An Open Letter to Palm, Inc.

Posted on June 1st, 2003 in Product Reviews,Technology by EngineerBoy

Way back in the dark ages, I bought my first Palm device – the PalmPilot Pro. It immediately became as indispensable to me as my cell phone, as it enabled me to view, edit, change, and delete calendar appointments, contacts, and tasks while I was out and about, and then synchronize them when I got back to my computer. I used the heck out of it until I lost it, and immediately bought a replacement (used, same make/model) for about 25% of what I originally paid. I used the replacement for several years, then lost it, too. Palm had just announced the forthcoming Palm V, so I waited a couple of months for it to be released before purchasing it.

The Palm V was sleek and small, with a stylish metallic case, sharper graphics, and more memory. I once again used the heck out of it for a couple of years, and then (as you may have guessed, given the pattern so far) eventually lost it. I very badly wanted to replace it immediately, but rumors had begun circulating about a new wireless Palm (the i705, not the Sputnik-sized Palm VII), so I vowed to wait until the release of the new model before making my purchasing decision.

So I waited. And waited. And waited. For almost a year. Palm-less, writing things on sticky-notes, having to *remember* commitments and tasks. It was not fun. Finally Palm announced the upcoming i705. It looked pretty good, bigger than the Palm V, but smaller than the Palm VII, which seemed about right. Integrated, internal antennae, as opposed to the Palm VII’s flip-out, plastic, auto-breaking one. So I weighed my options, between the new color Palms and the wireless, non-color i705, and finally decided that the convenience of wireless won out. I placed my advance order and got my i705 the day after it was released.

It was love at first sight, let me tell you. I activated the wireless service, synched up my information, took it out for a test spin, got my first pro-active, wireless email notification and knew I could never go back to non-wireless. *This* is what a PDA was supposed to do. And I used the heck out of it. *And* we got one for my wife.

And then I began to notice some little, nagging problems. I had to recalibrate my screen every couple of days, because the place I would touch on the screen would be translated by the device to a place near where I touched, but not exactly. And over time it would drift further askew, until it was impossible to do anything. But, recalibration was a 30 second chore, so I figured I could live with it. Also, the gray case was just painted plastic, not metal, and the paint started to flake off almost immediately. This made the device look old and cheap. Eventually the case cracked, right along the edge of the media card slot, which Palm had illogically place directly behind the power button, so that the card slot was compressed every time the device was powered on or off.

Eventually the warranty expired, and the screen was so bad that I was having to recalibrate several times a day. I don’t think I recalibrated all my previous Palms, in total, more than 10 times. But the wireless convenience still made it worth it.

But then things started to go sour for Palm, from my perspective. Out of the blue I got a Certified letter from Palm telling me that they were changing the pricing of the wireless service and eliminating the Unlimited plan, to which I had been subscribing since I activated. Instead all usage would be metered, and Palm was nice enough to calculate what my bill would probably be, based on my previous usage. It would have effectively tripled my monthly charges. Also, they were giving me only one month’s notice.

Now, I’m a businessman, and I understand that things change, and that Palm really has the right to do whatever they need to do keep their business afloat. I didn’t appreciate these changes, as they were inconvenient to me, personally, but I understood that it was just business. Also, I received a letter from Palm saying that all Palm i705 users would be getting a nice, steep discount on the upcoming new wireless Palm, the Tungsten W. This sounded like a nice piece of customer maintenance news, and I was mildly hopeful.

Still, I couldn’t justify continuing my Palm wireless service at the new rates, so I called Palm to explore options. The customer representative could not have cared less about my previous purchases of 4 new (and registered!) Palms, my years as a loyal Palm customer, or my desire to remain a paying Palm customer. There was simply nothing that could be done. I said that left me no choice but to cancel my wireless service. His response was interesting, in that it did not include *any* of the normal ploys used by companies to keep their paying customers. What he did was very quickly and helpfully assisted me in performing the cancellation within about a minute. No attempt to talk me out of it. No attempt at an up-sell. No attempt to address my concerns. No transferring me to some other department for the cancellation, hoping I would hang up. Nothing but a quick, clean cancellation of a recurring, subscription revenue customer. Actually, *two* paying customers, since we also cancelled my wife’s service. Unheard of.

And then it dawned on me…they *wanted* people to cancel. That’s the reason the entire episode was handled so poorly…they were actually trying to get rid of their i705 customers. A little research showed that the probable cause was that Palm’s contract with their wireless service provider had expired, and the new agreement was pricier and didn’t allow Palm the flexibility to offer an unlimited usage plan. Also, their new wireless Palm (Tungsten W) used a completely different wireless network, so their incentive to add people to the old network was very small, and their incentive to get people off of it was very large.

Okay, so they were dealing with a very sticky issue. They sure seemed to handle it poorly, but the promise of a steep discount on the Tungsten W soothed my crotchety-ness. However, when the supposed “discount” arrived, it was nothing more than reduction of up-front cost if you chose a more expensive wireless plan. Either way Palm would get your money, it just might take 12 months or so. Also, this great “discount” was being offered to anyone, not just i705 owners. So much for doing right by their i705 customers.

If I might speculate a bit, I think a better explanation may be that Palm rushed the i705 to market in order to try to head off the tidal wave of BlackBerry and other related devices. This explanation perfectly fits the facts, in that the unit was cheaply made, it plugged into the Palm.net network, the prices fell quickly and dramatically after release, and Palm very quickly abandoned the platform with virtually no hesitation about alienating the i705’s user base. It feels, to me, that Palm designed this product as a stopgap, and their only real purpose was to delay people from purchasing competitor’s products until they could get their *real* product (Tungsten W) out the door. Time will tell if this was an intelligent strategy for Palm.

And so now I use my crappy, cheap looking, plastic, cracked, jittery-screened i705 without wireless service. Palm gets nothing from me, and they won’t get anything from me in the future, as I’ve bought my last Palm product. Once this one fails or gets lost, I’m getting something else. Palm had every opportunity to do right by their i705 owners, to admit the product was poorly conceived, to admit they got screwed on their wireless contract renegotiation, to offer a *real* discount to get us to their new, preferred platform. To prove they valued us as customers.

They didn’t. That is their choice, and I’m sure it was hard for them, but oh well. After a decade as a happy Palm owner, they lost me. Me, who loved their products, sang the praises of their devices, convinced dozens of customers (and thus thousands of end users) to purchase Palm products, and gave their products as gifts. All that goodwill and all those real dollars, thrown away. How’s that business plan working out for you, Palm?

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