I just can't get rid of my Palm Pré

I just can't get rid of my Palm Pré
A Palm Pré via Lisa Brewster

I have a lot of gadgets.

It serves me well when doing QA. You need to try something on an aging iPhone? I can do that. I can also test on a Chromebook, ThinkPad, and touchscreen Windows-based AIO. Hell, I can even view your website on a Kindle, if need be.

But there's other gadgets I keep because they mean something to me. They have emotional value. I still have an original Xbox, Gameboy Micro, Sony Walkman, and iPod Nano. It's obvious to most tech geeks why I keep these around.

Then there's my Palm Pré

It's a device that's so special, I rarely take it out of the original box.

Palm Pré box from the front
Palm Pré box from the front
Palm Pré box from the side
Palm Pré box from the side

As you can see, the colour of the box has faded – which makes sense because it's 13-years-old. But I'm also not exactly trying to preserve it in a state of newness. It's more that if I remove the phone from the box, it might be easy to lose. In the next photo, you'll see why.

Palm Pré in my hand
Palm Pré in my hand

No, I don't have Shaq-sized hands. In fact, I have small hands for a man – the Pré really is that tiny. It's weird to think that, back in 2009, its small size was a selling feature.

Palm Pré with slide-out keyboard
Palm Pré with slide-out keyboard

Here's the coolest hardware feature of the Pré, and the one that sold me on it. Sure, you could work this as a typical touch-screen phone, but if you wanted to do some hardcore emailing, the slide-out keyboard would do heavy duty lifting.

There's other cool features. The button glows. The screen was bright and crisp. And did you know that the Pré had support for wireless charging before any other smartphone?

Of course, there's the OS too. Without going into too much detail, I'm going to let this video explain what's happening.

WebOS features review

Why am I captivated by this device – unable to let it go?

Part of it is the story of Palm itself. At one time, they were the Apple of mobile devices.

When Apple itself failed with the Newton PDA, Palm released the Pilot – an improvement in every way. It had a better form factor, battery power, and handwriting recognition.

A series of corporate missteps followed, but with the hiring of Jon Rubinstein – famous for his hardware engineering at NeXT and Apple – it looked like they found their way again as an innovator.  Rubinstein's brainchild was the Pré.

Indeed, the Pré was superior to every smartphone on the market including the iPhone. Unlike the iPhone, the Pré was capable of pre-emptive multitasking. Also, unlike the iPhone, the Pré's apps could be organized as a series of cards – an innovation that would later be found in all other smartphones.

What killed Palm

So why did the Pré fail? Some people blame it on the disastrous ad campaign starring a creepy woman. The reality is more stark.

The Pré sold 50,000 units on its opening day – which, at the time, was the highest sales ever recorded at Sprint. Unfortunately, Sprint was one of the smallest national carriers in the US, and didn't have enough footprint to sell enough smartphones.

So Palm followed up the Pré with the even smaller Pixi, sold through Verizon. Even worse, the Pixi had no slide-out keyboard. Having to share a space with the tiny soft gel keycaps, the touch screen was a stupendously itty-bitty 2.63 inches.

Obviously, nobody wanted the Pixi. People steered clear away, hoping for a sequel to the Pré. Eventually, Palm did release the Pré 2 – but the release was not fast enough to save the company.

Palm was forced to be acquired by HP – who released a few more Palm-branded devices before dumping the whole platform altogether.

It's not enough to be the best

Looking back, the Pré didn't die because nobody loved it. It's still a celebrated device to this day. It died because carriers demanded exclusivity, and Palm didn't have enough capital to make good Pre devices available across every mobile network.

In many ways, this is a tale as old as time.

DSD is perhaps the best audio encoding ever made. Yet, the momentum for PCM was insurmountable.

The Neo Geo home system truly brought the arcade into the living room. Yet, even if you could afford one, no one knew where to buy one.

The Pebble was one of the first smartwatches on the market, is still one of the most successful crowd-funded devices ever, and was incredibly affordable. Shortly thereafter, Pebble Technology was insolvent.

I've similar things in my own professional life. I've worked at technology companies that made products that were truly ahead of their time but never were a success.

If you want to avoid the fate of Palm, DSD, Neo Geo, and The Pebble, what do you do? I don't entirely have the answer, and if I did, I'd probably be a billionaire several times over.

Here's advice that will make life easier. Build a sustainable product, not the best product. Or: whatever you make, be sure it keeps you as a going concern.

I keep my Palm Pré around because it was the best. It reminds me that being the best isn't good enough.