Is the Palm OS Dying? Should You Care?

Recently, I was talking to an executive at a smart phone 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 smart phones. 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, AT&T Tilt, LG Electronics Voyager, and other slick smart phones. 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 smart phone 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 rumors 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 smart phone. 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 expressed 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.

That said, Treos and Centros lack some features other smart phones 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 smart phone 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 smart phones still offer a strong mix of features, software, ease of use, and affordability.

People looking to buy their first smart phone or to replace their aging Treo or Windows Mobile Smartphone, might consider the Palm Centro. At $99, it’s one of the best values in smart phones today. We gave the phone a PCW rating of 82 (very good).

If it’s excitement you crave, however, a Palm smart phone is definitely not for you.

Further Reading

Mobile Computing News, Reviews & Tips

First Look at the Dash Express: Dash Navigation’s $400 Dash Express is an innovative portable GPS device that connects to the Internet. The two-way communications via built-in GSM cellular and unencrypted Wi-Fi networks adds a lot of value to the GPS experience, says our reviewer Yardena Arar, who gave the Dash a PCW rating of 90 (superior). You can read excerpts from other reviews at my blog, Traveler 2.0.

Top Nine iPhone 2.0 Rumors: The iPhone rumor mill is grinding away in anticipation of a second-gen iPhone announcement, probably in June. Among the rumors: the next iPhone will support AT&T’s 3G network (this one seems like a slam-dunk), sport a slimmer chassis similar to the current iPod Touch, and feature a 5-megapixel camera. The Best Bluetooth Headsets: Need a way to chat hands free on your cell phone? Aliph’s Jawbone (love the name) recently landed on the number-one spot in our recent roundup of Bluetooth headsets. Jawbone got the thumbs up for its superior comfort, above-average audio quality (it sounds good even in crowds), and good looks. Recent prices started at $70 online.

Contributing Editor James A. Martin offers tools, tips, and product recommendations to help you make the most of computing on the go. Martin is also author of the Traveler 2.0 blog. Sign up to have the Mobile Computing Newsletter e-mailed to you each week.

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