Palm CEO: We Could Have Been Bigger Than Droid

Yesterday's statement from Palm's CEO, lamenting how Motorola's Droid beat the Palm Pre into Verizon stores, I was reminded of a famous Marlon Brando line from "On the Waterfront." Many people know the words, even of they don't know they come from a 1954 motion picture.

"I coulda been a contender," said Brando's character, Terry, a washed-up boxer, lamenting his fate.

Compare that to what Palm CEO Jon Rubinstein said Thursday during his company's third-quarter results call with analysts:

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Android Market Push Threatens BlackBerry and iPhone

Suddenly this week, Research In Motion began looking vulnerable. Still the top smartphone maker for U.S. customers, the BlackBerry company was stung when a new study revealed that 39 percent of its users would just as soon have an iPhone.

How much trouble is RIM in?

Well, RIM is to smartphones what Microsoft is to corporate computing--the safe, well-integrated choice. There was an old saying, perhaps still true in some companies, that nobody ever got fired for buying IBM. Well, in smartphones, RIM enjoys the same reputation.

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Tech-Savvy Supporters Key to Broadband Plan's Passage

Are you ready to get behind the National Broadband Plan? You better be, because if tech savvy broadband users don’t push it through, there is little chance we'll see 100mbps Internet connections for 100 million or bridge the digital divide that today denies broadband to almost that same number of people.

There are certainly more critical issues facing America right now, including a slowly lifting recession, unemployment, a broken educational system, and the lack of quality healthcare for many of us. Compared to these things, improving broadband access and the other issues the plan tackles, will seem less than critical to many people.

Yet, the plan can also improve each the issues I've just named.

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Location-based Ads, a Coming Nightmare

Foursquare and other location-based applications are a great idea, but commercializing them may be a challenge. Key will be making them minimally intrusive and maximally useful, as well as avoiding the nightmare scenario of a world totally engulfed in personalized, located-based ads.

The South-by-Southwest (SXSW) festival this week in Austin has provided a platform for Foursquare to demonstrate its social networking application, in which users give their friends permission to see their whereabouts after they "check-in" at specific locations.

location based ads
This is not a space Foursquare has to itself. Gowalla, Brightkite, Loopt, Booyah, Yelp, and Where.com already have location-based apps or features. Twitter has added location data, Google offers its Latitude service, and Facebook is expected to add location information to its service.

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FCC Broadband Speed Tests Should Also Support Enforcement

Artwork: Chip Taylor
While it's great the Federal Communications Commission is offering free broadband speed tests, it would be greater if the commission would use the data to force carriers to more accurately describe the speeds they offer and then keep their promises.

There are lots of speed tests available on the Internet, but when the agency charged with regulating Internet carriers offers a speed test, it should be more than a curiosity or a toy.

The FCC's broadband.gov site should generate real information that leads to enforcement actions against carriers that don't deliver promised speeds. Of course, first the FCC must require carriers to make actual speed promises.

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Why the FCC National Broadband Plan Should Include Public Wi-Fi

As the FCC prepares to release its National Broadband Plan next week, I hope it will address expanding Wi-Fi as part of improving mobile data access. It appears no amount of repurposed radio spectrum is likely to meet the expanding wireless data demand for very long.

Universal free Wi-Fi is an idea whose time has come, not because it would be a nice thing for users but because it can reduce the need for additional radio spectrum for mobile wireless. That spectrum has proven difficult to come by and may be more expensive than offering Wi-Fi for free.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski has already proposed asking broadcasters to give up 500 MHz of spectrum, worth as much as $50 billion at auction. Others have suggested that the government itself has spectrum that could be made available.

"If we get it right, broadband, and in particular mobile broadband, will be an enduring engine for creating jobs and growing our economy, for spreading knowledge and enhancing civic engagement, for advancing a healthier, sustainable way of life," Genachowski said in announcing the plan. "This is our moment. Let's seize it."

Other answers need to be considered, and more Wi-Fi is an easy one. The additional Wi-Fi could be financed, in part, with money customers pay carriers for cellular data service, much like the surcharges that already exist.

Universal Wi-Fi is consistent with the larger goal of making broadband available to every American business and home, so that even those without cellular data can enjoy the benefits of mobility, albeit in a more limited way. My hope is that someday mobile cellular (3G and 4G) will be limited to users who are actually moving or are beyond the reach of Wi-Fi hotspots.

Obviously, some of the subsidy money would go to the wired broadband providers whose networks would absorb the new Wi-Fi traffic. There would also need to be a change in current user agreements to allow this bandwidth sharing by wired broadband customers.

There are a variety of technical issues that also need to be addressed.

First, switching from cellular data to Wi-Fi must to be transparent to the user, who needs to be protected from rogue hotspots that invade privacy, steal identities, or worse. Organizations that provide bandwidth--for free--need to be able to easily control the amount of Wi-Fi bandwidth they are giving away. Most businesses, I think, would be happy to share excess bandwidth, but wouldn't want their users to experience any slowdowns as a result.

My proposal is a response to remarks made this week by former FCC Chair Kevin Martin, who said that getting as much data as possible off cellular wireless and onto Wi-Fi could reduce demand for additional radio spectrum. He also talked about the need for more fiber optic to carry broadband out to customers.

Martin remarked that finding additional spectrum for mobile wireless is proving difficult ard to come by, so reducing our need for it is a good thing.

Universal free Wi-Fi is such a natural evolution that I'm surprised it hasn't already been addressed. To wit, the FCC should require all smartphones to have Wi-Fi in addition to cellular data and to select Wi-Fi first as the data mode.

This proposal also needs to be considered in light of the move to faster 4G connections. Today, Wi-Fi is generally faster than my 3G connection, but probably won't be as fast (as least not at public locations) as 4G wireless.

Thus, we may want to provide an optional feature in the smartphone that looks at what the user is trying to do and would override the "use Wi-Fi first" setting when higher speeds were required, as for a big download or perhaps live video.

I believe paid Wi-Fi will go the way of the pay telephone. As costs come down, a free broadband connection will be expected at businesses and public locations. As for expanding free access, the private sector will do much of the work, but may require a helpful push from government to make this happen.

Having data travel wirelessly for the shortest distance possible is a great idea and fundamental to how cellular works. But as cellular networks become ever more crowded, Wi-Fi can do more to help.

As for when it should happen, tomorrow would not be soon enough.

David Coursey has been writing about technology products and companies for more than 25 years. He tweets as @techinciter and may be contacted via his Web site.

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Will Verizon 4G Mean the End of "All You Can Eat" Data?

Verizon Wireless expects to have its first 4G smartphone out by the middle of next year, but the subtext is you may end up paying more for your wireless data.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the mid-2011 date is about six months earlier than what the company had previously announced, and will be about six months after Verizon brings its 4G network online later this year.

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