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Palm Enters Wireless Playoffs With New Mobile OS

Palm Inc. is a little like Peyton Manning at the end of this weekend’s playoff game: a little wild-eyed. A little desperate, but holding it together like an MVP should and managing to carry it to overtime.

On Thursday at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Palm will unveil a new Linux-based operating system for mobile devices, dubbed “Nova.” And it needs to be good. Really, really good. Because the once-mighty smartphone pioneer, creator of the beloved Treo and Centro devices, has been marginalized in the era of the iPhone, the rise of a consumer-focused BlackBerry line-up and the Google Android “Linux-and-loving it” bluster. This could be its last chance to catch up with those formidable competitors with something that can match and exceed the touchscreen, sleek devices that have brought smartphones to the notice of consumers.

Consider: Palm sold just 599,000 smartphones last quarter, a 13-percent drop year-over-year (translating to a 39-percent revenue drop), compared to the 6.9 million iPhones and 6.7 million BlackBerries shipped in the same quarter. It needs a radical refresh, or risk going the way of the Indianapolis Colts this season: that is, out of the competition.

Palm, which will continue to also support Windows Mobile devices, expects Nova-based handsets to appear on the market in mid-2009 and that’s none too soon considering its competitors’ time-to-market advantage. Nova aims to tap the middle market, that elusive let’s-mix-business-with-pleasure type of person that wants a high-end phone and will use it for everything from pictures and games to corporate e-mail and business apps like Salesforce.com. It wants to scoot right in there between the consumer-focused iPhone and the business-y BlackBerry, Palm CEO Ed Colligan told BusinessWeek. Problem is, both Apple and Research in Motion are already blurring the line between work and home with crossover functionality that isn’t easily categorized … and will continue to make their case for the consumer during the six months the industry waits for commercial Nova.

Bright spots for Palm lie in its brand equity and a pool of loyal developers, who have been writing for Palm for eons. The availability of thousands of applications out of the box is a winning advantage against, say, the Google G1, which is plodding along in adding to its application volume at the Android Market. And the Linux-based Nova will in theory attract a legion of open-source developers ready to juice the whole Nova proposition.

Throw that pass, Palm. Let’s hope it finds its target.


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