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Palm is coming back in the most disappointing way possible

There was a phrase that exemplified Palm devices back in the day: the Zen of Palm. Get the hardware and software out of the way to make everyday tasks quick and simple. I think about it every time I get frustrated trying to edit an alarm on an iPhone.

TCL's held the defunct Palm brand for several years, but to what end? The leak of a new Palm phone was a surprise in more ways than one.

First, some history...

Palm holds a special place in my heart, and for many old mobile tech nerds. Palm OS was the basis on which Mobile Nations was founded nearly two decades ago.

My introduction to Palm came in 1999 when my father got a Palm Vx PDA. I had Palm Treo smartphones years before the iPhone or Android and immediately hopped on the Palm webOS bandwagon in 2009. It was a graceful and intuitive interpretation of the modern smartphone that made early iPhones and Android seem clunky.

Multitasking app cards? Gesture interface navigation? Web-based apps?webOS, all of it.

The multitasking cards and swipe gestures of Android 9.0 Pie and the iPhone X were established a decade ago by webOS. Web tech app platforms like Proton and PWA are a concept that webOS pioneered. I'm delighted that the spirit of webOS lives on across mobile tech.

Palm and BlackBerry were overwhelmed by iOS and Android. BlackBerry made some tremendously bad bets, but survives today making security software and services, and licenses their brand (today's BlackBerry phones are made by TCL and Optiemus), Palm's story is sadder. webOS was a tech media darling, even though the Pre hardware was fragile and anemic. It launched on 3rd-place Sprint and people still lined up to buy it on day one.

Drowning in unsold inventory after Verizon scuttled a marketing deal in favor of Motorola's Droid, Palm was saved by a $1.2 billion acquisition by HP. A promise of heavy investment bore fruit a year later with the TouchPad tablet, the tiny Veer smartphone, and the Pre3 — the phone fans were waiting for. There were even plans to integrate webOS onto millions of HP PCs.

The HP Pre3 — the short-lived phone that gave webOS the hardware it deserved.

The HP Pre3 — the short-lived phone that gave webOS the hardware it deserved.

But... a change in HP's leadership sapped support for webOS. The new CEO, Léo Apotheker, wasn't wrong that building webOS into a competitive and profitable platform would take much more investment than the already profitable HP Enterprise business. The TouchPad wasn't a huge seller at launch and Apotheker quickly shuttered the webOS operation.

tl;dr: webOS was great, Verizon screwed Palm, HP saved Palm, HP screwed Palm and sold it for scrap.

It was one of the dumbest moves in tech history, right up there with Yahoo's failure to buy Google, or Kodak burying their digital photography tech to protect their film business. The young smartphone market could've supported a third ecosystem, but HP cared more about IT services.

HP worked to open source webOS, and LG bought the remaining webOS engineers and assets. webOS lives on today as excellent LG smart TV software.

HP's surprise 2014 sale of the Palm brand to TCL was a hint of what was to come. TCL was contracted to build BlackBerry's Android phones, then flipped the arrangement and licensed the BlackBerry brand.

Resurrection

TCL's teased Palm occasionally through the years, and in early 2018 committed to new Palm devices. It was welcome news for Palm fans — TCL has manufacturing expertise and scale, global carrier partnerships, and has made excellent phones like the Alcatel Idol 4 and BlackBerry Key2.

Good brands are hard. Established brands with positive history are harder. There's a reason TCL spent millions for rights to the BlackBerry name; same with HMD Global for the Nokia name. Even trusted old Kodak is still licensed and slapped on all manner of garbage.

BlackBerry and Nokia got well-deserved second acts. According to the latest leaks, TCL is giving Palm the opposite. A new Palm phone is coming to Verizon — it's a tiny thing running customized Android on bare-bones specs. Very little about it evokes the Palm that I knew and loved. It looks like a shrunken iPhone X running Apple Watch software.

What in the...

What in the...

There's a market for small phones, for simple phones, and for cheap phones. None of that's offensive; today you can make a phone that is all those things and doesn't suck.

Palm's phones packed state-of-the-art software and hardware. This "Pepito" has a pitiful processor and memory with barely adequate storage behind a tiny display. Android 8.1 Oreo isn't bad, but the glimpse of the Pepito's simplified Android interface is disappointing. Google and Apple have finally caught up to and surpassed most webOS features with Android 9 and iOS 12. I'm fine with that — webOS doesn't need to return.

What TCL is doing with the Palm brand is the opposite of what most fans would want. An underpowered mini-phone is on few wishlists. Are today's phones big — perhaps too big? Sure. But a 3.3-inch 720p LCD display with a pathetic 800mAh battery is not the answer.

The window for a high-end Palm resurrection may have passed, as crushing as that realization may be.

All of Palm's webOS phones were compact, but they didn't lack oomph. TCL's Pepito offers a screen that's barely bigger (3.3 inches) than the decade-old Pre (3.1 inches) — but the Pre at least had a slide-out physical keyboard.

I'll give TCL credit: they're doing something different. The Pepito isn't yet another big-screen slab Android phone. Anybody can do that — TCL does that with their Alcatel brand, so does Samsung, LG, OnePlus, Google, and everybody else. The market for keyboard phones is small and TCL's BlackBerry will sell you one if that's your thing. There's even precedent for small Palm phones — the HP Veer was adorably tiny in 2011 and is even more so today.

From daydream to nightmare

During the launch of another enormous Samsung Galaxy Note, I thought about TCL and Palm. They could use their BlackBerry keyboard expertise to make a modern slider with the comfortable organic curves of a Palm phone. Running Android Pie, it'd be basically a modern descendent of the Pre. Throw in a high-end processor and quality cameras and you'd have one heck of a phone.

The Pepito crushed that dream. Hard.

I know the market for my dream phone is small, as is the cadre of loyal Palm fans. The window for a high-end Palm resurrection may have passed — OnePlus filled that void with smartly-designed phones with top-shelf specs and a minimalist approach to Android.

TCL's new Palm is not for Palm's old fans. It's not trying in vain for a sliver of the high-end market. It's not even an attempt to recapture the Zen of Palm. It's a brand that TCL bought without a plan, so they're putting it on a phone for Verizon customers that have complained that today's phones are too expensive, too big, and too complicated. It's an Android-powered Jitterbug.

The Palm I loved is gone. The Palm I want will never be. The Palm we're getting is a massive disappointment.

Derek Kessler is Special Projects Manager for Mobile Nations. He's been writing about tech since 2009, has far more phones than is considered humane, still carries a torch for Palm (the old one), and got a Tesla because it was the biggest gadget he could find. You can follow him on Twitter at @derekakessler.

29 Comments
  • This is a shame. I was a Palm guy at the beginning, way before the phones. There were many poor business decisions, and corporate idiots, that killed Palm. I would love a smaller phone. I currently have a Samsung Galaxy S7, and it's at the absolute max limit for phone size. I got a huge laugh out of the article that was linked in this post for the best small phone, Pixel 2? S9?, what a bunch of crap. I have a Droid Mini that I would still use if it had updated software. This is a sad end to a brand that defined what a smartphone is...
  • I hear you on the "small phone" front. If you haven't given the Xperia ____ Compact phone series a try, they do a nice job of offering sub-5" screens with flagship specs.
  • A great read as always, Derek. I hope you hop on this week's podcast. It's a heartbreaking situation. If this new phone had a bigger battery and mid-range specs, I'd be alllllllll over it. The Pre and Pre2 won me over for <4" phones, and I still miss them today. I just don't think I could ask a Snapdragon 435 to do all of the things I need a smartphone to do.
  • I hate to break this to you but Palm killed Palm. They were DOA well before HP got their hands on them. Well before Verizon. They died in aprox 2003 when I watched the CEO of the month stand on stage at CES and tell everyone no one wants color, audio, or a real filesystem on their PDA. Meanwhile, the Pocket PC was starting to really take off. By the time they realized that a modern OS was critical for their survival they had flipped CEO's at least 4 times. (No really I was joking a lot about the CEO of the month. Anytime you chang out CEO's every few quarters or per year this WILL cause issues.) And had lost a good chunk of their development team. WebOS was too little too late, and was a buggy mess. I remember my personal fav bug on my Pre.....the thing couldn't keep track of time. For a device who is always connected to a cell network. How the hell did that happen? Answer: Not enough resources for development and QA.
    Palm died becasue the management didn't have the forsignt to see where the market was going and adabt. This is where Blackberry is heading as well at least they are trying to do something about it with using Android. Too bad all their hardware is anemic.
  • Spot on Derek.
  • I was really looking forward to seeing the new Palm device from TCL. Huge disappointment to see this piece of junk. They clearly have no idea what to do with the Palm brand.
  • Maybe Handspring will relaunch! That's what got me started!
  • We've been holding on to VisorCentral.com for this very moment!
  • Love hearing from you, Derek. Reminds me of the Pre Central days (and that memorable picture of Leo's cranium hinged open to reveal nothing but it's fleeing sole occupant). You've said everything I was thinking. Viva la Palm! Overclocking forever!
  • +1!
  • Made me think of the movie BACK TO THE FUTURE. The specs of this phone WILL scare Apple- back in 2007.
  • Massive disappointment is right.
    Still have the Palm T3 and M505 on my desk, charged and working. The T3 was my workhorse until I went smartphone, and the M505 was a present from a friend for the sake of nostalgia. Interestingly, the T3 had a higher screen resolution than early iPhones, and it had a front facing speaker, headphone jack, and higher playback quality than the first couple gens of iPhones.
  • I think this is a pretty good article, with one major exception: the WebOS interface is NOT excellent on LG television. I would think that this would be obvious to anyone attuned to tech. WebOS is a mobile operating system that was designed, first and foremost, for TOUCH. Slapping this OS and user interface on a television is remarkably dumb, because you don't interact with your TV by making physical contact with the screen/interface. The net result of WebOS on LG TVs is that users are required to make multiple "clicks" on multiple parts of the interface to get even the simplest things done. For example, consider increasing and decreasing Contrast. When you navigate to this setting, you are presented a slider, with an "down" arrow on the left side, a progress bar and thumb in the middle, and an "up" arrow on the right side. So, if you're looking to increase Contrast, you click the Up arrow. But if you go too far and need to back down, you need to move all the way to the OTHER SIDE OF THE SCREEN to click the Down arrow. In what way can this be considered excellent, or even better than the conventional process of clicking adjacent buttons on a remote control? It can't, because it's not. The Brits have a saying for this sort of engineering -- too clever by half.
  • How I miss Web OS... *Sigh*
  • Moment of silence, please. Everyone sweep a card off to the right in their mind as a tribute to this wonderful OS.
  • *pulls out FrankenPre2 and Pre3 from the drawer and swipes a card off of each in remembrance of his beloved webOS.
  • I had a Palm IIIc, and my first Android helped revive a lot of what I missed on the IIIc. But putting the "Palm" brand on an Android isn't going to get me to look. Especially in this implementation.
  • I'd jump on a smaller android stylus phone that included faithful copies of the the Palm pims and other features like graffiti and the shortcut stroke. Modern generations of phones have so much software and hardware power but continue to ignore the base efficiency of the ui and many apps. Too many extra taps and extra screens needed for certain tasks vs what was Palmos required. Note phones have been particularly disappointing because of the reliance on certain stock features and apps. My original TX was the last Palm I purchased while Palm was still in business. I've since replaced it and have even acquired a T2 and T3. I never took to the Pre tried as a pda. I still use my Note 4 but it's quicker to use paper for a lot of tasks. I'm curious if an 8 or 9 offer enough of what I'm looking for to mitigate their size and cost. My Xperia X compact hurt my eyes, so I picked up an iphone 6s since I use my ipod touch a lot. The bezels and case don't make the 6s pocketable, so I might drop down to the 4" SE. I can deal with the small screens because I prefer my music on my little sansas and have larger phone and tabs for vids and long documents.
  • I was leaning towards the Note 9 but thinking I might keep my iPhone for another year or two. The prices are really becoming unconscionable to me. They’ve pushed it way too high. You can buy a budget gaming laptop for the price of these phones, now, which will blow it away in every way while a cheaper device still overpowers much of that you do on a smart device. Plus, Samsung takes like 6 months to push out new OS versions, and doesn’t really backport features well like Apple. The bad software support really makes it a bad value for $1,000-1,250 investment. Phone looks amazing, but I don’t trust the company behind it. Pixel XL looks awful with that XL-sized notch. Plus, it would be nice to downgrade to something smaller like a smaller iPhone - if only they’d up the screen resolution on those.
  • Palm could never design a decent phone. That’s why they failed.
  • We need WebOS on a phone , it was ahead of it's time .
    Bad marketing , not enough phones at launch , to long a wait period for back orders , phone never got away from the slider and physical keyboard.
    WebOS still the best OS system and wish someone would start creating apps for open source and then open source on a LG phone and convert it to web OS .
    Apps
    Facebook
    Hulu
    Netflix
    Twitter
    major ones to start
  • Hmmm. Sad story. On the other hand: will LuneOS or some other WebOS spin off run on that phone?
  • I've never used or really known much about Palm before but i actually really like the look of this little thing. i think it could make an excellent back up phone to a main powerhouse phone. I like the cutesy look and if it does go for a applewatch style interface it could be something really interesting.
  • Agreed on all counts, Derek. As a former Palm and Handspring fanboy and WebOS app developer, this is very disappointing. Just let Palm die in peace and let the WebOS spirit continue in LG TVs.
  • Sad. I'd buy a well spec'd Palm phone. Perhaps with a stylus running a new version of Graffiti. I like the idea of a smaller phone, too, but not with crap specs.
  • All of this, Derek. I was excited for half a second, but...
  • What? How was webOS superior to iOS back in the day? webOS was an answer to iOS and let's be honest, a lot of things in webOS were borrowed from iOS.
  • I still miss Graffiti. I find it incredible that a smartphone to date has not offered an updated and easy script-to-text option. Writing an editable document--albeit using a custom scripting method--was easier almost 20 years ago than it is today. Once you learned Graffiti that was breeze. Beats even today's Galaxy Note 9! I am almost sure that the market for this feature beats out the people clamoring for five cameras. How many smartphone users you think are motivated by an f1.7 lens over an f2.2 option?
    [Palm V; Palm Treo 680]
  • sigh...
    I had a Palm Pilot Pro and MANY other Palm devices through the Original Pre.
    I loved the company, I loved WebOS. I hope Leo A. is happy with himself for KILLING a great brand. Because, that's what he did. He killed a brand.
    I currently use an LG V30, but the idea of having a smaller phone with great battery life could be fantastic.
    It REALLY seems they missed the mark.
    That makes me sad. To be honest, us Palm fans would have been happier not knowing this existed.