Palm’s glimmer of hope

July 15, 2008, 2:49 PM UTC
The new Palm 800w. Image: Palm

At the end of the campy old Batman TV show, the one with Adam West, you could often count on a cliffhanger where some ne’er-do-well was moments away from offing the caped crusader, by dropping him into a vat of bubbling acid or setting him on a conveyor belt bound for the blades of death. It’s a decent metaphor for the predicament Palm finds itself in these days, only in the merciless technology world there’s no guaranteeing a last-minute escape.

Like TV land’s caped crusader, Palm is running out of time. While its Treo once made it the leader in the smartphone category, it has been eclipsed by Research in Motion and now Apple , whose iPhone 3G recently sold 1 million units in a single weekend. Palm, meanwhile, hasn’t done much interesting with its hardware or software in quite some time. Instead of releasing innovative products over the past few years, the company has slimmed the Treo by a few millimeters, eliminated the antenna stub, rearranged some buttons on the face of the device, and passed it off as new. Customers by and large haven’t been impressed; aside from the bargain-priced Centro, none of the Palm designs have made much of a splash. Palm executives now say bold new devices will arrive in the first half of next year – but how many BlackBerry Thunders will have sold by then, and how many iPhones? Will phones running Google’s Android software beat Palm’s new wares to market? Will next year be too late?

Perhaps. But for those who still hold out hope for Palm (and you can count this longtime Treo user in that number), the company has proven hard to kill, despite its many self-inflicted wounds. Monday’s announcement offered fresh evidence of the company’s verve: the Treo 800w.

True to form, the 800w looks about like you’d expect – similar to the Treo 600 design Palm released five years ago. To be fair, the 800w is better looking; slimmer, higher-resolution screen, etc. But the best thing about the device is its nuts-and-bolts specs. It runs Windows Mobile 6.1, a critically acclaimed update to Microsoft’s business-targeted software. It is the first smartphone to run on Sprint’s high-speed EVDO Rev.A data network, and offers GPS, WiFi and other goodies for $250. (Yes, it costs more than an iPhone; but companies that are standardizing on Windows Mobile software won’t care.) Though the Treo 800w looks like a perfectly capable device, it’s hard to imagine it will do much more than offer the company a glimmer of hope until it can get something truly innovative out the door.

Let’s hope that happens in a few months, as the company has promised. With a fresh team of executives including former iPod division chief Jon Rubinstein and Sidekick software designer Matias Duarte, Palm certainly has the talent to mount a comeback. But will that be enough to save the company? Tune in next year to find out.