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Palm, It's About The Experience And Your Experience Is Out Of Date

The mobile blogosphere has been abuzz this week with the now notorious open letter from Engadget to Palm. Like my fellow blogger, Eric Zeman, I agreed with a lot of what the letter had to say. But I also think that the letter didn't focus enough on the one key ingredient missing from Palm's mobile strategy: A great u

The mobile blogosphere has been abuzz this week with the now notorious open letter from Engadget to Palm. Like my fellow blogger, Eric Zeman, I agreed with a lot of what the letter had to say. But I also think that the letter didn't focus enough on the one key ingredient missing from Palm's mobile strategy: A great user experience.The letter does correctly identify Palm's central weakness:

So yeah, it was probably a smart move to recognize that you needed to offer a Windows Mobile version of the Treo to appeal to enterprise users, but there are literally millions and millions of consumers who want a high-end, powerful mobile computer that isn't built around Exchange server support. What they're looking for is a great user experience. Apple has done a good job tapping into that market, but there's still a huge opportunity out there for Palm to offer a smartphone that's just as engaging as the iPhone, but that's also open, rather than closed, and more geared towards productivity.

Frankly, you've taken a turn from being the respected underdog and innovator to repeat offender in stale gear. Every press release you issue or "leaked" photo we see these days is another dent in your already banged up armor, and really, we're not sure how much more we can take -- our loyalty has practically become an embarrassment among peers. The New York Times totally nailed it when they said "Palm is about to release a new model in its Treo line and photos leak out to silence." That said, we humbly submit a few (mainly practical) suggestions for how you can turn things around, organized by hardware, software, and other.

The letter goes on to detail a set of specific recommendations for Palm, many tactical and some strategic. While I think these recommendations are all great, I think the biggest thing Palm needs to focus on is creating a new, great user experience. Period. The hardware, the software, and the apps should all come out of this imperative.

The original Palm Pilots offered a great user experience. I remember when I first saw one, around the end of 1996. One of my friends at the time was still using an Apple Newton -- a device, btw, that he still defends, but that's another issue. The first thing I remember about that early Palm Pilot was how easy it was to use. It was really intuitive. And compared with the klunkiness of the Newton, it seemed, well, as cool as when I first saw a Mac and compared it with my Commodore 64. It was just a much better user experience, period.

Somewhere between 1996 and 2007, Palm's user experience died. It didn't die with the Treo, which at the time of its debut was pretty innovative and easy to use. It didn't die because of hardware or even the Palm OS (though goodness knows it's totally out of date now). It died because Palm just kept cramming stuff into the Treo. It started when Palm crammed Windows into its devices. Then it just kept cramming.

What happens to devices when engineers and business people stuff too much into them? Take a look at any of the recent Treos. They're confused devices that lack aesthetic charm and are difficult to use (at least in my humble opinion). The user experience is as stale as a StarTAC.

Why has everyone been talking about the iPhone this year? Because Apple stepped up and innovated the mobile user experience. Not only that, they made sure that the experience on the iPhone was consistent with Apple's user experience on the iPod and on the Mac.

Why are so many consumers beginning to turn to Google's mobile applications? Because Google has focused ruthlessly on its mobile user experience.

Why is BlackBerry still the king of the mobile e-mail market? Because RIM made the e-mail user experience on all of its BlackBerry devices easy to use.

Apple, Google, and RIM all are wildly successful companies. What do they all have in common? They all have lazer-like focus on their customers' user experience. Apple, Google, and RIM also have worked hard to insure that their user experience is both easy to learn and nearly identical on any device. These companies have, through hard work and effort, discovered one of the new rules of the Web 2.0 era: The user experience is now the brand. If you want a strong brand, deliver a solid and consistent user experience across all devices and interfaces. And make sure that the experience is fresh, relevant, and up-to-date.

While Palm has done a decent job of trying to maintain the same UX across its Treos, the different platforms (Palm OS vs. Windows) and the lack of focus on the UX has rendered Treos clunky and confused. In short, someone at Palm needs to cut through the clutter, rethink the Treo, and refresh that experience. Engadget is right, Palm needs an intervention. But the intervention needs to be focused on this core issue. And while it looks like Palm's CEO, Ed Colligan, has acknowledged the criticism, I just hope Palm focuses on the experience and doesn't get lost in the details.

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