Wednesday, 25 January 2006

LifeDrive: Palm's own eierlegende Wollmilchsau

The Germans have a great phrase: "egg-laying woolly milk pig." That's the term for a product that fails because it tries to be everything to everyone.

In a speech at a PalmSource developer conference several years ago, I described Pocket PC as an egg-laying woolly milk pig, and I think that's still a good explanation of why it's popular with enthusiasts but has failed to broadly expand the handheld market. Unfortunately, though, I think the strongest example of the syndrome on the market today may not be a Pocket PC at all. It's the Palm LifeDrive.

It is difficult to determine exactly how the LifeDrive is doing in the market, but there have been hints that sales haven't lived up to Palm's expectations. In September 2005, the company blamed a revenue shortfall in part on slow sales of the LifeDrive. I don't have access to NPD's US retail sales reports, so I can't directly check the LifeDrive's sales. I hope they have improved. But I suspect sales have continued to be less than stellar, or Palm would have bragged about them.

If sales are slow, that would be a shame. I think the idea of a hard drive in a handheld is great, because it enables some wonderful solutions. Although four gigs of storage doesn't sound like much in PC terms, it's an incredible slug of data if you manage it well. Even without compression, four gigs is enough to hold the text of more than 10,000 novels – one a day for 27 years. It can easily hold the text (although not attachments) of every e-mail message you will ever send or receive in your entire life. It can hold enormous reference databases, and huge collections of business documents. It can be, in short, an archive of all the meaningful documents in your life. It's ultimate brain extender, your own personal memory supplement that you can carry with you at all times.

For those of us in information-heavy jobs, a product like that would be ecstasy.

But for that archive to work properly, it has to be wedded to a wickedly fast search engine, and you need very clever software tools to scrape the right data from your PC and the Web. You don't want to be forced to load four gigs of information one document at a time, and the archive is useless if you have to use a traditional folder metaphor to travel through it.

Unfortunately, Palm didn't wrap that sort of comprehensive data solution around the LifeDrive when it was launched. Instead, the product is bundled with a little bit of software for managing documents, and a little bit of software for carrying media files. Instead of focusing on one particular solution and utterly nailing it (the way Palm did with the Palm Pilot and the Treo), Palm crammed two contradictory solutions into the LifeDrive and didn't deliver either one of them thoroughly. On the one hand LifeDrive is supposed to be a mega-entertainment device, capable of holding tons of songs and photos and other content. But it lacks a slick, fully-integrated content-acquisition system like the iTunes music store, and at $450 it's far too expensive for the young adults who want entertainment devices.

On the other hand, the LifeDrive comes with PC document compatibility software, but lacks comprehensive tools for automatically scraping all your key files, web pages, and e-mails into the device, and doesn't have the right sort of search capability to turn those files into a personal archive. What's worse, the media features of the LifeDrive are likely to alienate heavy data users. Information-centric people can afford to pay $450, but they're the most serious of users, and are generally resistant to anything that smacks of mobile entertainment. The fun and entertaining side of the LifeDrive chases those customers away.

If you want to see the scattered identity of the LifeDrive in action, you can start with Palm's own website. The home page for the LifeDrive declares that it's great "at the office, at the hospital, on campus, and on vacation." The usual test of a good product positioning is that in addition to telling you who the product is for, it should also tell you who the product is not for. If you haven't excluded some customers, you haven't been specific enough to please anyone. Treo, for instance, is a professional business product. It's not for students, and it's not for soccer moms. But as far as I can tell, the LifeDrive is for everyone over the age of eight who has $450 to burn.

Another symptom of an egg-laying woolly milk pig is that the manufacturer resorts to a lot of technical specs in order to sell it. Since the product is basically a bag of features, that fact seeps out in the product description. Here's the main text from the LifeDrive web page:

"For those who demand more, palmOne introduces the all new LifeDrive(tm) mobile manager. With a huge 4GB hard drive and built-in Wi-Fi(r) and Bluetooth(r) wireless support, you can easily carry all the essentials of your busy life and use them as you will. • office docs • Word, Excel and PowerPoint docs from your desktop computer, 300 songs, 2 hours of video, 1,000 vacation photos, and more, are always with you. • email & web • With support for POP, IMAP and Exchange email accounts, you can stay on top of your email at any of the thousands of Wi-Fi hotspots around the world • music, photos & video • Plus, a voice recorder, MP3 player, and photo viewer keep your precious few moments of free time both more interesting and productive."

Wow, you have only a few precious moments of free time, but we'll make them more interesting and more productive. Unfortunately, most people want one or the other.

There was a time when Palm prided itself on not drowning customers in technical specs. Part of the company's positioning was that true power came from what the product did, not what parts went into it. Thanks to the Internet Archive's magnificent Wayback Machine, here's Palm's online description of the Palm Pilot, from early 1998. Compare it to the LifeDrive text above, and note the absence of acronyms and numbers:

"The PalmPilot(tm) connected organizer is the ultimate personal and PC companion. With this easy-to-use, powerful handheld device, you can manage your schedule, personal information, contacts, and e-mail -- whether on the road or at your desktop. A PalmPilot organizer lets you fit a world of information into the palm of your hand. With a touch of the HotSyn(tm) button, everything you've entered into your PalmPilot organizer is synchronized with your desktop computer, and vice versa. It's not just a backup of information - it puts the most up-to-date information you need at your fingertips, wherever you are."

Some of the basic ideas are the same as the LifeDrive, but they're expressed with much less techno-speak. And the core use of the device is clear. You can decide pretty easily if you want this product. That's what happens when you focus your messaging properly.

I hope Palm won't give up on the LifeDrive. I think it can't be an iPod replacement because Palm doesn't have the right online services, and because the product's far too expensive. But if they cut out the cute stuff and beefed up the data capabilities, I think it might be an awesome product for businesspeople and academics who need to deal with huge amounts of information.

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