Sunday, November 7, 2010

Palm Drops Classic, Why It Matters.

Two weeks ago MotionApps, the developers of the Classic PalmOS emulator for webOS, announced that they were discontinuing Classic due to a dispute with Palm:

We are sad to announce that Palm has removed Classic’s ROM from the new webOS 2.0 device ROM which will result in Classic not working if utilized with Palm’s new webOS 2.0.

This is contrary to our agreement with Palm and was done without our approval or consent. Based on this action, MotionApps will immediately stop selling Classic. However, as a courtesy to our clients, we will continue to support existing Classic customers on webOS 1.x for the immediate future.

It's certainly a disappointing development for users of old school PalmOS apps like myself. But does it really matter? The truth is that I already have webOS replacements for most of my PalmOS apps. But a lot of these webOS apps are inferior to their PalmOS counterparts. Additionally, there are many PalmOS apps which still do not have webOS equivalents. And a lot of the PalmOS apps which have transitioned to webOS are still not ready for prime time. Finally, a lot of developers who made popular PalmOS apps are simply not interested in developing for webOS because its development tools are not mature enough yet.

While Palm has worked hard to foster developer interest, they are facing an uphill battle. Currently the webOS App Catalog has roughly 4300 apps. Add in the apps in Palm Web and Beta feeds and that number jumps to well over 5000. But Apple's iOS has 250,000 apps and Google's Android has 140,000 apps. And this isn't just a matter of quantity over quality, there are many unique and powerful apps which are not available to webOS users. A lot of this stems from limitations in the APIs of webOS and in the hardware of webOS phones. And that's all the more reason why Palm needs the Classic as a bridge between the limitations of webOS and the power of PalmOS. More than 30,000 PalmOS apps can be run in Classic.

Ultimately, it does Palm no good to further alienate a group of developers which were already upset with the move from PalmOS to webOS and who are attracted by the much greener pastures of Android and iOS. MotionApps has handed over the Classic source code and intellectual property rights to Palm, so Palm has all it needs to restore and support Classic themselves. There would seem to be no reason why they couldn't put it back in a future version of webOS.

So it makes a lot of sense for Palm to support Classic. They already go out of their way to support webOS and Homebrew developers. And they are working on tools to allow developers to build "hybrid" apps which will use both traditional C/C++ code and the HTML/Javascript code that powers webOS apps. A PalmOS emulator like Classic, could be another tool for Palm to get apps on to their platform.

Classic wasn't perfect. It was slow and it was the only app on webOS that could actually crash my phone. And using felt like living in a mobile computing ghetto—PalmOS apps ran inside Classic and couldn't be used as cards and you couldn't copy and paste between PalmOS and webOS apps. But it did allow access to a great number of apps which otherwise wouldn't exist for my phone or which are better than the apps which are available to me.

Now that Palm has full control of Classic and a perpetual license to PalmOS, they can fix all that if they want. They can make PalmOS apps run seamlessly as cards alongside their webOS counterparts. They can make it possible to copy and paste between PalmOS and webOS apps. They can even "skin" PalmOS apps to make them look more like webOS apps. For that matter why not add a PalmOS section to the webOS App Catalog where users can install legacy PalmOS apps? But all this will all take time and money—two things that I don't think Palm wants to spend on PalmOS. Having said that, Palm is still developing webOS anyway and it makes more sense for Palm to expand its capabilities instead of contract them.

I've seen a lot of comments about DOS and Windows XP bandied about in discussions about Classic. And Microsoft's history of support for Windows XP is actually a pretty good example of how to handle aging software—an example which Palm would be wise to follow. Up until last month you could still buy a PC with Windows XP preinstalled nine years after it debuted. (And you can still "downgrade" a PC with Windows 7 to XP.) Microsoft supported Windows XP with Service Pack 2 until July 31, 2010 and still supports Windows XP with Service Pack 3 to this day. For almost a decade, Microsoft has supported Windows XP with the result that it remained their most successful software program even long after it became obsolete.

Now compare this to what has happened with Classic. On October 19, Palm introduced webOS 2.0. By October 25, MotionApps withdrew Classic from the webOS App Catalog accusing Palm of breaking its agreement with them. That's not the kind of orderly transition from one platform to another that engenders user or developer confidence.

While Classic represents a tiny subset of the webOS user experience, there seems to be little point to removing a useful capability from it at a time when webOS is struggling to gain acceptance. The openness and freedom of the webOS experience is one of the things that distinguishes it from its competitors. At a time when Apple was trying to outlaw Jailbreaking and Google was challenging the legality of rooting Android, Palm actually made it easier to hack your phone. And Classic represented an example of that freedom—the ability to install and run "obsolete" software which you still found useful. For me the bottom line is that if I wanted a handset maker telling me what software I can and cannot use on my phone, I'd have gotten an iPhone.

With webOS 2.0, MotionApps drops Classic PalmOS Emulator in Palm's lap |


Diane S. said...

Thanks for fighting the good fight. I purchased Classic, but have not used or even installed it as I read that it could cause the Pre to crash and I have a low tolerance for crashes. Nonetheless, I REALLY miss some of my PalmOS apps, such as DateBk6 and Pocket Quicken (especially the latter). And so far I'm mostly unimpressed by the apps being developed for WebOS -- mostly just toys it seems. I don't need toys, I need work horses. WebOS is great for what it is, but it isn't everything I need.

In short, Palm made a big mistake when it abandoned the features that made some of us loyal Palm users for the last decade or more.

WebOS (and "The Cloud")does not really make up for the loss of robust native apps.


guyjj said...

Diane, Are you interested in selling your classic app?