The Imagined War between Apple and Palm: Pre vs. iPhone
May 30th, 2009
Daniel Eran Dilger
The ridiculous fringe of punditry is working hard to invent a bitter, angry rivalry between Apple and Palm in order to suggest that the iPhone is at some potential risk of being overshadowed and that Apple has become an abusive monopolist seeking to beat up underdogs. They’re wrong, here’s why.
How Times Change.
Tech coverage of the smartphone industry has clearly shifted since the iPhone was launched. Recall when the Street was warning people about how the iPhone actually cost over $17,000 dollars if you added up service fees over the course of two years and then invested the money over your lifetime? That nonsense has blown over; the same people are now referring to the Palm Pre as having a “real cost” that not only ignores the service plan subsidy and “potential for investment,” but throws in a huge mail in rebate… from the company that never bothered to send me my rebate years ago.
Remember how everyone fretted that the iPhone would be sunk by its exclusive US partnership with AT&T, which vies with Verizon for placement as the top US mobile company? Never mind that the Pre is tied to the distantly third place and currently quite beleaguered Sprint, or that its use of CDMA2000 will prevent it from being sold overseas!
Remember when critics complained that the iPhone couldn’t do “over the air” downloads of overpriced ringtones and could only download new music through iTunes? Now they’re celebrating that the Palm Pre can talk to iTunes when its clear the device won’t ever be able to handle iTunes’ online mobile downloads.
All of the standard pundit tricks for painting Apple and its iPhone as set for impending disaster have been turned 180 degrees to make the ailing Palm’s long shot Pre look like it is fated for nothing short of wild success. Of course this is all because the way you defraud investors is by suggesting that a winner is a loser and vice versa.
However, the really bizarre story to emerge from the Palm Pre launch is that, supposedly, Palm’s integration with iTunes has Apple on edge and looking to start an all-out brawl with Palm, as if Apple is worried that its users will desert the company to sign up with Sprint and a experimental new phone from a company set to go out of business, despite all the surveys that consistently report an unusually high level of satisfaction with the iPhone and iPod touch.
The dizzyingly absurd drama that tries to suggest that Apple is desperately scared of the Palm Pre harkens back to the giddy optimism voiced by Windows Enthusiasts who just two years ago tried to suggest the iPod Era was all but over now that Microsoft was gearing up to spit out the Toshiba Gigibeat under its own Zune brand.
Why Microsoft’s Zune is Still Failing
This All Happened Before
Remember that? The PC wags were all certain that the Great Monopolizer of Redmond was going to swoop in and trample the iPod. Computerworld’s Mike Elgan wrote that the Zune “scares Apple to the core” and predicted that Microsoft would “leverage the collective power of Windows XP, Windows Vista, Soapbox (Microsoft’s new ‘YouTube killer’) and the Xbox 360” to steal Apple’s business.
Every time I repeat that quote it gets a little funnier with the additional hindsight. Soapbox not only didn’t kill YouTube, it killed itself; Vista turned out to be a far more disastrous failure than even I had predicted; and the Xbox 360 did absolutely nothing to help the Zune apart from offering lots of bad news about hardware failures that might have had some slight effect in distracting attention away from how poorly the Zune was selling.
The only plausible Zune threat in 2006 was that Microsoft continued to own the PC desktop with Windows XP and, despite it being half a decade old, this offered some credibility for believing that Microsoft could bully its way into the iPod market the same way it had muscled into graphical computing, web browsers, 3D graphics, and so forth, each time offering a far lessor product that managed to suffocate superior innovation and pave over new wild frontiers of technology with the company’s low quality asphalt.
But this didn’t happen to the iPod. Instead, while Microsoft ineffectually tried to copy Apple’s music player products from the year before, Apple rolled out the iPhone and left Microsoft’s jaw on the floor for two and a half years before the company could even announce a vaporous new intent to compete against it in a limited way.
Palm is no Microsoft
At this point, you might be thinking, “yes, but that was Microsoft, a company that has never done anything but fail miserably! The Palm Pre comes from a rock solid company with impressive products, a stellar reputation for delivering all its promises, incredible third party developer support and long term strategic platform savvy, strong retail operations, and one of the most popular consumer brands on the planet. Apple has no chance!”
And thank you for thinking that, dear reader. My sides hurt, too, as I cry tears that accompany my hysterical laughter.
Of course, the reality is that Palm needs more than just a salable product two years after the debut of the iPhone. It really needs the last four years back, so it can deliver the Palm ahead of the iPhone.
Palm’s investors keep repeating this idea that the Palm Pre can do everything the iPhone can and more, just like the Archos and Zen can do more than the iPod. The problem is that tech products don’t sell based on feature checklists. Compatibility with the mainstream, price, and usability have always been far more important. Apple’s Macintosh struck out on the first two, enabling DOS PCs to overshadow what was clearly a superior product. More recently, the Zune offers an example of striking out on all three factors, while its radio and WiFi gimmick features did nothing to help it.
The Palm Pre has some nice graphics, but the big problem is that it doesn’t offer compatibility with anything, it’s not really any cheaper, and doesn’t do anything novel enough to make up for it. Instead, it not only lacks the ability to run a significant assortment of desirable mobile apps compatible to the iPhone, but it offers no way to ever catch up because it doesn’t run apps at all; it only runs web applets that are limited to the kinds of things you can do in Facebook or Dashboard. No real games, no real apps, just mini widgets that are automatically upgraded as Palm sees fit on the server side. Palm Pre users won’t even have control of their own software.
Competitors and Allies.
Now, I should point out that I’m not anti-Palm just because the Pre is competing against the iPhone, as many will be quick to label me.
Apple desperately needs some real competitive pressure or the company will begin slowing down and get boring, and Palm offers at least a hint at trying to deliver a slick looking alternative, particularly when compared to the monstrously clumsy junk Microsoft is cranking out, or the horrific BlackBerry Storm that RIM excreted, or the random Android mess Google is throwing at the wall to see if it can make something stick somehow, or the Symbian around Nokia’s ankles, or the hopelessness of Motorola and Sony Ericsson. Apple needs a worthy competitor.
But Palm is simply not a credible competitor. That might change if some other company bought it up and did something interesting with the WebOS. The market for smartphones and mobile devices is plenty big enough for Apple to share with several other companies. Apple actually benefits from having multiple vendors competing in the smartphone market, as this keeps a boorish, monotonous, low-end commodity vendor from killing any potential for the creative new products Apple likes to develop.
The real point however, is that Apple is not desperately fearful of Palm. This fiction has been fanned by sensationalist journalists ever since Palm asserted that the Pre was not only certain to eventually ship, but was destined to slay the iPhone. Had it not been for this bit of over the top theater, it’s unlikely that anyone would have even given the deathbed Palm much mention.
Since then, analysts have asked Apple executives leading questions to try to tease out some sort of declaration of war against the Palm Pre, something that Apple has carefully avoided doing. Instead, the company has simply stated that it intends to defend its patented inventions, and avoided any mention of the Pre or any other specific model or company.
The latest on this front has pundits frothing at the prospect of Palm daring to sync its Pre to iTunes, as if Apple is worried that the Palm Pre might help expand the popularity of its music player and sell more music. Really, if you are Apple, are you more worried about a million Palm Pre sales adding a million more iTunes users, or a million sales of something else tied to an iTunes rival?
Instead of worrying that Apple will try to stop Palm from using iTunes, a better question to ask is “what has changed in the last five years that makes Palm desperate to associate its make-or-break phone with iTunes, following years of half-assed Mac support for basic Palm syncing?”
The ridiculous idea that Apple doesn’t want Palm to support its platform for syncing and media sales is even more absurd when viewed with some historical context. Recall that one of the first things Steve Jobs did after returning to Apple was to sell the company’s Claris Organizer to Palm, which resulted in Palm Desktop for Mac.
Apple specifically promoted Palm devices as part of its digital hub. After Palm left its Mac HotSync client software to stagnate, Apple took the initiative to write its own free conduit software for Palm to integrate its devices into Mac OS X’s new syncing architecture. Apple also touted compatibility with a variety of other phones, and worked hard to build seamless USB and Bluetooth data sync into the Mac.
Even as the iPod took off, Apple designed iTunes to work with a variety of music players. It designed Sync Services in Mac OS X as an open platform for third party syncing, enabling support for Windows Mobile, RIM and Symbian devices to upload contacts and calendars. Is Apple really going to be outraged that Palm is using this rather than rolling its own buggy Mac sync client or ignoring the Mac entirely? How ruthlessly absurd.
Is Apple also supposed to be upset that Palm used WebKit to deliver the Pre’s browser rather than continuing to use a terrible pre-iPhone browser that does not contribute to the market share of Apple’s standards-based efforts with Mobile Safari? Perhaps Apple will also be greatly disappointed if Palm’s engineers contribute something toward improving WebKit the way Google and Nokia have. What a drag that would be.
And so it is that an ineffectually weak company has desperately come scratching at Apple’s door to associate itself with the iPhone’s popularity, to access its openly shared technology, and to support Apple’s Mac platform and the use of iTunes; still, the only way the clucking nests of pundits can spin things is to suggest that Apple will do all it can to stomp on Palm, so that the only other surviving companies in the smartphone arena are those that hate the Mac and loathe iTunes.