Palm CEO Ed Colligan’s Head Seems to be Stuck Somewhere

Sarah Jane Tribble and Dean Takahashi, reporting for the San Jose Mercury News on Palm CEO Ed Colligan’s remarks two weeks ago regarding Apple’s prospects in the mobile phone market:

Responding to questions from New York Times correspondent John Markoff at a Churchill Club breakfast gathering Thursday morning, Colligan laughed off the idea that any company — including the wildly popular Apple Computer — could easily win customers in the finicky smart-phone sector.

“We’ve learned and struggled for a few years here figuring out how to make a decent phone,” he said. “PC guys are not going to just figure this out. They’re not going to just walk in.”

I saw this last week, and it took me until today to stop laughing and try to figure out a way to write about it. It’s a simple little three-sentence quote, but I’m not sure what I like best about it.

Is it the way he describes Apple as “PC guys”? As in like, These guys just make computers, they don’t understand the nuances of user interface and experience design, especially with regard, to, uh, handheld consumer electronics. Nope, no handheld consumer electronics expertise at Apple. By the way, let me show you how my Treo can play MP3s!

Or is it the fact that Palm is using Microsoft’s Windows Mobile OS on some of its Treo phones? Apple, they’re just “PC guys”, but Microsoft, they’re connoisseurs of elegant UI design, apparently.

No, no. What I like best is where Colligan says Palm has “struggled for a few years here figuring out how to make a decent phone.” Isn’t it possible that, if Apple is indeed entering the mobile phone market, that Apple has also struggled with the problem for a few years? It’s just that Apple hasn’t been selling their less-than-decent designs along the way, like Palm has. (It’s also certainly the case that an Apple phone would aspire to something better than “decent”.)

The article continues:

What if Steve Jobs’ company did bring an iPod phone to market? Well, it would probably use Wi-Fi technology and could be distributed through the Apple stores and not the carriers like Verizon or Cingular, Colligan theorized.

Perhaps what Colligan was trying to say with his remarks is that he doesn’t believe Apple will actually enter the mobile phone market. That’s certainly possible, as it’s still unclear to me how they can do it without ceding any control whatsoever to the major mobile carriers. The whole point of an Apple phone would be to make something that doesn’t suck and is actually cool; the carriers impose utterly sucky restrictions on every phone they sell. (The idea that Apple could do it using Wi-Fi is a joke — who’d want a cell phone that only works when you’re within a Wi-Fi hotspot? Good luck making a call from your car.)

But that doesn’t seem to be what he’s saying; no, it seems like he was willing to go on the record predicting that, if Apple produces mobile phones, they’re going to have a hard time selling them.

Wait, I’m sorry, I started laughing again.

It’s also possible that Colligan is not so clueless as to believe what he’s saying here. Maybe he’s actually got the night sweats thinking about an Apple-designed Palm-killer. What’s he going to say? “Boy, if Apple produces a cell phone they’re probably going to kick ass”?

If he really believes what he’s saying, it’s probably because he has no clue how Apple would approach this market. An Apple phone wouldn’t do more than a Treo or a BlackBerry or a Razr — it would do less, and what it would do, it would do really well.

Much like Slashdot founder Rob Malda’s day one dismissal of the original iPod — “No wireless. Less space than a nomad. Lame.”1 — an Apple cell phone is sure to be greeted by existing quote-unquote “smartphone” aficionados as utterly underwhelming. It’s hardly got any features! It’s just well-designed!

Meanwhile, the line at your local Apple store will stretch out the entrance and down to the mall’s food court. If they make one.

  1. Funny that five years later, there still aren’t any Bluetooth or Wi-Fi enabled iPods. ↩︎