The Palm Pre: How a Focus on Short-Term Results Can Destroy the Fruits of Innovation

The Palm Pre:<br /> A Beatiful Phone

The Beautiful Palm Pre

As I began writing this post, my wife was in a car a thousand miles away with a brand new smart phone. I received a call on someone else’s phone informing me that my wife’s smart phone had quit working completely after following the instructions she received from tech support to fix the GPS system in her phone. The GPS had quit working that morning after tech support had her do another set of procedures to fix another problem. Now she had no GPS and also couldn’t make or receive calls. The problem would later be resolved. I’m still not sure how much of it was due to network trouble (the black hole effect I describe below), hardware trouble, user error, and questionable tech support, but after almost 3 weeks of experience, I can say two things about the Palm Pre: 1) It is a terrific and beautiful phone with many innovations, and 2) Palm is doomed. Doomed, I fear, unless they make some changes in their business model and better consider the harmful long-term impact that some short-sighted decisions may have. The exciting work of the innovators within Palm may be destroyed, in the long run, by Innovation Fatigue Factor #5, “Flaws in Decision Making and Vision”(the subject of Chapter 9 in Conquering Innovation Fatigue).

The problem, in a nutshell, is that Palm and Sprint (the only network for the Pre) apparently have decided to focus on getting the limited production of Palm Pres into the hands of as many users as possible, rather than letting tech support staff have them. The quality of customer service is being deliberately sacrificed to grab more market share and get more buzz among consumers, but this may backfire and create negative buzz due to some compounding factors. Some users may be happy with what they can figure out on their own and never need tech support, but I think many Palm Pre users are likely to need support. I say this because users are not given the Palm Pre manual and the manual in PDF form is not provided on the Palm Pre, cannot be downloaded from the Palm Pre, and even if loaded onto the Palm Pre, cannot be read by its PDFView application without crashing the phone. It’s a painful irony that makes aggressive users rely more than they should on tech support, and yet tech support is in the dark. When you call 888-211-4727 for support, you will be speaking with someone who has never used the phone, perhaps never even seen one. You can usually get to a human in under three or four minutes, which is wonderful, but simple questions can take far too long to be answered, if an answer ever comes. If uncorrected, this will drive consumers away from this phone and toward the many alternatives that can do many of the same things.

Here’s an experience that illustrates the problem of using inexperienced tech support instead of people familiar with the phone. I had a problem with a disappearing icon. There are five icons across the bottom of the screen for a newly installed phone: one for dialing, one for contacts, one for email, one for the calendar, and one that brings up a directory of apps and services. On day two of using my phone, the email and calendar icons disappeared. I’m still not sure how. There were suddenly just 3 icons, not five. I was able to still find email by navigating through the apps, but wanted the convenience of rapid access to email that the icon provided. So how does one get it back? Nothing in the skimpy guide given to new users addressed the issue. So I called tech support.

After being escalated through three levels of tech support over the course of an hour, I still hadn’t found anybody who could answer that question, so I gave up when, mercifully, the signal dropped. The top-level person didn’t call back. The next day, when I had to call again for another issue, and while talking to a rep, I asked this new guy if he knew the answer to the icon puzzle. He put me on hold for about 60 seconds, and then came back with the simple solution: press any icon in the apps window for several seconds until it glows, then drag it into the row of icons at the bottom of the screen and it will stick. I was delighted. “Wow, that’s great. Do you mind if I ask why you were able to help so quickly when three levels of tech support yesterday all searching for the answer couldn’t help?” “Oh,” he said, “there’s another guy over here who owns a Palm Pre. So I asked him and he was able to show me.” Ah, someone with experience – someone with a phone!

Because the person I reached knew someone with experience, he was able to reach out to his local value network and get the knowledge I needed, and he could do it in 60 seconds, compared with a fruitless hour of my time and Sprint’s when talking to people without experience. My wife and I have been contacting tech support a lot– far too much, but usually out of necessity–and nearly everyone I’ve talked with didn’t know much about the phone at all. Thank goodness one person had access to someone who had one.

By going for short-term market share by getting more sets into the hands of the public instead of into the hands of your own support staff, Palm is taking a huge risk and incurring costs that may well outweigh the benefits of the accelerate distribution to the public.

Flaws in decision making by corporate leaders can do so much to set back innovation. The work of a dozen corporate Einsteins or DaVincis can be stymied by one mid-level manager making a narrow-minded decision that often makes good business sense to those with a short-term focus. Such decisions often reflect ignorance of a business’s true Value Network – the ecosystem of relationships and transactions between the parties involved with the business. The Value Network includes transactions of tangibles, like cash and goods, which most managers pay due attention to. But there is a vastly important intangible dimension to the Value Network. The transactions of intangibles include the loyalty and trust – or lack thereof – that develops between parties based on their behaviors and experiences. It includes word-of-mouth and other informal sharing of information, such as “I wasted all day talking to tech support and they still couldn’t answer a basic questions.”. It includes sharing tips and insights between parties. An example of the latter in a healthy ecosystem might be customer service learning about unmet user needs and passing those insights on to product development teams, who then listen and respond. But if customer service is outsourced and not well connected to the developers, the intangible links are broken and the potential benefits are lost.

The Pre is an innovation-rich product that Palm can be proud of. The operating system is elegant and makes it possible to easily link data from other computers and accounts (Outlook contacts, calendars, and email, for example) with the Pre’s system. The on-phone TV is amazing and surprisingly good. Integration, unification, ease of use, and elegance are found throughout the interface. Multi-tasking is a breeze. Smart interaction between applications occurs (the MP3 player pauses when a phone call occurs, for example). The GPS system, when functioning, is as fine as any I’ve used, and much better than the Hertz Neverlost system I tried a few weeks ago. Terrific phone. Sadly, I fear that the fruits of Palm’s innovations may wither due to short-sighted aspects of Sprint and Palm’s business model regarding technical support. It’s a classic case where poor business judgment can hinder the long-term success of outstanding innovation, contributing to innovation fatigue and the potential demise of at least one corporation.

Copy and Paste: Putting Your Data at Risk

One of the most serious flaws in the Pre operating system is the feature for copying text. Sooner or later, you will want to copy some text on a web page, a PDF file, an email message, a contact card, or many other places. Yes, the Pre offers copy and paste or cut and paste, but here’s the shocker: you can only copy text that is editable. HTML text on a web page might as well be a blurry photograph of text etched in stone – you cannot copy it. A second shocker is that text in an email message sent to you is not copyable. “Easy – I’ll just forward the email, and then the text should become an editable part of my new email message, right?” Wrong. When you forward email, you can edit text in your email above the email text that is being forwarded, but that remains untouchable – and thus impervious to copying. Ouch. So when someone sends you their address or phone number in an email, you’re going to have to retype it into your contact info. The header (name and subject line) are editable, but the message contents are not.

Contact information in your contacts list can be copied because all of that information can be edited. But beware: there is no UNDO function on the Pre. When you enter edit mode and select text to edit it, one false key stroke and you end up overwriting the text. Boom – data loss. No undo. Data should be copyable without putting it in jeopardy of data loss. That’s a principle I wish Pre would consider.

The process for copy and paste is not intuitive for new Pre owners. You’re likely to get it wrong sometime – just as Pre tech support people are likely to get it wrong, as I experienced. Here’s the story. I needed to meet someone in my contacts file. I opened the contact and saw the address, and looked for some way to activate Sprint Navigation to guide me to that address. You can tap on some addresses and the Pre will launch Google Maps, which is cool, but I wanted Sprint Navigation to guide me so I woldn’t have to look at the map while driving. Doesn’t seem to be any way to move data from Google Maps to Sprint Navigation, but I thought if I could copy data from the contacts info and paste it into Spring Navigation, I’d be set. The copying process is not intuitive. After entering edit mode – OK, I’m editing the contact information for the person I need to visit – you must place the cursor somewhere by tapping on the text, then hold down the shift key (arrow up key) and then slide your finger over the text or tap your finger in the right spot to move the cursor and select the text between the original and current cursor locations. Then one needs to press C while also doing something – was it holding down the orange button? Oops – no, that wasn’t it. Suddenly, all my selected text was replaced with the letter “C”. What I should have done was to put a finger on or near the button that glows at the bottom end of the screen. When it’s glowing, it’s like holding down the command key in windows, so that simultaneously pressing C is like Cmd-C for copy, or one can then press V like Cmd-V for paste. But by doing the copy part incorrectly, the address I needed to go to for an important meeting was now just reading “C”. Not the right place to go.

Before I lost any more data, I called Sprint’s tech support and talked to a cheerful Spring person who said this question of how to copy and paste, undo an error, or move data to Spring Navigation was all beyond him (having never seen or  been near the phone he was supporting, apparently), so he transferred me to someone he assured me would be an utter expert with this phone. I assumed he meant someone who had seen and maybe even used the phone before. Turns out he was feeding me hype.

The Palm expert I was soon speaking with told me that there was no problem and no reason to worry about data loss, that everything would be fine. He told me to move my finger to the left over the glowing button to undo the data loss that had just occurred. No way- that just takes you to the previous screen. Did not restore the overwritten address I needed to visit. I think there is no undo of any kind with the Pre. This was not building my confidence with this guru. Then I asked how to avoid this problem in the future – in other words, how does one correctly copy and paste? The expert then gave me instructions: hold down the orange key, he said, and . . . “Wait,” I said, “are you sure it’s the orange key?” Yes, he was sure, and he walked me through a process that didn’t work at all, and I had to explain to him that it was the shift key, not the orange key. He looked in the manual, I think, and finally admitted that he was wrong, but assured me that there was no risk of data loss. Right. I had to explain the problem several more times and finally asked to speak to a supervisor. I was as nice as possible, gently  explaining that it was clear that he wasn’t familiar with the phone and that I really needed some guidance from someone who could help. He put me on hold and came back and said that the supervisor was unavailable. Tried again, same result, so I gave up. The lack of attention to tech support and customer service for new Pre users is going to reduce Palm’s chances of success with this product, unless I’m the only idiot in their population of users. (Perhaps that’s the case.)

Contrary to what Palm’s and Sprint’s tech support experts might tell you, it appears that the only way you can copy text from your contacts is to enter edit mode and select text, putting you one stroke away from unrecoverable data loss if don’t do the copy process the right way. Once you learn it and practice it, it’s straightforward – for those limited situations where you can actually edit text. But still, it ought to be copyable without that kind of risk. There needs to be an UNDO function, and copy should work anytime there is readable text, whether it’s editable or not. It’s almost like copy and paste was added as an afterthought in late beta testing rather than designed in from the beginning.

When You See an Invisible Dark Zone Coming, Duck!

The most serious problems with my wife’s Pre came while we were driving through Virginia and North Carolina last week. I was using her phone’s GPS system to guide us along the highways. Suddenly an error message came up about the network connection being lost (east of Rayleigh, as I recall). The only option was to exit the GPS application and try again. When the GPS came up, the destination we were pursuing was no longer in the system. Recent destinations were no longer in the system. And while my Pre and my son’s Samsung phone were working fine, hers suddenly could no longer make calls. When attempting to call anything other than 800 numbers, a message would come on welcoming us to the American Roaming Network and telling us that we could make a collect call or credit card call by pressing 1 or 2. Then it would hand up on us.

This began another long journey with tech support. It would be escalated through Sprint and then I would be transferred to Palm, whose tech support seemed even less knowledgeable than Sprint’s. I think it took nearly two hours without resolution. I called Sprint again to start over after my batter ran out and had been partly recharged. This time I was lucky and found someone familiar with the problem. She explained that the Pre will sometimes lose everything when you go into a dark zone. I asked how to avoid that in the future. She said that you should turn the phone off before entering a dark zone. I asked what a dark zone looks like so I could know when I see one coming. She chuckled, and explained that it’s possible to download a coverage area map. Sweet. All I have to do is print out pages of coverage are maps and then continually monitor for dark zones coming up so I can be sure to turn my phone off ahead of time.

Once the soul of your phone has been sucked out by these black holes of anti-coverage, the only way to resurrect it is to go through a complex process of resetting the phone to factory settings. This involves entering a code in the dialer, then selecting a “reset” button, and then entering a master lock code and some kind of phone number related to the network, numbers which most be obtained by calling tech support. Upon resetting, the phone will begin downloading all the info you had on the phone (photos, contacts, etc.) since it is all backed up, mercifully, on the Sprint network (if you’re heavy into privacy, don’t use a cell phone).

I hope this is a rare problem. My phone wasn’t hurt by the coverage hole, but it wasn’t actively using an application like GPS that relied on the network at the moment of loss, so maybe that’s the difference. But now I’m a little nervous about GPS. Will keep my eyes open for those soul-sucking black holes of negative coverage. Duck!

The Trouble with PDF Files

So if tech support is just searching the manual to get answers, why don’t I do that myself instead of hassling with tech support? Good question. Noting that there wasn’t a manual included with the phone, and that there wasn’t one on the phone that could be read or searched, I tried to get one on my phone. There is a Palm Pre manual at Sprint.com. Since the Palm Pre includes a PDF reader called PDFView, you might think that one simply has to go to Sprint.com and upload the PDF file. Not so easy! Turns out the PDFView application on the Palm does not allow you to view PDF files on the Web. According to Tech Support, it only works for files that are already on the phone or that are sent to you by email. If you click on a PDF link on a webpage, the Palm Pre will give you an error message about being unable to find an application to open the file. So to read the file, they told me, I would need to go to another computer, download the manual, and then email it to myself on the Palm Pre and then I could open it via PDFView by opening the attached file in email. (I would later discover, contrary to Tech Support’s instructions, than an email with a hyperlink to a PDF file ion the web would work also – the whole PDF does not need to be sent by email. But don’t even think about reading a PDF file via your browser). Or I could use a USB cable to connect the Pre to a computer and then upload the file onto the Pre, after which it would show up in a list of files I could open whenever I opened PDFView.

OK, I tried the email route. The user’s manual is 2.9 meg – lengthy, yes, but something that should be a piece of cake for my smart phone, right? I opened up PDFView, selected the manual, and started to look over some of its 344 pages of contents. My phone locked up completely while on page 6, trying to go to page 7. The intuitive solution for a crashed electronic device is to restart it by holding down the power button. That didn’t work, and required another call to Tech Support to unfreeze the phone with the secret true power-down move: hold the power button down while sliding the nearby ringer button back and forth at least 3 times. That causes it to power down, and just 3 minutes later the phone had successfully restarted, allowing me to try opening the PDF document again with all other apps closed to I could have maximum memory available for it. I think I only got to page 5 this time before it crashed. I tried it on my wife’s phone, and she got a different error message, but we both hit the same wall: the Palm Pre is unable to read its own user manual. No wonder it’s not included on the phone. No wonder it’s not something new users are encouraged to go download and study. No, without that manual, you’ve pretty much got one choice: call tech support, so they can thumb through the manual and then transfer you to someone else.

See the problem? Yes, there is a manual, but Pre owners aren’t given a copy and you can’t read it on your phone. You can if you find one on your own using another computer and then keep that computer handy when using your Pre. How ironic: one of the surest ways to crash your Palm Pre is to attempt to read its user manual. Thus, like it or not, new users are likely to feel herded toward the Tech Support corral, where the cowhands are friendly but don’t know much the care and feeding of the critters they’ve been hired to support.

When my phone crashed, I found that holding down the power button will not restart the phone, There’s a “secret move” one must do that involves sliding the ringer button back and forth while holding the power button. Tech support told me I needed to do that at least 3 times to restart the crashed phone. The restart seemed to kick in after six slides for me.

Other Observations

The phone really needs a cancel or hang-up button of some kind, especially for those who make the mistake of talking while driving. Without a simple button to terminate a call, users may have to go through several steps that require hands and eyes on the phone. If the call is more than a few seconds, the screen will have gone black, requiring that you press the power button to bring the screen back up. Then you can find the red hang-up button on the screen or, as often happens, you may have to navigate back to the dialing application. Sometimes it has taken me four or five steps to hang up. I think it should always be possible to do that in one easy step.

The phone would benefit greatly from a larger on-screen text entry application. The only way to enter text now is with the painfully small and awkward keyboard that slides out from the bottom of the phone (the short side). It’s half the size of keyboards that slide out from the long side of the phone. It would help if my finger tips were about 1/3 their current size. Slow, awkward typing is a disadvantage – but I can do it. I can live with it.

There is no text anticipation. You have to type out the whole word everytime.

Unlike my old Motorola phone, there is no voice-activated command feature. There is a camera, but it doesn’t have zoom like my old phone had. The Pre doesn’t record video.

I also find the speaker to provide very tinny sound. Using a headset is better. The quality of the built-in speaker is somewhat disappointing.

But there are so many great features: the GPS, texting, the ability to browse the web using either the phone network or a local WiFi network for higher speed, integration of apps, etc. There are about 3,000 apps so far, I understand, but nothing compared to the richness of the iPhone. It’s supposed to be easier to program so more apps may follow rapidly. We’ll see.

Useful resource: Sprint’s Tutorials for the Pre.


  1. Jeff Lindsay says:

    Sprint stores might offer the same benefit – though the employees there, like those at Best Buy, might not be allowed to have a Pre and thus may not have the experience to actually help. But it’s worth a try.

  2. btn says:

    One of the best benefits of the iPhone is that you can get free help at any Apple Store for the device. Unfortunately, you still have to deal with AT&T for any account issues since they’re out of Apple’s control.

Our Mission

InnovationFatigue.com is the official blog for the new book, Conquering Innovation Fatigue. Here we provide supplementary innovation, news, tips, updates, and, when needed, a correction or two, to keep those who are using the big on the inside edge for innovation success.