Thursday, February 1, 2001

A more perfect HotSync interface


By David Gewirtz

This month, I'll be talking about PalmPower's recommendation for an improved (and standardized) HotSync interface. But first, let's cover some background information.

The Palm OS platform is amazing. You can do wonderful things with these products, and there's a huge base of developers who build cool add-on hardware and software for Palm devices.

With millions of users, over 140,000 registered developers, and products shipping to more than 35 countries, you'd think the Palm OS platform was a rock-solid standard. Ah, but you'd be wrong.

Or, at least, you'd be somewhat wrong.

As you know, there are Palm devices produced by Palm, Inc. Then there are devices produced by other companies, like Handspring. Three key factors unite all these devices:

  • They can run much of the same software because the OS is compatible between the devices;
  • They all HotSync with desktop computers;
  • Their screens are all 160 by 160 pixels, which makes writing software interfaces pretty consistent.

But there are differences as well. Since the beginning (when the Pilot 1000 was introduced), there have been more than 30 different models of Palm OS compatible devices released across all the different manufacturers.

Differentiation strategies

Although there have been a few nearly exact clones (the IBM WorkPad and the Palm III for example), most devices are physically differentiated in a variety of ways. For example:

  • The Palm V and Palm Vx are smaller and sleeker;
  • The Palm m100 has a window for a clock;
  • The Palm IIIc and the Visor Prism have color screens;
  • The Handspring devices have Springboard modules;
  • The TRGpro has a slot for a CompactFlash card;
  • The Sony device has a MemoryStick slot;
  • The Kyocera Smartphones are also telephones;
  • The Symbol devices have integrated bar code scanners for industrial use.

The challenge for these manufacturers (in addition to the basics of building reliable products and delivering dependably) is to both support a standard, and to stand out. As any product marketing person will tell you, this can be quite a challenge.

The way all Palm OS platform devices support the standard (at least thus far) is to support running the majority of Palm OS software. In effect, they're all Palm OS machines. And the way most of these manufacturers have decided to set themselves apart is in terms of hardware functionality. From a differentiation standpoint, it makes a lot of sense.

Let's take Handspring, for example. A year or so ago, there really wasn't much of a compelling reason to buy a Handspring Visor over a Palm device. Yes, there was the Springboard slot, but there weren't all that many modules. But the folks at Handspring did a gutsy thing: they designed the expansion slot and sold their products mostly (there was a bit of a price advantage for a while) on the promise of future expansion. I've recently spent some time with a Visor and a bunch of Springboard modules, and they're proving to be quite compelling. So the strategy of differentiating through a proprietary expansion slot is working for Handspring.