There can be no denying that the thousands of apps available in the iTunes App Store have been part of the key to the iPhone’s success. As the New York Times reports, the apps available for iPhones range from essental productivity apps to toys, like an app that lets you play the iPhone like an ocarina.
Everyone’s trying to get in on the act, and duplicate the iTunes App Store’s success with their own online offerings. Palm already operates their own store, accessible from Palm Treo or Centro smartphones via a free downloadable app. But none of these stores have taken off in the same way as the iTunes App Store, for one simple reason: Software developers can’t make as much money off of them. Compounding the problem, for Palm Treo and Centro apps there’s already a distribution channel in place, with dozens of independent web-based stores. They’re scattered and disorganized, but what reason do they have to abandon their existing storefronts?
The iTunes App Store took off because of its simplicity, and the popularity and versatility of the iPhone platform. And it can’t easily be replicated, because it has so much momentum behind it now that developers will naturally flock to it. Simply cloning the iTunes App Store will not work for anyone else, any more than cloning the iPod or iPhone has worked for anyone else. So what is Palm going to do differently, that will allow them to exist as an alternative?
A different kind of app
What does that mean, in plain English? It means that Palm Pre apps are basically websites running on the Palm Pre, with access to more features and power than websites usually have. Which means that Palm isn’t trying to attract the same kind of developers that’ve been writing software for the iPhone, an effort which would inevitably result in nothing but Palm Pre ports of select iPhone apps. They’re trying to attract web developers, the kinds of people who haven’t yet had a mobile phone market to call their own.
These people might have their own iPhones, but have never considered writing apps for them because mobile phone apps require a whole different skillset. It was outside their area of expertise … until now!
The line between web and phone, blurred
This is a risky move on Palm’s part, and it could just result in boring apps made by people who don’t know how to write them. But the synergy feature played up by Palm (or Palm® Synergy™, as it says on their website) is all about pulling things together from multiple different websites and the data you’ve stored on your phone. Do you use both Facebook and Google Calendar? Text messaging and IM? Palm Synergy promises to make these functions seamless, so that you won’t have to worry about logging out of one service and logging into the next. You’ll finally be able to think in terms of “Checking my calendar” or “Messaging my friends,” instead of, say, “Going on AIM.”
Now imagine what a web-savvy developer could do with this feature! You could stream music from Jamendo and Last.FM in the same app, co-ordinate with colleagues using both Google Docs and Zoho Writer, and keep on using these services in areas with spotty wi-fi or wireless coverage. You’ll be able to view the pics on your phone and on Flickr! You’ll hardly be able to tell when you are or aren’t on the ‘net anymore, or whether an app that you’re using is on or offline.
I’m already seeing situations where this could come in handy. I use BasKet to mange my notes on my PC, but I can’t see my BasKet notes on my Palm Centro smartphone. And even if I used iSilox to export all my notes to my Palm Centro, it’d require an additional, time-consuming step, and I wouldn’t be able to change the notes on my Palm and resync them. Microsoft wants people to use Microsoft OneNote on their PCs and OneNote Mobile on Windows Mobile devices, but who uses Windows Mobile devices? And of the people who do, who really wants to?
If Palm Synergy works the way that Palm seems to promise it will, the distinction between online and offline would be irrelevant. And if I could just use a Palm app that synchronized all of my reference material, whether notes on WeBasKet or web clippings on Google Notepad, I wouldn’t have to worry about buying one note-taking app on my phone and using another on my PC. I wouldn’t have to subscribe to a service like Apple’s MobileMe or Microsoft’s Windows Live Mesh, either, because I wouldn’t need any special framework to make all my devices share data with each other!
My data would be online, in the “cloud,” with a local backup on each device. So it wouldn’t matter where I accessed it from. And because the Palm Pre uses normal web technologies, I wouldn’t have to do anything special to get everything to work with each other. The developers of each app would take care of that for me, and the Palm Pre’s app store would let me select from among their solutions.
Maybe I’m reading too much into their promises, or maybe Palm simply can’t pull them off. This is Palm that we’re talking about, after all. But I like the idea of a phone that’s truly designed to work with the ‘net … and Palm appears to be hoping that developers will, too.