Happy Birthday Infinity Softworks

12 years ago this month, Dane Avilla and I, in essence, founded Infinity Softworks. It wasn’t called Infinity Softworks at the time, but that’s what it became.

Dane and I were both majoring in something different than what we should have. (Dane was in Chemistry; I was in Accounting.) Both of us were getting a minor in Computer Science and I approached him because he was doing tech support for a software publisher and I wanted programming experience to see if that’s what I’d prefer to do when I graduated. The publisher was looking for someone to write for this new device called a PalmPilot. I said what the heck and started working on a project for him, with visions of experience and cash in my 24-year old head.

Working for the publisher didn’t work out for either of us and by the Spring we had left the publisher and was working for ourselves. Dane’s father worked in the tech industry and helped us get our first deal with Macmillan Digital Publishing. Our first product, FCPlus, was published with them in a retail bundle in March, 2008. In the same month, we released the advanced version of our financial calculator software, FCPlus Professional.

Dane stayed on for another half year until he was almost done with his Master’s in Computer Science and then moved to the East Coast. Obviously, I decided to continue moving Infinity Softworks forward. I never really expected to still be at it 12 years after starting our first product.

The New Palm. Same As The Old Palm?

It appears in early January that Palm will announce their new operating system, devices and direction. It is believed that the new Palm will also be the only Palm operating system used by the company, dropping the old Palm OS and Windows Mobile in favor of this new platform. (They’d keep supporting WinMo for its corporate clients only.)

I’m skeptical that Palm can survive this transition. It isn’t 1996 any more. The mobile market back then had no major players. Palm was able to build every thing without having direct competition. Now all parties — customers, carriers, developers — have huge expectations. And there may be too much history with all three for Palm to woo them back into the fold. A brief explanation for each:

Customers have spent the past six years hearing how Palm is bringing out their next operating system. Most seem to have migrated to Windows Mobile, BlackBerry and iPhone at this point. Let’s face it, the Palm OS is antiquated, looking and feeling like yesterday’s technology. And with the company on the ropes financially, there is a big dis-incentive to acquire one of their devices.

Apple was in a similar situation when Palm was coming into existence ten years ago. Apple, though, had a legendary founder back in the fold and a new deal struck with Microsoft to ensure its survival. Palm will need some similar move to live through this one.

There’s an interesting alignment occurring among the carriers here in the States. Exclusives are all the rage. Apple partnered with AT&T, RIM launched its BlackBerry Storm exclusively with Verizon, and Google launched Android exclusively with T-Mobile. On the surface we are returning to a world where if you want a certain device you have to switch carriers to get it.

It makes sense for carriers and companies to partner like this, of course, as developing hardware for one specific carrier platform is a lot more efficient than doing it for all of them. And the carriers can push one major product, differentiating themselves from everyone else. But if this trend holds true, it also has the effect of locking out new participants in the market. Where does Palm go? Sprint, a distant number four in the carrier races? Well… they did with the Centro. But this doesn’t necessarily get them the exposure they need to be successful. And what happens when Nokia comes calling? Does Palm get back-burnered for the next latest and greatest? It’s a vicious cycle: Palm comes out on a smaller carrier, doesn’t get huge sales, the carrier then feels they wasted time and money and doesn’t promote the product, which then supresses sales even further.

Excuse my bluntness, but Palm screwed their developer community. In 1999-2000, Palm used to talk in terms of the Palm Economy. But when the chips were down rather than doubling down on its community, the company decided it was easy enough to make a quick buck off of us. Palm, who spent years wooing developers to its vertical markets, suddenly dropped those vertical markets leaving its developers to hold the bag. Resellers went from charging 20-30% of each product sold in 2000 to 65-70% in 2008 (for reference, the world’s largest online reseller Amazon charges 25% and holds physical inventory). In addition, they added restrictions on what we could do with customer information and required our own web sites to be removed from our products, meaning we had to develop a special version of our software for each reseller.

There are great alternatives out there now on other platforms. With Apple, RIM, Google, Microsoft and others, there is a direct marketing channel (or soon will be) that reduces our support costs by eliminating installation issues and charges a reasonable 20-30% of our retail price.

Given that, all will be forgiven if Palm can sell enough devices. At the end of the day, developers will gravitate toward any platform that sells lots of units and makes it reasonable for us to sell our wares.

But with the markets working against them on all three fronts, it will be quite a challenge to do so. If nothing else, Palm will have an intellectual asset that could be a catalyst for company acquisition. A year ago, with one outdated operating system and another licensed, Palm had nothing to sell. At least now, it might.

We’ll all find out the first week of January.

A Tail of Two BlackBerries

Any minute now, RIM will launch the BlackBerry Storm here in North America. There is quite a bit of excitement around this device. Personally, I have played with the simulator and it looks nice. But the most important thing most of us do with a BlackBerry — email — requires a very good keypad. We’ll see if this one lives up to the hype.

I have bigger concerns, however, for RIM. The release of a touchscreen model splits the company. Now, resources need to be divided between non-touchscreen (keyboarded) devices and touchscreen devices. And this is dangerous territory. When device and OS companies have split their attention before, it has not ended well.

Let’s start with some examples of companies who have attempted to bifurcate their attention and struggled to maintain their leadership position:

  1. Palm: Every company that licensed the Palm OS added their own changes. And then to compound the problem, Palm developed both Windows Mobile and Palm OS devices.
  2. Microsoft: There are actually two completely different versions of Windows Mobile, one for touchscreens and one for keyboarded devices.
  3. Motorola: Linux, Windows Mobile, Android, Symbian… Motorola has licensed all of these at some point and at least released devices with two of the operating systems.

Even big companies struggle with split attention. (Think of what it does to start-ups. I should know!) There is just no way to do something really really really well, like RIM has in the past, while trying to do two completely different things at the same time.

On top of this, it splits the developer community. All of a sudden, we are forced to make decisions about which individual devices to support rather than supporting a platform. Not only is it harder to make a profit, it’s also harder to support the customer who gets confused in their own right. (I can’t tell you how many conversations we have had regarding Windows Mobile: “We support this one but not that one.”)

Is this sour grapes? I don’t think so even though our powerOne for BlackBerry Smartphones doesn’t work very well on the Storm and that to fix it will take a major re-write of the application (to support one device from one carrier). It works fine on every other BlackBerry device.

The good news for RIM — and their potential salvation — is that they are still working on one operating system. From all indications, they did a good job of melding the touch interface and the non-touch interface together into one operating system code base, something Microsoft never did. And as we move forward and turn our attention once again to BlackBerry after we finish FastFigures Mobile for iPhone, we will already have a touchscreen device on the market to test against and will be able to re-write the application to support both touch and keyboarded devices.