If we believe all the J-school trained tech writers, Palm has saved itself with the promised introduction of the Pre.  New hardware.  New firmware.  New everything.  Tech writers from J-school may believe this; Palm users may be a bit skeptical.  Part of the reason is apparently me-too thinking; part is a no-backward-compatibility burn-the-bridges approach; part is that this is a Palm Product, almost certain to prove unreliable in actual use.

I was not an original-Pilot user. My first Palm product was the Pilot Professional, the updated version of the original, after Palm became a U. S. Robotics brand, on its way to becoming a 3Com brand.  That Palm Pilot served nicely, dying (sort of; it was a dirty-switch problem; cleaned, it worked fine) on the day my M500 arrived. It was in the middle of PCExpo and I spent the night getting everything moved into the new device.

I only got interested in changing when I started using my M500 as my e-book reader of choice.  The T5’s bigger screen was attractive and Palm was finally about to make good on WiFi connection.  When they did and included the needed card in a bundle, I ordered a T5 so fast my head was spinning.

What a disappointment!  Charged, loaded once, died.  Called Palm; they took it back.  Not very clever customer-relations people; they didn’t offer to swap me a new one that worked; they just took it back and didn’t charge me.

Not much later, along comes the T|X.  It had everything I wanted, including built-in WiFi.  Memory was short, but I could (despite Palm claims to the contrary) stick a 4gb SD card in the thing.  Found a good price and placed the order; I had lots of fun.  I bought the — not included — cradle kit and extra styli and screen savers and extended warranty and so on. I was again an active Palm Pilot user.

My joy declined at the same time I noticed the touch screen was failing.  I called Palm support; that crew is a complete waste of space.  They could fix nothing; they could read a list of did-you-try-this stuff, period.  I bitched to Palm HQ; I got the corporate-user support number (a U. S. firm, but I think still an outsource deal…).  I called, we chatted, they agreed things were not working very well and I was covered for a replacement — refurbished… — Palm T|X.  I had to send mine back first, and they’d then send the replacement.  It took forever, and the Palm what’s-happening site never correctly reported status.

The replacement Palm T|X arrived. I set it up.  A week later, the screen died.  Not slowly went bad; dead.  Nothing on it.  So much for the — outsourced… — factory-refurb.  I called corporate support again; this time the embarrassment was sufficient that I was promised a fast replacement; they’d send theirs first, with a return-it bag for the dead one.

T|X number 3 arrived.  Palm actually said they’d sent two by mistake; maybe, but I only saw the one promised.  It worked well for about nine or ten months.  Oh, the touchscreen decayed again just like the first one, but this time I did some ‘net-surfing and came across a program called PowerDigi from Palm Powerups fixed the wandering and decaying calibration.  [Interesting company; its only flaw is that the guy who runs it is not always on top of answering e-mail.  The expression, “painfully slow”, covers it — especially a problem when one is waiting for an unlock code.  Great programmer, crummy businessperson; has yet to understand that “fast correspondence makes lasting friendship” is a bilateral notion.]  The cause of T|X#3’s demise: The power switch failed.

I am now on T|X number four.  I rely on it.  I carry a library of current books for casual reading and scholarly work in progress (at the moment, David Hume and Adam Smith on Moral Sentiment theory.  I use some ancient PalmOS software to keep notes on diet and time-keeping and so on.  The WAP-type browser is not perfect, but is generally adequate for things I need to do when not in my study.  The mail program is also what I need when not at home.  The idea that I will be out of my (doubled) warranty period in a month or so is scary, given the replacements I have needed.

It is not just crummy QA on the T|X (also commonly claimed by heavy-duty Treo users, so this is not just a tier-two PDA-only issue).  Other Palm products fail regularly.

Consider: With a keyboard for use when possible — in an hotel room, e. g. — my T|X would give me all the touted benefits of these new “netbooks” without the size and weight issues.  The older IR keyboards weren’t all that interesting, but two companies — one of them, Palm — had bluetooth keyboards.  I bought the other one first (it had a metal shell…); I encountered driver issues.  I took it back, got a Palm-branded (but apparently, Freedom Input made) bluetooth keyboard.

It lasted weeks — about three.  In fact, it never quite worked right; it seems that, although touted for the PalmOS generally and the T|X specifically, it really was intended for use with the Treo phones — but even then, apparently was not all that robust a match.

There are two problems with this keyboard: First encountered: The drivers don’t really work all that well with PalmOS.  If the bluetooth keyboard is activated as one goes along, as needed, there is a very good chance PalmOS will execute a reset in an unpredictable way. So, if one wants a fairly reliable session, one learns to load the keyboard driver before other applications, and then to manually disconnect when one is finished, if one wants to avoid an unpredicted crash.  When I bought my keyboard, Palm tech support (such as it is) had not even seen the keyboard and hadn’t a clue to how to make the thing work with any reliability.  Their comment about this Palm-brand product: Oh yeah, there is a problem with bluetooth in the T|X (not really; works fine for somethings, but these are Computer Guys — and not of the best, either).

Anyway, I found the workaround Palm techies couldn’t figure out on their own.  That could not compensate for the flimsy construction.  I folded open the keyboard — carefully; I understood this was not brick outhouse equipment — and the hinge pin broke.  I called Palm customer service: Sorry, we don’t think so.  I called again when, because the hinge was broken, and the keyboard would not open correctly, the connection between the two leaves of the folding device was damaged, and the thing failed completely: Sorry, we don’t think so.

Crummy QA — products that work unreliably and are, frankly, of shoddy manufacture.  Crummy tech support — unfamiliar with the products the company sells (in short, outsourced to one or another non-Palm company).  Crummy customer service — I had to escalate to corporate level to get barely adequate support, and even then I had some interesting conversations that were not very productive, despite having paid for extended coverage; some products were not supported at all.

Palm appears to be trying to run as a virtual company:  It has an HQ and design center, but manufacturing and support services are outsourced.  These do not receive adequate management supervision from Palm.  Consequently, a company which produced rock-solid goods — my M500 works just fine and is set up as my backup Palm (not a simple thing, since the file formats are different) and my Pilot Pro was working fine, last time I looked (it’s buried in the history drawer, I think) — cannot now be trusted to deliver a reliable product even to save the company’s life.  My story is not mine alone; a little surfing will prove that conclusively.  Simply hiring an ex-Apple guy (not a winning scenario anyway; many of us remember just how crummy a company Apple was when Jobs was not at the helm and Woz had taken a powder) to do something glitzy will not save this company, I suspect.