What's In a Name?

PalmSource will be renaming its OS, and Microsoft wants you to think
"Windows Mobile," not "Pocket PC." Should you care?

Yardena Arar, PC World
Thursday, June 09, 2005

When you buy a Palm-based PDA or a Pocket PC, what do you expect to
get? A handheld of some kind, yes--but also, I suspect, a specific
operating system that can run a specific set of applications. So what
happens when a company wants to divorce the hardware from the OS?

It's not an academic question. In the last few weeks, we're heard that
the Palm OS is going away (well, at least the name Palm OS), and that
Microsoft is trying to make the name Pocket PC vanish, in favor of the
wordier Windows Mobile-based PDA.

It's spring, and a marketer's fancy turns to rebranding. But should
you care? Will these changes make buying a PDA more--or

PalmOne Is Out

First, the Palm story: This requires a bit of background.

The company that created the first PalmPilots was called Palm
Computing, Inc.; the name was changed to Palm Inc. in 2000. By then,
Palm had started licensing its operating system to other companies,
such as Handspring and Sony. As these licensees began introducing
their own custom extensions to the OS--improved address books or
high-resolution screens, for example--it became increasingly
problematic for a single company to develop the OS and work with third
parties on custom extensions, while at the same time creating devices
that would compete with those of the third-party licensees.

So in 2003, Palm split into two companies. The corporate steward of
the Palm OS became PalmSource, while the hardware company became
PalmOne. A third company was created solely to administer the Palm
brand name.

Since then, a whole generation of Palm OS-based devices has appeared
with names like Tungsten and Zire. We might call them Palms, but
officially they aren't: They're PalmOne PDAs.

And PalmSource, for its part, began talking about different versions
of the Palm OS: Garnet, the version of Palm OS 5 running on the most
advanced devices today; and Cobalt, the version previously known as
Palm OS 6, which has yet to appear.

Eventually, PalmSource has said, it will be moving to a Linux-based OS
because the Palm OS as it exists today simply isn't equipped to handle
the advanced features that people have come to expect in PDAs. More
recently, PalmSource has purchased a Chinese software company, China
MobileSoft, with an eye towards developing mobile-phone operating
systems that will look a little like the Palm OS but will have
completely different underpinnings; I wrote about this in March.

Anyway, the Palm name game is going to change in a major way: At the
PalmSource mobile developers conference a few weeks ago, PalmOne CEO
Ed Colligan announced that PalmOne has bought out PalmSource's share
of the Palm brand holding company. That will allow PalmOne to make
Palm PDAs again--and indeed, to change its name to Palm Inc.
PalmSource gets to use the name Palm during a four-year transition
period, but at some point the operating system won't be called the
Palm OS anymore. For more details, read my May 24 blog item on this.

What's the impact going to be on Palm users? Well, for those who never
stopped calling their PalmOne PDAs Palms, not much. Obviously this is
one reason why PalmOne made the deal: Colligan believes most people
think of a Palm as a piece of hardware. And as long as that hardware
runs the OS they expect, most people probably don't care whether that
OS is called Palm or Garnet or Joe Schmoe.

It's a little more problematic for people who were interested in
Palm-based devices from third-party Palm OS licensees. How do you
communicate to prospective customers that your software is what gives
a device the look and feel associated with Palms, without mentioning
the word Palm? You can argue that the development and marketing of
such devices doesn't appear to be a booming business these days. Sony,
you'll remember, quit offering Clies. But what about companies that
might want to develop competitors to PalmOne's Treo?

Meanwhile, taken from the other direction, what's to stop PalmOne (or
Palm, by then) to sell me a device that doesn't have the OS formerly
known as Palm on it? In theory, at least, PalmOne could start offering
Palms based on Microsoft's Windows Mobile software.

In short, the coming branding transition could make things confusing
for Palm buyers--particularly for people who are upgrading and have to
worry about support for legacy applications. PalmOne has a four-year
deal to continue licensing PalmSource operating systems, so there's no
cause for immediate alarm, but down the road we'll all have to pay
closer attention to what's in a Palm.

Good-Bye, Pocket PC

And as for Windows Mobile, I'm not entirely clear on the business
reasoning behind downplaying the Pocket PC brand in favor of Windows
Mobile. But I do know that's what Microsoft wants to do. If you need
proof, just check out Microsoft's press release announcing Windows
Mobile 2005, the latest version of the operating system for handhelds
and Smartphones, and tell me how many times you see the term Pocket PC
in there. I counted only a couple of instances, in places where
Microsoft couldn't wriggle out of specifying the PDA hardware (as
opposed to a Windows Mobile Smartphone).

Microsoft appears to be taking the opposite position of Palm
management: The company seems to think the OS will sell the device, no
matter what it's called. And there's evidence that Microsoft isn't far
off the mark. When you buy a handheld from Hewlett-Packard, do you
think IPaq or Pocket PC? No fair choosing both!

Of course, the Microsoft Windows Mobile picture is very different from
the Palm situation because Microsoft just provides the OS; it doesn't
make the hardware. Come to think of it, that might explain Microsoft's
strategy: It could be an effort to focus the spotlight on the brand
names of the company's hardware partners. HP, I'm sure, would much
rather sell you a Windows Mobile-powered IPaq PDA than an IPaq Pocket

Anyway, although the term Windows Mobile doesn't roll as trippingly
off the tongue as Pocket PC, Microsoft's branding strategy shouldn't
confuse too many people. Some might wonder about the wisdom of using
the same name for an OS that has different versions for PDAs and cell
phones, but I don't believe prospective customers will have serious
difficulty telling the two types of products apart.

Of course, none of this maneuvering tells us anything about what the
products in question bring to the table. For that, as always, it's
best to look beyond the marketing hype to the products themselves.
We'll certainly be doing that here at PC World.


"In the future, my private life will be expressed solely through art."
-- Britney Spears

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