John Paczkowski

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Pre and Web OS: Longtime Palm Developers Sound Off

Lots of chatter this past week about the Palm Pre and the Web OS on which it runs–most of it overwhelmingly positive, if not euphoric. This may be “the most important handset to be announced in two years,” enthuses Gizmodo. “Palm did what Nokia, RIM, and Microsoft couldn’t,” says Robert Scoble, “build a better experience than Apple.”

Clearly, Palm (PALM) is on the mend. Still, the fact that the company is entering a market characterized by fierce competition and a furious pace of innovation puts it at an enormous disadvantage. Further, to stage a comeback, it needs a thriving developer ecosystem. And by some accounts, Palm’s developer ecosystem is in disrepair.

“The Palm developer ecosystem is in pretty bad shape for a lot of reasons,” says Alexis Hinds, founder of Blue Nomad, developer of award-winning Palm apps like BackupBuddy. “Some of these reasons have to do with Palm, and some do not. A lot changed when [Palm founder] Jeff [Hawkins] and [former Palm CEO] Donna [Dubinsky] left to form Handspring, including how Palm related to developers.”

Ben Gottlieb, founder of Stand Alone software, which has been developing Palm apps since 1997, agrees. “There really isn’t much of a Palm developer ecosystem at this point,” he says. “The handwriting has been on the wall for a year or more that the existing Palm OS was dead. Palm’s been working on its next-generation OS for years, but the lack of any real advances in OS 5 has really told the tale. The Foleo was an intriguing concept, but I think quite a few people were burned by its termination (we were not). I can’t speak for other developers, but I know we’ve looked at the whole Palm/PalmOne/PalmSource/Access relationship more with sorrow than with anger. Obviously they were trying to do right by the platform, but there were too many competing interests and players. Most of the Palm developers I talk to have written Palm off, at least in its current iteration.”

Not exactly the words of an enthusiastic of developer ecosystem, are they?

Have they destroyed much of the developer good will? I’m sure some developers would say yes, others might just shrug. Certainly I don’t think the same level of ‘loyalty’ to the platform is there.”

— Ben Gottlieb, Founder, Stand Alone

And indeed, both Hinds and Gottlieb say that prior to the announcement of the Pre and Web OS, they’d been dialing back emphasis on future Palm OS development and spending more time on iPhone and Google’s (GOOG) Android mobile OS. “The demand just isn’t there, and the market is shrinking fast,” says Gottlieb. “We’ve refocused our efforts on iPhone, and are looking quite intently at Android.”

For its part, Palm may be looking more forward than backward, aiming to attract a new developer base rather than relying heavily on its old one. In any case, neither Hinds nor Gottlieb has written Palm off entirely. “We’re very intrigued by the new Web OS, and will definitely take a closer look when the SDK and devices become available,” says Gottlieb. Hinds says Blue Nomad will port its apps to Web OS if customers adopt the device in any meaningful numbers.

Still, Gottlieb and Hinds both have substantial reservations about the platform’s chances for success in an already crowded market. “I’m not sure the world needs yet another mobile OS,” says Hinds. “I’d have been much more excited if their software stack were running on top of Android. It’s just not clear to me which market segment the Pre is targeting. Watching the keynote, it appeared to be more focused on advanced users of mobile devices, the Web, and social-networking applications. Are there are enough of those people to really sustain Palm in the long run? Is it sufficiently differentiated from the iPhone? I don’t think so,” she adds, noting that that there’s nothing to prevent Apple (AAPL) from copying such Palm innovations as its unified inbox.

Raven Zachary, founder of iPhoneDevCamp, an iPhone advisor, and contributing analyst with The 451 Group agrees. “I think Palm overestimates its opportunity relative to Apple,” he says. “This is not a platform that effectively competes with iPhone. It competes with the other smartphone platforms. With Pre, Palm is back in the game, but not a game with Apple–a game with Google, RIM (RIMM), and Microsoft (MSFT), as a second-tier smartphone platform.”

Which is, of course, a much, much easier game in which to play–and perhaps even for Palm to win. But how? Get the Pre to market fast, promote the hell out of it and do its best to court developers–old and new.

“They need to convince consumers to buy the phones, and developers to write apps,” Hinds quips. “And as far as getting developers on board, I’m sure they will if enough devices are sold. But I don’t think a developer will necessarily start writing for Web OS just because he or she had been previously a Palm developer. And supporting more than two platforms [e.g., iPhone and Android] is very challenging for the smaller developers that drove a lot of the innovation on PalmOS.”

Palm, it should be noted, plans to do all it can to encourage developers to do just that. “Palm OS developers are very important to us,” says Palm spokesperson Lynn Fox. “There are a number of ways to migrate data from an existing PDB file to a new webOS app, and soon we will share more information for developers with Palm OS applications who want to build webOS applications.”

“For the OS to succeed, I think Palm really has to execute quickly,” says Gottlieb. “They’ve shown a stellar product, but if it doesn’t hit the market soon, they’re liable to get equaled or surpassed by other players in the market…well, one player really,” he adds, referring to Apple. “To be honest, we weren’t expecting anything of this level out of Palm. They really hit a home run with the design and architecture of the OS, at least in terms of what’s been disclosed. Last week, I would not have projected a bright future for Palm, but the Pre has a lot of promise.”