Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Geek Rant - Palm is trying to get back into China???

Just saw (via an RSS feed) that Palm made a press release about how they have new partners in China to market their (relatively) new PDA/phone; the Treo 680.

What started out as a few lines in response to this news item grew into the series of observations below. I used to be very enthusiastic about Palm PDA's and their company, but it seems like their management can't do anything right (bought out a Chinese company to "enter the market" but then did nothing with it, sold off their software devision then tried to buy it back, changed their name then changed it back, still are using an out-of date OS, "new" product designs that look like they belong in 2003, have become totally irrelevant in China while the competing products from MS are becoming widespread, etc.)

So, now they say that they have a partner in China, and apparently they'll make it available. Apparently this has stirred up some emotion in me - This is their strategy for China, the largest mobile device market in the world?!?!?!

I realize that it's pretty geeky to go on this long about what is basically just a gadget that I sometimes use. Then again, I gotta call bullshit on super-optimistic corporate PR when I see it.

Anyway, the contents of my post are below:

As a Palm fan who currently happens to be in China, this is welcome, exciting, and long overdue news!

But, the pessimist in me is saying, "Too little, too late."

It's hard to generalize about product entries into China; it's sometimes funny what sticks and what doesn't; we'll see what happens with this one.

But I think Palm & partners have their work cut out for them:

1. Palm is almost completely unknown in mainland China (aside for those who follow gadgets or go to markets to buy imported devices at inflated/overtaxed prices). That may not be a bad thing, but it means that some effort will need to be spent on building up the brand. That will probably take some serious effort and money.

2. CJKOS does a pretty decent job for providing localization for Palm OS devices (in my experience), but it's not seamless; certainly not when compared to Windows Mobile or regular phones by Nokia, Motorola, Samsung - all of which are well-established in the market.

3. Based on my observations of what people use and what's being sold in the markets, devices with keyboards (thumbboards) haven't really taken off in China like they seem to have in Europe and the US; this is probably in no small part due to the fact that unless you're typing a lot of English, QWERTY doesn't necessarily offer a lot of benefit Chinese character entry on a mobile device. However, there are a lot of touchscreen phones available now that have gained some popularity in various market segments. If Palm was ever going to release a more data-intensive, touchscreen-only GSM/handheld (kind of like a T|X phone), then this would really be the place for it!

4. Distribution - could be a challenge since so many other companies are already established as sellers. Hopefully Palm's local China partner will be able to make deals and pull strings to get their products into prominent display.

5. Wi-fi - there isn't nearly as much of a wi-fi infrastructure in China (yet) as in Europe or the US. 3G hasn't even been officially rolled out (which is another story). So, if Palm wants to keep selling product without wi-fi ability, this is one market that actually may not care too much about it. Then again, wi-fi is growing in popularity (in home networks and at restaurants), and more and more devices have it, so Palm devices could lose out by comparison.

6. Status symbols - The high end spenders in China do throw down unquestioningly on expensive "status" items (like the Nokia 8800). If Palm could market its devices in a similar fashion, perhaps it could gain inroads that way. I have doubts that the Treo 680 as is would be successful if sold under that strategy, as it's bigger and under-spec compared to other "it" devices. While some may argue that comparing smartphones and "dumb"phones is like comparing apples and oranges, I counter that most consumers here are not interested in that distinction; they'll buy what they like or think is cool, whether it's a "smart" or "dumb" device.

7. Product Churn
Like many other parts of Asia (and the world, really), some people (usually the wealthy types living in cities) change their personal phones relatively frequently; as often as every 2-3 months. Nokia, Motorola, and Samsung do well in this environment since they seemingly offer new devices or upgrades every few months; even HTC seems to have a constantly updating product line. Palm would do well to increase the variety of models it offers.

8. Target Markets - I'm a little out of touch with Palm's marketing strategies, but I see it like this - While Palm in other nations seems to target itself more towards business users, this has changed with the 680 (and the zire 21 and 22 before it) in the US, where it is trying to be pushed towards mainstream users. (how is that going, btw?). IMHO, the whole "email on your phone" thing has been slower on the uptake here. Businesses rarely purchase phones for their employees (and not enough reimburse phone time expenses). I do not think Palm can rely on corporate sales here; they need to push for the mainstream. And if they want success in the mainstream, I think they need to go big and push big (with a target of strong and steady growth).

This post ended up being much longer than originally intended. I do wish Palm the best of luck in expanding their business in China. But, for the reasons listed above, I think it could be a long while before I see their products in the nice electronics stores and being carried by any significant number of passersby on the street.

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