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Palm OS Programming, 2nd Edition by Neil Rhodes, Julie McKeehan

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How Palm Succeeded

Over the last five years, the market for handhelds has changed dramatically in many ways. The customer base has significantly broadened—there are early adopters, loyal followers, and business enterprise users, mixed with growing numbers of less-sophisticated general consumers. All of these folks are buying handhelds to organize differing aspects of their lives and they have enormously varying tolerances for difficulty and desires for the latest cool features. As of mid-2001, Palm and its licensees have sold more than 13 million handhelds and they control close to 80 percent of the market. This is a lot of people using a lot of handhelds.

This is all great news if you want to write software for the Palm OS platform. There are lots of potential customers. Whether you are developing consumer software, or enterprise software for thousands to tens of thousands of units, or a vertical application for a particular niche market, the Palm OS/device combination will work for you. It will, that is, if you pay attention to the key features that have made it successful.

The Magic Formula

So, here are those key features. Here are the elements of Palm’s magic formula to a successful handheld:

  • Easy to carry

  • Inexpensive

  • Expandable (both for a user and a developer)

  • Effortlessly connects with a desktop computer

  • Works great and is simple to use

Every feature matters—you can’t take one out of the mix and still have the same successful handhelds. So, while you may see some of these features incorporated into competing handhelds, you don’t see all of them. As a result, it is clear to us that Palm continues to understand the handheld market better than its competitors and will continue to be far more successful. So, pay attention to the whole list of features. Likewise, notice how competing handhelds differ (later on we will look at some of the key differences). As you will see, Palm handhelds are great devices not because of one particular feature, but because of the combination of features.

We are telling you this because the magic formula has enormous implications for your software. If you want to develop for this platform, then it is crucial for you to understand what has made it successful. You need to design your applications to function in harmony with the platform. We tell you in detail what makes this a great platform so that you know how to write software that works with it. We want you to attack the design of your application with the same magic formula that Palm used to define the platform and continues to use to innovate it. Design does not happen in a vacuum. If you ignore the features and characteristics that make Palm a success, your application will bomb.

Let’s start with the beginning of the story, before looking at the current situation.

Why Palm Succeeded Where So Many Failed

Not everybody knows that the PalmPilot was hardware born out of software, and not even system software, at that. Its origins are in Graffiti, the third-party handwriting-recognition software developed for Newton and other Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs).

In 1994, Palm came out with some handwriting-recognition software that promised accuracy and speed of recognition for PDAs at the price of a little bit of shorthand. Many industry experts thought such software was doomed to fail, as it required too much work from the user. They were proved wrong. Speed and accuracy were more important—Graffiti was able to offer enough to compensate for the relatively minor work required to learn the new strokes.

No One Would Make a Good Enough Device

Buoyed by its success with Graffiti and frustrated by other companies’ inabilities to get the platform right, Palm decided to create its own handhelds. The result was the release of the Pilot 1000 in mid-1996. It, followed by the Pilot 5000, rapidly made headway. So popular was this product that with the release of its next device 18 months later, the company topped the one-million-unit mark and clearly dominated the market.

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