The Mac Webb

How an iPod-Palm Hybrid Could Grow Apple's Market

- 2002.02.07

I am sure I am not the only one who experiences the burning compulsion to regularly purchase new pieces of electronics. For me, the urge comes about every three to six months and burns white hot. Over the last year, I have purchased about 7 computers, 8 PDAs, and countless electronic bits.

I am the ideal market for the services of eBay, which fortunately keeps me from going broke, as one purchase becomes a sale, which leads to another purchase. The exciting piece for me is opening the equipment boxes and the initial work determining how it fits into my lifestyle.

Few of my acquisitions survive the initial play period. Some notable products were my Newton 2100, iPaq, Palm VX, and Rio Volt CD/MP3 player. I can only attribute this behavior to my genetic predisposition as a hunter-gatherer. As I need do very little hunting or gathering to sustain life, I have to find a way to fill that void.

About three months ago, my year old Rio Volt breathed its last breath and went to the great broken parts pile in the sky. This was problematic, as one of my hobbies is listening to Old Time Radio shows from the 30s-70s, and the Volt allowed me to listen to those shows as I fell asleep at night.

In the interim, I used my iPaq as a replacement and found I very much enjoyed using a machine that did not require CD platters. The iPaq option and a 1 GB microdrive allowed me to more elegantly work through my 3000-hour playlists. As I looked at my current electronic gadgets, it became apparent that the iPaq had become an MP3 player and nothing more.

With my workplace's reliance on Lotus Notes (ugh), I was never able to replace my aging Palm as my main PDA. I realized that the iPaq really was underutilized and not the perfect tool for the job. On to eBay to sell my iPaq and look for new options. The new option was the small piece of Apple heaven, the iPod.

A few hours before the Superbowl, I drove the Dallas Apple store and grabbed an iPod. I paid about $20 more than I would have online, but I was happy to finally drive some revenue through the store (my computers were online buys). I rushed home, and in a matter of about 30 minutes I had filled the drive with around 3 GB of radio shows, 1.5 GB of music, and 500 MB of document backups.

For those of you who have not held one, the iPods are a wonderful example of the Apple design sense. Simple to use with a stunning, albeit Spartan, appearance. This machine is a joy to carry and use. They are built around a 5 GB Toshiba PC Card-sized hard drive, a 32 MB cache, and a third party OS. As I examined the machine more, I started to think of other applications for this technology.

I am a PDA evangelist, supporting the idea of digital assistant at every turn. I have used machines from Psion, Palm, Apple, Compaq, HP, LG Electronics, NEC, and countless others. I have used Newton OS, Palm OS, Pocket PC, and Psion OS. In each of these machines I found strengths and flaws. Many of you commented on a previous article I wrote, The Case for the Apple PDA.

To summarize my main points:

  1. Apple users want an Apple branded PDA (we want Newton, but that is a dead horse)
  2. Apple needs a way to reach business users
  3. Palm has a huge installed base in the business market
  4. Palm is hurt by lack of innovation
  5. Palm is financially strapped
  6. Apple should buy Palm and innovate the Palm line, thereby purchasing a market space.

As I rolled the iPod in my hand, I envisioned the current Palm OS and a screen encompassing the entire face of the unit. The iPod controls would be replaced by onscreen controls. The user would have a Palm-based machine with the largest hard drive capacity of any PDA, the ability to play MP3s, and fast synching via FireWire. I know the machine would need other connectivity options (maybe USB 2.0) but let me ignore that for the moment.

Once Apple has reentered the market, they could begin work on the new OS for the Palm organizer. The current problems at Palm revolve around a lack of innovation in the OS. Users of three- and four-year-old machines have no real compelling reason to upgrade, as the OS has remained virtually identical over the last few years. This is an issue that Apple dealt with until the release of OS X. How do we compel users to upgrade when our existing machines were quality designs and our OS is relatively unchanged over time?

Palm has split its OS division in the hopes of saving its corporate life and giving them time for an OS X-type innovation. On a side note, Palm purchased Be Incorporated, so we assume some of the good things from BeOS will survive in the next Palm OS. The big question is whether innovation will come too late to save the Palm as we know it. Apple has the ability to provide a financial cushion and innovative thinking around a market segment they invented prematurely in the late 90s.

Create a unit similar to the fictitious iWalk with a built in acceptance in the enterprise markets. Business users who enjoyed the ubiquity of the Palm OS will begin to buy Palm products from Apple. Apple will add the features they request, while allowing them to continue working with the Palm OS they know and love. Business users owning older Palm-based machines would find themselves working with Apple support and looking to Cupertino for product announcements and updates. They would become part of the family - slowly at first before finally running full stride to the Apple stores.

They will then buy PowerBooks and iMacs, run OS X, and replace Windows NT and midrange servers with OS X Server and dual-processor Power Macs. They will quit buying Office and use AppleWorks, delete Access in favor of FileMaker. Windows sales will drop to all-time lows as users buy more copies of OS X and learn a bit of Unix at the same time. We will no longer support lowest common denominator computing experiences.

Peter Gabriel will reform Genesis, the Texas Rangers will win the World Series, the Dow will break 25,000, we will land on Mars, world hunger will end.

Amazing what can grow from one little MP3 player.

It is good to have a dream. LEM

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