Friday, April 18, 2008

Entertainment on the Go, Beauty vs Functionality

My iPod broke the other day. But even though I'm constantly listening to music and watching videos, I haven't really missed it. This is mainly because I already carry around a pretty good media player, really two. My cell phone, a Palm Treo 680 and my PDA, Palm TX, both already have a good built in MP3 player in PocketTunes and it's easy to view video on both devices with an application called CorePlayer. On top of that, the TX also has wifi and can use the Treo as a modem which means I have have Internet access anywhere I go.

It's almost like having an iPhone except that my Treo and TX are two year old devices which could do what they do long before Apple introduced the iPhone. And they can do even more. Both devices have great built-in calendar and note taking software and a multitude of available third-party software for including Documents to Go for editing Word and Excel files, e-book readers, and games. I can even use software to convert my Palm TX into a remote control. The iPhone meanwhile can't even copy and paste yet and has to be "Jailbroken" in order to install third-party applications. Apple promises that it will allow third-party apps onto the iPhone and iPod Touch, it looks like they will be tightly restricted.

So why are Apple's iPod, iPhone, and iPod Touch so popular while Palm's products wallow in obscurity? It seems to be a mixture of marketing, opportunity, and technology. You can take an iPod out of its box, charge it, install iTunes on your computer and you're all set. The iPod is ready to use. The iPod is tightly integrated with iTunes and you can import your music library easily or build one by buying music and movies directly from the iTunes Music Store. And if you buy a new iPod, you just plug it into the same computer and import your music library.

When you take a Palm PDA or Smartphone out of the box, it's the beginning of a long process. You have to install some sort of synching software on your computer and it can vary widely depending your computer, your choice of PDA or Smartphone, the phase of the moon, and whether or not you are upgrading. Treos and Palm PDAs can synch with Microsoft Outlook but they can also synch to Palm's own Palm Desktop which is a fairly simple easy to use application. Unfortunately, Palm Desktop has numerous compatibility issues and sometimes it seems that each new Palm PDA or Smartphone has its own version.

While Palm Operating System's huge library of third-party software is its greatest strength, it's installed software is relatively weak. While most newer Palms and Treos usually come with Documents to Go and PocketTunes, I've yet to see a Palm PDA or Smartphone with a decent video player. There doesn't seem to be a good reason for this—there are at least two good third-party video players available for the PalmOS that I know of: Kinoma and CorePlayer which can be bought and installed on your Palm PDA or Smartphone. And there is even a free version of CorePlayer called "TCPMP" which is widely available. So if Palm can license Documents to Go and PocketTunes, why not do the same with either Kinoma or CorePlayer? Well, in a sense they have done just that—newer Palm smartphones like the Centro and my own Treo 680 do have an embedded video player which appears to have been licenced from the makers of the Kinoma video player. But as far as I can tell, it's not a standalone application. You can't just throw an .avi file onto the Palm's storage card and play it unless you have already purchased and installed a third-party video player.

That brings me to the other big problem with Palms as media players—size. Not the size of the device but the size of the devices' onboard storage. My Palm TX has a 2GB Secure Digital storage card. That's good enough for about two hundred songs, a little less than two hours of video, thousands of pictures, lots of documents, many Palm applications, and leaves plenty of space left over for more stuff. But my iPod had a 30GB hard drive enough for over 2200 songs, over 20 hours of video, and over seventy podcasts and the iPod was still only about three quarters full. There has never been a Palm PDA or Smartphone which can compare to that kind of storage capacity. Also, you have to buy a seperate SD card in order to have any storage capacity at all.

Finally, I mentioned podcasts above. I don't think that I'm the only schmuck with a blog on the Internet who is addicted to podcasts. Apple realizes this and makes it easy to subscribe to podcasts directly from iTunes. In the Palm universe, podcasting might as well not exist. I actually did roll my own solution for downloading podcasts and synching them to my Palm LifeDrive and used it for over a year but that particular PDA had capabilities which Palm never duplicated on its latter models. In a way it's sad, the Lifedrive could have been Palm's version of the iPod Touch two years ago but it had several serious flaws and Palm never created a followup product to address these issues.

But at least they've made their products good enough that I didn't have to automatically run off and buy a new iPod when my old one broke.

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