A History of Palm, Part 5: The End and the Post Mortem

Palm had started as a software company that decided to make its own PDA because nobody else saw what Palm’s founders did. Palm dominated the PDA world and was one of the strongest players in the smartphone realm as well. So what went wrong?

Palm Lost Its Way

To put it simply, Palm got it right when it went into the PDA business, because it’s very nice Graffiti software was not at its best when running on other people’s hardware (see Part 1). Besides, all the early PDAs were huge compared with the pocketable device Palm founder Jeff Hawkins wanted to make.

Hawkins did it, and the original PalmPilot redefined the entire PDA industry in 1996 (see Part 2). In 1997, Palm introduced improved models and Palm OS 2.0. In 1998, the Palm III and Palm OS 3.0.

Then Palm got stuck. Palm OS 4.0 didn’t arrive until March 2001. Palm OS 5 arrived with the Palm Tungsten in October 2003, which also marking a switch from Motorola DragonBall CPUs to ARM processors and the complete separation of PalmSource (the Palm OS company) from Palm (the hardware company), which we’ll discuss below.


Palm introduced the Palm III and Palm OS 3.0 in 1998, and then most of its founders left to form Handspring, a new company that would license the Palm OS and do what Palm wouldn’t (see Part 3).  If they’d stuck around, maybe Palm OS 4.0 would have come about in 1999 – or at least 2000.

In 1999, we got the Handspring Visor, which used a tweaked version of Palm OS 3.1. While Palm was slowly improving its hardware, Handspring was inventing its first smartphone, the Treo 180, which debuted in 2002.

Palm Acquires BeOS

Jean-Louis Gassée

Jean Louis Gassée

After he left Apple in 1990, Jean Louis Gassée founded Be Inc. with the dream of creating a next generation operating system. A number of Apple employees followed him.

BeOS was optimized for multiple processors, pervasive multithreading, and preemptive multitasking. BeOS was written from the ground up to be a multimedia operating system that would keep the sound and video going no matter what else the computer was doing.

BeOS logoBeOS was initially designed for a dual-processor computer Be planned to build around a pair of AT&T Hobbit processors. Instead, Be chose the PowerPC 603 as its CPU for the BeBox. The BeBox debuted on October 1996 at 66 MHz, and in August 1997, speed was doubled to 133 MHz.

BeOS was ported to the Mac, and in January 1998, BeBox production was halted so the company could focus on its OS and software for BeOS. From all I’ve heard, BeOS succeeded in being remarkably stable and resilient, although little software was written for it. Power Computing licensed BeOS and began bundling it with its Mac clones in 1997. I know that Motorola looked into licensing BeOS for its StarMax clones, but I don’t know if anything ever came of it.

Also in 1997, Apple was looking for a new operating system to replace the Classic Mac OS. Apple’s Copland project was a bust, and it was down to BeOS and NeXTstep – both companies founded by former Apple executives. Apple was strongly interested in BeOS but thought Gassée’s asking price was too high. In the end, Apple acquired NeXT, Steve Jobs returned to Apple, and Mac OS X eventually emerged.

This soured things between Be and Apple, and by March 1998, BeOS was ported to Intel x86 architecture. BeOS for Macs was never updated to support the PowerPC G3 or later CPUs. Regardless, they Be couldn’t interest enough people in BeOS to sustain development, and in 2001 Be was acquired by Palm.

BeOS went to PalmSource, along with the Palm OS, when Palm separated its hardware and OS divisions permanently in October 2003. PalmSource hoped to use BeOS as the foundation of its next generation operating system, Palm OS 6.

PalmSource: ARMed and Dangerous

Coordinating the efforts of theoretically separate hardware and software companies became something of a challenge when Palm decided that DragonBall, topping out at 33 MHz, no longer had the power to remain competitive, so it chose to migrate its hardware to ARM processors. The hardware switch by Palm meant that PalmSource had to port or rewrite the Palm OS for ARM chips.

On the technical side, the original Palm OS had been built with the AMX Real Time Operating System (RTOS) as its core. Kadak had its AMX RTOS available for several different CPU families at the time – Intel 8086 and 384/466, PowerPC, MIPS, and Motorola 68000, which was used for Palm OS 1-4.

As Thom Holwerda explains on osNews, Palm customized AMX 68000, removing any feature it didn’t deem necessary, and preemptive multitasking was one of them. Palm never saw the need to make Palm OS on DragonBall a multitasking operating system, which is part of the reason Palm OS 1-4 are so responsive – it only runs one program at a time.

When Palm moved to ARM and Palm OS 5, it could have switched to the AMX 4-ARM kernel but instead chose to create its own kernel. The new kernel provided “more or less the same functionality” as the old one, but this time with hopes of extending it in the future. Palm OS 5 was first used on the Palm Tungsten T, released in November 2002.

Yes, There Really was a Palm OS 6

PalmSource announced its plans to release Palm OS 6 Cobalt in Late 2003, but it wasn’t available until January 2004. Many features in Cobalt were derived from BeOS. Palm OS 6 was available to Palm OS licensees, but not a single one adopted it for a shipping product.

PalmSource officially became a subsidiary of Palm in January 2002, and in October 2003, it became a completely separate entity.

The Founders Have Returned!

The best thing that happened to Palm after losing its founders to Handspring was the merger of the two companies starting in June 2003 and taking the rest of the year to complete. This brought back Jeff Hawkins, Donna Dubinski, and Ed Colligan, the trio behind the first PalmPilot who had left Palm (then a division of 3Com) in June 1998 to found Handspring.

Unfortunately, it was already too late. Let’s take a look at the sequence of events:

  • March 1998. Palm OS 3 released.
  • July 1998. Hawkins, Dubinski, and Colligan leave Palm.
  • March 2001. Palm OS 4 released three years after Palm OS 3.
  • July 2001: Palm publicly announces plans to switch to ARM processors.
  • August 2001: PalmSource acquires BeOS.
  • January 2002: PalmSource created as a subsidiary of Palm.
  • November 2002: ARM-based Palm Tungsten T ships with a 144 MHz TI OMAP ARM processor and Palm OS 5.
  • June 2003: The founders return to Palm.
  • October 2003: PalmSource becomes independent
  • January 2004: PalmSource makes Palm OS 6 cobalt available. No takers.

By the time the founders returned, the handwriting was on the wall. Palm had already committed to the separation of hardware and OS, and PalmSource was working to deliver Palm OS 6 by the end of 2003.

Sony Kills the Clié

Sony Clie PEG-UX50

The Sony Clié PEG-UX50 was very un-Palm-like.

Sony became a Palm licensee in 2000, and its Clié line of PDAs stood apart from the pack with a focus on multimedia. During Summer  2004, Sony pulled back its marketing, selling Clié products only in Japan. In Spring 2005, Sony pulled the plug on the Palm OS its Clié hardware.

For an overview of the Clié line, see Looking Back at Sony’s Clié Series: An iPhone for an iPhone-less World, Damien McFerran, Know Your Mobile, 2015.02.23.

From PDA Maker to Smartphone Maker

Palm switched its focus from PDAs to smartphones, which it saw was going to be a much bigger market. The last two PDAs released by Palm were the US$99 Palm Z22 and the tope-end Palm TX, both introduced in October 2005. Going forward, it would just be smartphones. The handwriting was on the wall; the PDA market was going to disappear as smartphones grew in number.

In reality, if not for its Treo smartphones, Palm probably would have been long gone by 2005.

Windows on a Treo?

Palm Treo 700W

It runs Windows

Palm did something thoroughly inconceivable in September 2005. It announced Palm hardware without the Palm OS. Specifically, Treos build around Windows Mobile.

It must have been to prove that they were a hardware company that was not wed to the Palm OS exclusively. I don’t know what it said to Palm OS users, but I imagine they shook their collective heads.

The Palm 700w with CDMA, available in January 2006, ran Windows Mobile 5.0 on a lower resolution 240 x 240 pixel display – because Windows couldn’t keep up at 320 x 320. The 700w was a Verizon exclusive in the US and a Vodaphone exclusive in the UK.

Palm also made the Treo 750v, a quad-band Windows Mobile 5.0 device sold exclusively in Europe.

In October 2006, Palm rolled out the CDMA Treo 700wx pretty much the same thing, but not a Verizon exclusive.

Palm Treo 500vThe next Windows Mobile model was the Treo 500v, which had the same size and styling as the Palm Centro, but with a 320 x 240 pix screen. It ran Windows Mobile 6.0 and shipped in February 2008.

The fourth Windows Mobile Treo, the 800w in Mid 2008, which was also CDMA-only and a Sprint exclusive in the US. It was the first Windows-based Palm with a 320 x 320 pixel display. It shipped with Windows Mobile 6.0.

On January 5, 2009, Palm introduced the Treo Pro, available in GSM and CDMA versions with Windows Mobile 6.1.

Was selling Treo smartphones with Windows Mobile a good idea? The world may never know, because in June 2009, Palm moved to a new operating system.

Palm Pre and webOS

Palm Pre with keyboard openThe new Palm Pre (June 2009) ran webOS. Both the smartphone and the OS broke with Palm tradition.

Palm Pre and iPhone 3GThe Palm Pre was Palm’s first slider phone. The keyboard was out of sight until you slid it open. With the keyboard hidden, it looked a lot like an iPhone – it even had a 320 x 480 pixel display like the early iPhones, although a bit smaller at 3.1″ to the iPhone’s 3.5″. The Pre was also a little smaller than the iPhone 3G. Many consider the Pre the first real competitor to Apple’s iPhone.

The base model had 8 GB of storage, the later Pre Plus doubled that to 16 GB. There is no memory card slot.

At first, the Pre was a Sprint exclusive, and it became the best selling smartphone Sprint had carried to date. Estimates are that maybe 500,000 units were sold during the June-August quarter – along with 325,000 Palm OS 5 smartphones.

webOS screenThe Pre was the first device to use webOS, a new operating system from Palm (not PalmSource, which had been acquired by ACCESS in 2005 after the Palm OS 6 debacle). Where Palm OS 1-4 used AMX RTOS as its kernel, Palm OS 5 had been built upon a Palm-made kernel for ARM processors, and Palm OS 6 Cobalt had borrowed technologies from BeOS, Palm built webO on Linux. (That should sound familiar – Android is also build on Linux.)

As with BeOS, multitasking was built into webOS from the start (contrast this to the iPhone, which only has one truly active app at a time).

There were three major versions of webOS released:

  1. webOS 1 in 2009 for the Pre, updated to for Pixi, last version was
  2. webOS 2 in 2010 for the Pre 2, udpated to 2.1.1 for HP Veer, to 2.2 for HP Pre 3, last version was 2.2.4
  3. webOS 3 in 2011 for the HP TouchPad, last version was 3.0.5 on 2012.01.12, also used by LG on smart TVs

The second webOS smartphone from Palm was the Pixi, which had a candybar form factor rather than a slide-out keyboard. When it was launched on November 2009, it was the smallest smartphone on the market.

On April 28, 2010, HP announced that it would acquire Palm. The takeover was completed on July 1, 2010, and soon HP started rebranding devices. The Pixi was renamed the HP Veer in 2011, and the Pre3 was also an HP release. HP had big plans for webOS.

HP released its TouchPad tablet in July 2011 with a 9.7″ 1024 x 768 pixel display and webOS 3.0. It was aimed at the Apple iPad 2, which had the same screen size and pixel dimensions. Pricing was the same for both lines’ non-cellular devices: $499 with 16 GB, $599 with 32 GB, and $699 with 64 GB. The TouchPad has a faster CPU and twice as much RAM.

webOS smartphones and tablets

  • Palm Pre: 500 MHz ARM Cortex 8+ processor, 3.1″ screen, 3.2 MP camera, 256 KB RAM, 8 GB storage, 802.11g WiFi, webOS 1.0.2, launched 2009.06.06
  • Palm Pixi: same as Pre, but with 2.6″ 320 x 400 pixel display, 2.0 MP camera, no WiFi, launched 2009.11.15
  • Palm Pixi Plus: same as Pixi, but with 802.11g WiFi
  • Palm Pre Plus: 512 KB RAM, 16 GB storage, webOS 2010.01.25
  • Palm Pre 2: 1 GHz processor, 5 MP camera, webOS 2.0, Flash Player 10.1 Beta, first released 2010.10.22 in France
  • HP Veer: 800 MHz Scorpion processor, 5 MP camera, 8 GB storage, webOS 2.1.2, released 2011.05.15 at US$99 with 2-year mobile contract
  • HP TouchPad: 1.2 GHz or 1.5 GHz dual-core Scorpion processor, 1 MB RAM, 16/32/64 GB storage, 9.7″ 1024 x 768 pixel screen, webOS 3.0, launched 2011.07.01
  • HP Pre3: 1.4 GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon processor, 3.6″ screen, 8 or 16 GB storage, 802.11n WiFi, webOS 2.2.4, launched 2011.08.17 in UK.
  • HP TouchPad Go: 1.5 GHz dual-core Scorpion processor, 32 GB storage, 7″ display, never officially released

But webOS never took off. It was a good operating system, but there was only one company using it until LG adopted it for smart TVs.

On August 18, 2011, HP announced it was discontinuing all webOS devices including the Pre3. Yes, one day after it had been released.

On October 22, 2011, HP made Android 2.3 Gingerbread available for the TouchPad; users could select which operating system to run at startup. On January 17, 2012, a beta of Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich became available.

After HP abandoned webOS, it was given to the Open Source community and relaunched as Open webOS.

What Killed Palm?

A whole series of unfortunate events. 3Com was too slow in letting Palm become independent, and the formation of Handspring cost Palm leadership and direction. Licensing the Palm OS actually worked to Palm’s benefit, but once PalmSource became a separate entity, its next generation Palm OS 6 Cobalt operating system was a dud.

Palm Sales Chart, Silicon Alley InsiderPalm, the hardware company, developed webOS, and Palm was so confident that webOS was the future that it never released another Palm OS device. Palm needed that to be true, because its sales revenues had peaked in 2006 and had been falling almost continuously since mid 2007.

By the time the Pre shipped, Palm was a sinking ship. Not only was income low, but the year-over-year numbers were negative for most of 2007 and 2008 – and all of 2009. If HP hadn’t acquired Palm in 2010, it may not have lasted out the calendar year. Even with HP’s deep pockets, webOS was a bust. In August 2011, HP stopped trying to turn it into a success. They had to stem the blood loss.

Palm had bet the company on webOS and the Pre. It lost that bet.

Rest in peace, Palm, you made some great products that will long be remembered.

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Index to A History of Palm

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Further Reading

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