Palm Pre Designer Peter Skillman Joins Nokia, Talks Past and Future

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It was a bit of a blow learning that the Palm designer Peter Skillman, the point man in the design of the Pre, was leaving the company. Learning as we did last week that he’s joined Nokia to help design MeeGo, which already bears a striking (if unattractive) resemblance to weBOS (see picture above), didn’t help make many of us feel any better about it.

Now that he’s officially started with Nokia, it appears that he’s more than willing to discuss his past and future, as he did during a presentation on September 10. Forbes reports on what Skillman had to say in their blog:

Though Palm was an early leader in the PDA and smartphone market, by the late 2000s, prior to the release of the Pre, “everyone considered Palm dead,” said Skillman. To counter this lack of confidence, Skillman said he mocked up presentations outlining Palm’s comeback plan–from a design perspective–to convince wireless carriers to take a chance on the company again.

Skillman appeared proud of the Pre, which was released in June 2009. He contends, for instance, that Synergy, a software feature that pulls together information from multiple sources, such as social networking sites, into a master contact list, “still works better than almost any desktop solution”. He also spoke enthusiastically about the phone’s “wave bar”, a digital ribbon of shortcuts to frequently-used applications that can be dragged onto the screen with a fingertip. And he praised Palm’s wireless device charger, called Touchstone, as well as the “clean design” of the Pixi, a smartphone that Palm launched in Sept. 2009. “I have always loved [the Pixi] and its scale, size and authenticity,” he enthused.

At the same time, Skillman openly discussed what could be termed Palm’s shortcomings. Both the Pre and Pixi suffered from occasional “performance” issues because their browsers were based on a relatively new technology called WebKit, he said. Skillman also admitted that the way Palm’s webOS operating system notifies users about new messages and missed calls–via subtle icons at the bottom of the phone screen–was difficult for some people to grasp.

Some gaffes related to marketing. Skillman lamented the choice of the name Pixi for Palm’s second webOS device. “Guys wouldn’t be caught dead using a phone called Pixi,” he explained.

That’s the part that’s most pertinent to webOS enthusiasts, although he also dissed the Palm Pixi as having a name unfit for real men. Setting aside the somewhat chauvinistic aspects of that statement (I’m cool with it, for example), and his odd concerns about webOS notifications being “difficult to grasp” (?),  it seems like he didn’t have anything particularly bad to say about his time with Palm.

If you care to know what else he had to say, feel free to read the whole Forbes piece. What I found most interesting, though, was his ideas of what it takes to be successful in the market:

The rest of Skillman’s presentation concerned the mobile market and design and innovation. In the heavily subsidized U.S. retail market, device makers that are “not succeeding at the high end” are “doomed to failure,” he said. The smartphone market, he added, has “only room for about five players.”

For designers and manufacturers seeking to stand out from the mob, Skillman identified some must-haves, including “delicious” hardware, cloud services, a “rich, physical” user interface and a strong developer community. “If you’re missing one piece, in this game, you’re dead,” he said.

I agree with him here, both about what’s required for survival in this increasingly competitive market and the number of platforms that it can sustain. If you count Apple, Android, RIM, Microsoft, and HP/Palm, that’s five. While of course he wants to squeeze Nokia in there, it should be noted that at least in the US, Nokia’s even less of a player than Palm has been over the last few years. Given HP’s resources and the foundation built around webOS, I’d have to give HP and Palm a better shot at that fifth spot than Nokia.

So, Peter, I’d say that if you want to make things work, you’ll need to aim at the same company that HP and Palm seem to be positioning against: RIM. May the best company win—and I think we all know who that is.

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