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Is Windows Phone 7 Following in Palm's Footsteps?

While many loathe writing off Palm, the company responsible for creating the first generation of PDAs, the prognosis isn't looking too good. At the moment, those predicting Palm's demise seem to be heavily outweighing those who believe the company is going to regain its former glory.

Palm's sustainability came into deeper scrutiny late last week when the company said it shipped 960,000 units and only sold 408,000 of them. That suggests the company has stuffed its channel with a ton of unsold inventory. The news caused its shares to drop 30 percent Friday. Though the shares rallied early on the news that AT&T would start selling its devices, the company's shares closed down half a point.

Critics point to a number of missteps by Palm, from choosing Sprint as its exclusive launch partner (it added Verizon in January)  to releasing the new device last summer -- days before Apple started shipping its next generation iPhone. But the biggest mistake has been how the company treats its partners and developers.

Despite the promise of delivering a software development kit that would be friendly to any JavaScript or HTML developer, the tooling failed to arrive in advance of the device. This dampened the prospect of it building a rich partner ecosystem. And now there are only 2,000 apps that support Palm's WebOS, compared with 170,000 for the iPhone, 30,000 for Google's Android and 5,000 for Research in Motion's BackBerry, according to data compiled by Silicon Alley Insider.

The 1990s saw Palm building a vast developer ecosystem with its PalmOS. "Back in the early days, Palm could do no wrong and was an unstoppable force, it dominated the PDA spaceā€¦" recalls longtime Palm devotee Mark Nielsen in a blog posting last month.

But a key problem this time around was that Palm lost the developer ecosystem long before WebOS, Nielsen continued. Under that backdrop, Nielsen begs the question: is Microsoft following in Palm's footsteps with its Windows Phone 7 Series strategy, which effectively scraps the old Windows Mobile 6.x code in favor of the Silverlight RIA-based architecture and Zune interface? In other words, just as PalmOS apps were useless to WebOS, will the same come true for .NET Windows Mobile developers?

"I have nothing against the Zune. I own one but it's not Windows Mobile and its navigation UI is not very flexible. On top of that, they choose to not support past apps, which once again I believe was a huge mistake for Palm," Nielsen notes.

"So like Palm, they have chosen to start over and play catch-up on third-party apps when they didn't really have to," said Nielsen. "You've alienated your past developers while hurting their customer-base which is your customer-base. In the meantime, you've positioned your new OS to 'wow' the home consumer and downplay your enterprise strengths. Microsoft, it's not too late to correct some of your decisions. Just look at Palm and see how it has worked for them."

Giovanni Gallucci, organizer of last year's Windows Mobile Developer, says that's not a fair comparison. "The PalmOS ecosystem was dying or dead," he said in an interview. "The Windows Mobile team learned by watching Palm and realized they have to get their code out there fast, early and into everybody's hands. Clearly Palm's approach that no one would get the SDK until after the device shipped was a strategy that failed."

Gallucci dug himself into a hole in early 2009 when he and others launched the Palm PreDevCamp effort. He shortly walked away from it last year after its apparent demise. It should also be noted that Apple wasn't quick to make its SDK available before the iPhone came out. However, this didn't hurt them as it did Palm.

"Microsoft is going to the opposite extreme saying 'we're going to give you the SDK well before we even call this an alpha,'" he said. "They are taking a risk, much more than any other company does in giving developers access to their code, long before it's fully baked. But it's a risk that's paid off for them in the last three decades."

What's your take? To learn more about Microsoft's new mobile strategy, see: Top 7 Windows Phone 7 Highlights from MIX10. Share your thoughts by droping me a line at [email protected].

Posted by Jeffrey Schwartz on March 23, 2010