How Palm will screw up the Pre, part I

Or, “How the Pre will not save Palm”.
Or, “How the Pre was dead before it started.”
Or, “How the Pre was unfortunately conceived of by Palm, Inc.”

Palm, Inc. has been on the proverbial corporate respirator for a really, really, long time. We all remember the days when it was just the Pilot 1000 and U.S. Robotics, and they were the only game in town for personal, portable, and usable.

Fast forward through 3Com, licensing of the OS, Handspring, the Palm spinoff, and a raft of Clie’s, Treo’s, Tungsten’s. The invention of Graffiti, the lawsuits around Graffiti, and then the other skirmish v. Microsoft because of the word “Palm”.

Then the acquisition of Handspring, the spinoff of PalmSource, the absorption of Be, the integration as palmOne, and then the rebranding as Palm, Inc.. Whew.

Do you get the feeling that The Powers That Be spent a lot of time on licensing, restructuring, and trying (in vain) to find their way, all the while basically forgetting to work on making cool, usable stuff? Or, really, releasing new product? Oh, the Palm Foleo? Yeah, you get my point. Combine their history of incompetence, and you begin to think, really, has any company needed their yet-to-be-launched product to succeed more than Palm needs the Pre?

So how can they screw this up? The Pre looks to be cool technology, but Palm has taken their stupendous lead in the handheld market from 1996 and turned itself into a washed-up has-been, watching  iPhone, Windows Mobile, Blackberry, and even Android pretty much take their lunch money. I anticipate this to be a flop for Palm, and I expect it to go down in style.

So here it is, in no particular order, the first installment of “Ways in which Palm will mess this all up”:

1. The idiotic launch date.

Palm’s decision to “launch” the Pre (and I say “launch” in quotes because everyone knows everything about this handset and even the Sprint service — there are no surprises here, or even anticipation, really) on the Saturday (huh? weekend?) before the Monday of the industry’s most anticipated launch party, Apple’s WWDC. How can this timing be a good idea? Even if the Pre is the best product in the world — and I mean can slice cheese, do your laundry, brew beer, and get you dates — the press and the blogosphere will have a grand total of about 48 hours to tell us about it. On a weekend. That’s if they had anything new to say about it. Really, it’ll just be bloggers with endless unboxing videos. Everyone else has already seen the pictures, watched the videos, and read the reviews from the professionals. No minds get changed with the “launch”. There won’t be 2-month-long lines outside Sprint stores for the Pre.

Even if WWDC is a huge flop, the press will still be obligated to cover it. All that news (postitive or negative, but really just 227 unboxing videos) about the Pre? Lost below the fold Monday morning. Hell, I’ll take the bet that if WWDC doesn’t announce a single new product idea, even if Apple comes out and shows YouTube videos on the screen for 3 hours as as keynote and doesn’t even get John Mayer to play live, the coverage will be ten times that of the Pre. Sorry, Palm, the Apple PR juggernaut will not be derailed by your Saturday “launch”.

The only logical reason I can understand for the timing is so that Palm has a half-decent excuse when their sales figures are disappointingly low and the “shortages” of Pre devices lasts about 3 hours. My bet? No more shortages, oh, about 11:15AM PST Monday morning. The first article with a quote from a Palm employee blaming the WWDC shadow for lagging Pre interest on about June 19.

They realized that they showed their hands too early to get a stock price bump, and that any wave of enthusiasm has run out. There is no surprise, there is no pent-up demand. There is only the stark reality that this is just another smartphone competing in a ever-crowded segment. No lifestyle upsell like Apple, no suit-and-tie corporate backing like Blackberry or Windows Mobile. Just a decent piece of technology on a languishing carrier (Sprint) without any applications. Just like the others, except without the existing codebase, userbase, and application store. Nope, just the last gasp from a dead company.

So yeah, I’d launch as close to WWDC as possible. “Look, it wasn’t our fault. Who knew that Apple would launch a new generation of iPhone/iTablet/iMac/MacBook? Why don’t you love us? It isn’t our fault. It isn’t our fault.” Somehow, I don’t think that will resonate with shareholders.

2. Palm, Inc. stole some intellectual property for the Pre and will get sued for it on June 8.

I thought this up at a bar with some of my former students. Sounds like a plausible way Palm would get the wind knocked out of their biggest product launch in ages, right? The story goes something like this:

Somewhere in the mess of acquisitions, licensing, and spinoffs, Palm engineers “borrow” some piece of technology for their core webOS without permission. A total D-League move for sure, but hey, these engineers didn’t think they would actually make product launch (see Palm OS Cobalt). And to make matters worse, it’ll be something a bit obvious, and it will be owned by a huge player. Say, like Cisco, Microsoft, or even Apple. It’ll be something core to the operating system, like pinch zooming or how they handle device rotation, and definitely core the experience. Either way, it’ll be a huge blow because Company X will have been sitting on their hands until they decide to knock them out with a lawsuit a couple days after launch.

But, in true Palm fashion, they get the sucker punch first, then the left hook next. The lawsuit will break after the WWDC keynote, and we will realize that Apple will have made a big deal about the partnership with Company X. Oh yeah. This is how it should go down. Hell, Company X should be Apple itself. I can see it already. The WWDC keynote showcases some interaction that Palm touted two days prior, followed by a picture of the granted patent application for Apple. As Jobs would say, “Boom!”

3. The Sprint customer service kills it all.

Not exactly in their hands, but still their doing, Sprint becomes the weakest link. In the best case, Sprint is hit hard by the surge in demand for the Pre. Sprint employees, being Sprint employees, can’t handle the demand and are completely crushed. In-store customers get bogged down in up-sells and spend 2 hours trying to activate their phones. Actual lines form at stores, but not because the phones are in such demand. Combine this with the incompetent online ordering system and the unique ability of Sprint to get your plan completely wrong even with a form submitted via the Internet, we start to see picture of a horrible first-time-buyer experience. Delayed orders, data plans not attached to rate plans, botched number port-ins. Egads. You can’t trust Sprint to handle their existing customers. If they get a bunch in one morning, God help them.

And that’s the best case.

… more to come.

Got some ideas? Leave ‘em in the comments.

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