The Palm Paradox

It's been a rough few weeks for the folks at Palm. First false rumors about Palm shutting down production lines, followed by less than stellar results have once again started the usual suspects putting Palm on either some death watch or have them about to be sold to (insert vendor's name here _____). Regarding the second, I don't believe Jon Rubenstein came out of retirement to build a world class product only to have it sold to (insert vendor's name here _____). But with regards to the whole death watch theme, Palm reminds me a lot of TiVo these days. It's not just the death watch meme that's plagued TiVo for years, it's the fact that Palm suffers from their own version of the TiVo paradox.

What's the TiVo paradox? It's a term I coined to explain how hard it is to market the contextual value of features. A distinct conflict existed between consumer understanding of TiVo features and their ability to value the functionality. This was the TiVo paradox. While the purpose of TiVo features was clear and consumers valued features exclusive to TiVo, they don't learn to appreciate the entire package of features until they used them. The net result was a rabid fan base of users who loved and praised the product and other users who couldn't understand the cost of a $500 "digital VCR".

TiVo's features were relevant to the TV viewing experience based on a user's immediate contextual need; the pause and rewind live TV feature is the killer feature for a sports fan, while remote access to the electronic programming guide is key to the busy traveler's DVR experience. Without trying these features, users are unaware of their overall value as they come together as a whole. Want to pause TV when the phone rings? That's the killer app at that moment. Recording a show using an EPG to simply search for it? That's the killer app at that moment. Skipping commercials when you watch recorded content? That's the killer app at that moment. Contextual functionality ONLY comes together when you get to see the whole, not a piece or part. When you see only pieces, you just get a very expensive VCR not a TiVo.

This is exactly the issue I think Palm is having right now.

Palm's features by themselves are not "killer applications". In fact, they look a lot at the surface like most of the other phones that are out there. There are, however, a multitude of features related to things like Synergy that are totally contextual, that at a given moment in time BECOME the killer app for using the device. It's something you see reflected in the base of the webOS user. Those who use webOS are totally fans of the experience and don't discuss issues such as a lack of applications. They focus on the contextual experience that delivers on the notion of mobile social context.

The problem for Palm (as TiVo learned) is this is a nasty marketing problem since there's no good way to get the message across in 30 seconds. It's important for Palm to start focusing it's marketing on getting the message of mobile social context out there; at the same time Palm needs a better way to leverage the fan base that make up webOS users, since those are the folks who have made the leap of faith and for whom the light bulb has already lit up. I don't think Palm is anywhere close to being down and out but they need to re-think how to tell a great story of engineering and technical achievement and break the Palm Paradox.