Update from the Front Lines: Palm, Android, and Other Platforms

deskmenageriecloseAlthough iPhone, Windows Mobile, and BlackBerry get the most attention around here lately, we keep a close watch on the other mobile platforms. Personally, I think this is an exceptionally exciting time for our industry. The smartphone (which frankly is just an old school PDA with a phone built in) has really come into its own. People really care about these devices, and more and more people feel like they have to have one!

As an example of how much a part of the public conciousness these devices have become, I offer up the latest “cardboard drink cozies” from Starbucks – you know, those little cardboard sleeves that keep you from burning the skin off your hand when you get your drink. Their most recent sleeve has the following statement on it:

The only handheld device you’ll ever need.

This might not seem like a big deal to most folks, but to me it’s huge. Three, even two years ago, when people asked me what I did I’d say “We write software for handheld devices.” The answer was invariably “For handheld what?” Most people didn’t know what the heck a “handheld device” was. But just a few years later, the term is so common place that Starbucks can use it without explanation.

With my long winded intro complete, I’m going to take a few minutes today to talk about these other platforms and share my opinions of them. If you’re interested, read on after the jump!

Palm Is Dead, Long Live Palm!

I’ll start with Palm since they’re getting a lot of press lately. Obviously Palm OS has struggled for the past couple of years. As someone so aptly pointed out on another blog, when Palm announced that they were discounting the OS, they didn’t kill Palm OS – they unplugged the life support. What does that mean for Ilium Software? Well, it probably means you aren’t going to see new versions of our software for Palm OS. Most Palm OS folks have either jumped to the iPhone or are planning to jump to the Pre. As a result, it’ll be a tough case to sell to my bosses that investing in Palm OS makes sense. Whatever we decide, we’ll still sell our Palm OS titles. The Centro is doing pretty well and we don’t want to leave folks hanging.

As for the Pre, I have high hopes for it. Assuming it does well and turns out to be a strong platform for software, there is a good chance we’ll support it. The biggest challenge right now is that there is SO little solid information about it. That might change with the webcast we’re attending this afternoon, but if it doesn’t we’ll be about where we were – a “wait and see and hope for a winner!” stance. Go Palm! In the meantime, when the eWallet Web Companion goes live it may prove a good solution for the Pre.

Android

I love the idea of the Android. Unfortunately, the reality has been a much smaller splash in the market than I would have hoped for. I also have concerns about some of the decisions Google has made on this one. My first concern is their store – I’m all for developer freedom, but apparently I’m the ONLY person in the world who remembers PalmGear. At one point PalmGear had tens of thousands of applications. It was an ocean of apps. You’d do a search and come up with a couple hundred results. Trying to find an app among the clutter of “basement workshop freebies” was nearly impossible. PalmGear fixed this eventually, but if the iTunes AppStore is already looking a little like this with all their restrictions, imagine a store where you remove the floodgates.

My second concern is the openness of the OS. First, OEMs can tweak the OS. That’s pretty cool for the OEM but nightmarish for developers. At Palm’s height they offered similar customization options to OEMs. We had around a dozen Palm devices and had to test every app fully on every device. We also had to buy new devices all the time. And no, emulators don’t help – they never behave exactly like the device. We were constantly fixing “device specific” bugs.

Third, as I understand it, it is relatively easy for an application to muck about with various aspects of the OS and other apps. At one point, on Pocket PC, there were some exceptionally useful applications that I call “interface altering apps”. A popular one was WisBar. Although useful, these apps fundamentally changed the way the controls on the device worked. If they didn’t make the changes properly, software written to work on the OS would run into problems when these apps altered the standard OS behavior. We were constantly explaining “No, our app is working – but your other software changed the device – our software is written for Windows Mobile, not for Windows Mobile Customized by WisBar.” I’m very concerned that Android is a breeding ground for this sort of thing and there is some evidence that this is already happening.

So like the Pre, we’re still in a wait and see mode. Also like the Pre, there is a strong chance that the eWallet Web Companion will serve as a good solution for the Android.

Symbian

I figured I would mention Symbian since we still get asked about it sometimes. The problem with Symbian is that historically, Symbian users don’t actually buy software. That’s kind of a huge show stopper for us. Again, the Web Companion does work on Symbian so for those folks who HAVE to switch over to this platform, hopefully we can give them a viable solution.

So there you have it!

More of my opinions on mobile devices than you probably wanted! Hopefully it will help folks to better understand where we stand on the different platforms, and what to expect in the future!

- Marc

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