Saturday, September 08, 2007

The Case of the Subpar Smartphone

Published: September 8, 2007

My Treo died.

It happened about three weeks ago, and I can’t say I didn’t see it coming. I bought a Treo 700p in early January and have had buyer’s remorse pretty much ever since.

The 700p, of course, is a member of the Palm smartphone family; it’s the one that uses the Palm operating system (the 700w uses Windows). I chose it because I was a longtime user of the Palm Pilot, and had all my data already stored on the Palm application on my computer. In other words, it was the kind of completely rational technology decision we nongeeks tend to make — and then, sadly, come to regret.

Practically out of the box, my Treo froze on a regular basis. I could never get my Gmail account to sync with the Treo, and had to use the Web to retrieve e-mail — which required the patience of Job. It had all sorts of weird glitches: sometimes it raced around the menu while I watched helplessly; at other times, it would switch from one application to another for no reason. It would ring randomly. By June, it was shutting down completely two or three times a week, even in the middle of phone calls, and then powering back up again.

Maybe, I thought, I’m just unlucky. Maybe I’ve bought a lemon, in which case I should try to get my carrier, Verizon Wireless, to replace it. You know how it is, though: life kept getting in the way, and I never got around to it.

But I also think my avoidance was due to a darker, more painful thought: maybe Treos were simply lousy devices. Maybe I should never have believed The Wall Street Journal’s technology guru, Walt Mossberg, who wrote in early 2006 that “Palm’s Treo smartphones have been the best high-end cellphones on the market, with the finest combination of voice, e-mail and Web-browsing capabilities in a hand-held device.” Maybe I was a fool to assume, as I clearly had, that just because Palm had once made great products, it was still making great products.

Then my Treo died, and that gave me my answer. What killed it was, of all things, a software upgrade from Palm. I had finally gotten around to trying to get the 700p replaced, but Verizon Wireless insisted that I try Palm’s newly issued upgrade first, to see if that solved the problem. Instead the new software destroyed the phone; indeed, within a week, the upgrade had been withdrawn, with Palm posting a quasi-apology on its Web site promising a new upgrade that would fix the severe problems the previous one had caused.

We won’t dwell on what happened next because I’m still trying to eradicate it from my memory: the refusal of Verizon Wireless to replace the phone in a store, even though it was under warranty, causing me to have to buy a new one, at full price, in order to not be phoneless. When my “real” new phone arrived a week later in the mail, I then returned the temporary phone to Verizon for a full refund (this maneuver, by the way, was suggested by a Verizon Wireless technician). Then came the hours of working with the valiant Verizon technical support guy, as he struggled to get my Treo up and running. There was the software that refused to work. The continued difficulty of synching with Gmail. The “soft resets.” The frustration. The constant refrain of “Let’s try that again.” And finally, after everything was more or less up and running, the painful realization that the new phone was almost as problematic as the old one had been.

And as I’ve since learned, I’m hardly alone in this view. Read the chat about the Treo on the Internet; it’s brutal. “I have been disgusted with Palm,” wrote one angry consumer. “The Treo product line has become increasingly unreliable and unremarkable,” wrote another. In the words of Ryan Block, the editor of the consumer electronics Web site,“Palm has lost its way.” Who knew?

Before going any further, it’s worth pointing out something that nobody ever bothers to tell us nongeeks. It’s hard to make a good smartphone — so hard, in fact, that no one really has it right yet. BlackBerrys are great at e-mail, but the phone is barely adequate and its Internet abilities are not very good at all. The Motorola Q crashes almost as often as the Treo. The Apple iPhone is terrific for music and media, but lousy for e-mail and phoning.

Part of the reason has to do with what’s called the “form factor.” For marketing reasons, everybody is trying to cram all these complicated features into ever-sleeker, ever-thinner boxes, while also adding longer battery life, and so on. Invariably, smart phone designers have to make compromises that mean some functions don’t work especially well.

Part of the reason, also, is that with the possible exception of the Swiss Army Knife, products that combine functions tend to disappoint. “Take the toaster oven,” said Larry Keeley, the president of the industrial design firm Doblin Inc. “It tries to be an oven and a toaster, but it’s an unsatisfying product. You’d rather have a great toaster.” That is why so many businesspeople, especially, use the BlackBerry for e-mail — but still own a separate cellphone for telephone calls.

Finally, there is the question of a company’s heritage. All the big smartphone companies are coming at the device from a different starting point. Motorola has its roots in cellphones; not surprisingly, that’s what works best on the Motorola Q. Apple has the iPod and computing in its heritage, so it does music and media really well. BlackBerry began as a mobile e-mail company, which is why its e-mail is so much better than everybody else’s.

Palm’s heritage is that it practically invented the hand-held device with its original Palm Pilot — and in that one fact lies both the root of the company’s problems and the explanation for what’s keeping it afloat today. On the one hand, believe it or not, the company is still using the same operating system it used when it was churning out Palm Pilot, which, please recall, had no Internet, no e-mail and no telephone.

No wonder my machine is so unstable. You can’t just keep piling new features on top of an outmoded operating system and not expect to have big problems. (Just ask Microsoft.) When I asked around among the technology cognoscenti, the general consensus was that Palm had been so far out in front in the hand-held business that it became trapped by its own success, and had, in the process, gotten sloppy and arrogant. And now it was paying the price.

On the other hand — and this is what is keeping Palm afloat — saps like me, not knowing any better, keep buying the wretched thing. It is a remarkable illustration of the power of brands. Maybe, if my due diligence had gone beyond reading Mr. Mossberg, I might have realized that the Treo was far more trouble than it was worth. But I was equally trapped by the fact that I had Palm as part of my personal infrastructure, and sticking with Palm meant that I wouldn’t have to start from scratch, re-entering my data by hand. (Note to technology experts: please don’t tell me how easy it to “port” data. For most of us, that kind of thing always turns out to be way too hard.) So when I was ready to buy a smartphone, I assumed that Palm still knew what it was doing — because if that were indeed the case, it would make my life a little easier. In other words, it was a belief that grew out of convenience, not fact.

That is also why so many consumers are now so furious at Palm. Once they saw how poorly the Treo worked, they felt foolish for having believed in Palm. And many of them have vowed never to make the same mistake again. In time, if enough people start to feel that way, there is not going to be a Palm. The company is running out of time.

The only real glimmer of hope is that Palm, at long last, seems to have realized what dire straits it is in. Not long ago, the smart guys over at Elevation Partners made a deal to take a 25 percent stake in the company. Once the deal is approved in a few weeks, Elevation Partners will get a handful of board seats, with one of them going to Apple’s former chief financial officer, Fred Anderson. Jon Rubenstein, who ran Apple’s iPod division from 2004 to 2006, will take charge of product development.

Just this week, Palm announced that it was canceling a new product called the Foleo, a misguided, and widely mocked, effort to create a “tweener” device — something in between a laptop and a hand-held. Instead, it is refocusing its efforts on coming up with a next-generation operating system. Better late than never.

Smartphones today account for fewer than 5 percent of the 1.1 billion cellphones sold annually. Clearly, over the next few years, that percentage is going to rise sharply; in theory, the smartphone just has too much utility not to succeed. Eventually, some company is going to get it right, and the smartphones will ultimately be akin to the Swiss Army Knife — the rare combo product that works.

And maybe, just maybe, that company will be a newly refocused Palm. But I’ll be long gone by then. Under my contract with Verizon Wireless, I’ll be eligible to get a new phone, at a substantial discount, in five more months.

I can’t wait.


Anonymous said...

you should read discussion forums on the 700p. There are LOADS of people. I myself have launched a BBB Complaint to them and got dialogue with them to talk about some of these issues. Im sorta glad that it spurred them in the right direction. But for me its too little too late. And I am on my 4th 700P From verizon

Anonymous said...

It is a great article....I wonder if VERIZON is going to pull their full page adverts from the NEW YORK TIMES.I bet not.....Over the years I given both VERIZON and PALM headaches with my complaints to the FCC and BBB and calling their headquarters and bitchin at their reps...I am what's known as a pain in the ass....their ass.

Anonymous said...

I know several people who have had their $600 Iphones crash...Palms new phone the is going to knock the cover off the ball.

D said...

Dude- Just buy an HTC Trinity. Smartest phone I've ever had. Look on Ebay for P-3600. Or go to

Anonymous said...

I am also a long time Palm user.I now have a Treo 755P that works great. It did take the Sprint folks a while to get it going but that was a problem with their service still acknowledging the old phone (a Treo 600). The user reviews I read before purchasing were very positive.

Anonymous said...

I thought this article was about me when I read it. Describes me and my Treo exactly. Laughed my ass off. I upgraded from the Treo 600 to the 700P, even though I knew the iPhone was coming out. Figured the iPhone was just too new. I may go back to carrying multiple devices.

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