Few subjects in recent memory divided readers like Palm's new webOS and its accompanying smartphone, the Pre--last week's column on Palm's future generated a series of passionate responses, with one reader calling the Pre "the best mobile device produced since the iPhone" and another calling the manufacturer's exclusive deal with Sprint "the marriage of two companies on life support... You could not ask for a better comedy of errors." All jokes aside, Sprint's potential role in the ultimate success or failure of the Pre--and the fate of the webOS platform as a whole--demands serious consideration: Neither company can withstand the fallout if the Pre turns out to be a bust. Without a signature smartphone to galvanize subscribers like the iPhone did for AT&T, Sprint has fallen far behind its rivals--in the third quarter of 2008, the carrier posted losses of $326 million as customer totals dropped 1.3 million to 50.5 million. By contrast, AT&T added 2 million subscribers in Q3 and Verizon Wireless signed up 1.5 million.
Especially given that Sprint may have only a few months of Pre exclusivity before the smartphone goes on sale from other operators, the company can't afford to stumble out of the gate. "You can expect a substantial marketing effort by Palm and Sprint in making this an iconic product," Sprint's director of consumer acquisition David Owens told AdAge, and already the operator has said it will allocate more marketing dollars in 2009 than the previous year, when it slashed ad budgets as part of a wholesale cost-cutting effort. Owens adds that Sprint's Pre marketing will target "the middle"--i.e., the user demographic between the entertainment-centric iPhone user base and the enterprise segment dominated by Research In Motion's BlackBerry devices. And while Sprint has yet to announce Pre pricing details, it seems logical to expect the phone will be offered in tandem with the operator's Simply Everything plan, which gives subscribers unlimited voice, data, text, e-mail, web surfing and related multimedia services for $99.99 per month.
So if that's how Sprint will market the Pre to consumers, then how will Palm market webOS to developers? That will be the real challenge. According to some accounts, the Palm developer community is in tatters--an All Things Digital feature suggests that in the absence of real advances for the Palm platform, many developers have shifted their allegiances towards upstart operating systems like iPhone and Android. "The Palm developer ecosystem is in pretty bad shape for a lot of reasons," said Alexis Hinds, founder of Blue Nomad, the developer behind Palm apps like BackupBuddy. "Some of these reasons have to do with Palm, and some do not. A lot changed when [Palm founder] Jeff [Hawkins] and [former Palm CEO] Donna [Dubinsky] left to form Handspring, including how Palm related to developers." Stand Alone founder Ben Gottlieb adds "The handwriting has been on the wall for a year or more that the existing Palm OS was dead. Palm's been working on its next-generation OS for years, but the lack of any real advances in OS 5 has really told the tale... Most of the Palm developers I talk to have written Palm off, at least in its current iteration." Forget about selling the Pre to subscribers--Palm needs to sell itself to developers first. -Jason