to do so on the PC and HotSync a lightweight version to the Palm. Anal! PalmOS machines now have first-class computer resources. They should grow up and behave like first class computers before the company goes out of business.

On the software application side, PalmOS suffers from a crippling delusion of Gates. When the first PalmPilot came out in 1994, it had outstandingly good PIM software by the day's standards. Of course, there were a few spots here and there that could be improved, and various independent software vendors (ISVs) tried to produce a better calendar, better address book, better notepad, etc. Palm, instead of improving its PIM software and driving these vendors out of business, took the incredibly stupid path of shipping increasingly sub-standard software (more or less the same as in 1994) and hosting a web site where customers could, with luck and patience, buy better PIM software independently. What were they thinking? Probably that they would become "the Microsoft of the handheld world", with many supporting ISVs. The fact that the Microsoft of the PC world constantly competes, successfully, with software vendors who fill gaps in Windows (with the notable exception of anti-virus software) was somehow lost on the Palm company. Only recently has Palm started improving its PIM software.

So that's why PalmOS is no longer my favourite PIM OS. Incidentally, MacOS is my favourite PIM OS. Apart from its merits as a computer operating system, it does almost all of the above things right: It synchronises with various other PIM-enabled devices, including Palms and phones, and with email, contacts, calendar, etc. servers. Apple does offer an internet-based, backed up, data store with email and calendar sharing (I haven't subscribed, but I like the fact the service exists). MacOS has a decent idea of privacy and security, and a good password manager. It comes with good PIM applications maintained by Apple. The only drawback is that the smallest Mac is a lot bigger than the biggest Palm. I wish that Apple would get over the Newton failure and build a good handheld PIM device.


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