The Final Days of the Palm Pre
A stream-of-consciousness UX reflection “on the assumptions behind a failure”
Captain’s Log, Startdate 12/29/2009: I win the interview and am hired by the San Francisco office of the global digital agency Isobar, on a contract basis, My role will be as a “Community Manager” for a newly launching campaign for a mobile device that promises to be groundbreaking on all levels.
I had passed through a few SF tech roles since the Dot-Com Boom, but for most of the ‘00’s I’d been working in local politics. This tech/community-organizing role was perfect for me. And after the Dot-Com Bust, followed by years as a highly-job-insecure political hack, busting a foot through the door of a major agency was huge.
I am so stoked right now.
January ‘10: The ink is formally dried on a $650,000 contract with Palm, the genius pioneer of smartphones. The Palm Pilot is like the Orson Welles of tech gadgets. The First. The Greatest. A Legend.
The Palm Treo? Amazing. Game changer.
And now they’re launching the Palm Pre Plus, to great fanfare, mostly due to the much ballyhooed webOS guts (and a fanatical fanboy cult of support).
February ‘10: At Isobar we’re a pretty lean 6-ish person team. Account Director, Account Supervisor, Account Coordinator. Myself in this community specialist role. One Art Director (with art dept help), one Lead Developer (with team help), one project manager (working across several accounts)...hence the “ish.”
Together we conceptualize, craft, and begin bringing to life the “Palm Connections” campaign. The idea is this:
We give away 500 Palm Pre Plus devices to good causes.
Coupled with $300 in Verizon credit to make the phones go.
We build an interactive Facebook app that showcases the efforts of these causes.
They use the phones to both create and tell their stories. These cash-strapped, limited- budget charitable orgs now have this powerful tool. They do better work. They take and post photos and status updates of this work upload it for all the world to see.
We coach and mentor their efforts and promote their cause to a massive audience.
What could possibly go wrong?!?!
Being the “specialist” here, and since this was my only job (the rest of the team were FTE’s with other accounts), I became sort of a central, logistical hub. My primary role was to recruit the “good causes,” do the necessary relationship building, acquire all the assets (photos, stories, etc.), and onboard them.
Work with client re: participants, their stories -- (Is Palm progressive enough for a LGBT rights org?) -- determine markets. Client wants to do LIVE launches, so we can’t recruit groups from just anywhere. I have to find participants ONLY in SPECIFIC markets, and determine what those markets are.
Portland, Denver, Raleigh-Durham, Austin, San Francisco.
Work with art re: content and layout. “We need higher resolution photos!” But those are the photos OUR PRODUCT took!?!
Work with development re: app build, functionality, performance. But...but...we’re building this in a Facebook app that you can’t access via the Palm interface!?!?
March ‘10: We have a $650,000 campaign, 500 phones in inventory committed to it, and a $150,000 contract with Verizon to provide the service. And the phones won’t work on Verizon.
I’m thrust into the insane complications of device vs. service tech and marketing that most people only know when they try to “unlock” their iPhone so they can switch carriers.
Technologically, the phones work on Verizon’s service. But Verizon would require 2-year contracts on all of them. YES. EVEN IN THIS SITUATION.
You didn’t know the whole phone contract thing went deep into ancient Illuminatic secret societies and coded alien transmissions, did you?
April ‘10: Hewlett Packard buys Palm for $1.2 Billion. With a B. Here we go.
April - August ‘10: Mostly havoc.
I’m going round and round with Verizon trying navigate a way through the contract glitch, moving farther and farther up the chain of command, as a major national campaign involving two huge Fortune 50 companies might warrant.
But one thing I’ve always known, is it isn’t the generals who make things happen. It’s the foot soldiers. Don’t talk to the CEO, talk to the assistant. Don’t complain to the manager, ask nicely of the server.
So I walked into my local Verizon store, off the street, bought $150,000 worth of Verizon gift cards, made “Vince” a HUGE commission, launched his career in the company, and solved the problem. Solved A problem.
. . .
When HP bought Palm, our contact people on the client side began to disappear. New staff at HP had no idea what to make of our campaign, didn’t want to have anything to do with it, didn’t care it was already paid for.
HP bought Palm for webOS. They didn’t care about the Palm Pre Plus or its fate.
I cared. I cared about these organizations I’d been recruiting. I cared about what they were doing and how some of them had even changed their strategies to incorporate us. They were counting on us. I kept pushing on.
Meanwhile HP was all like, “whatevah.”
August ‘10: HP’s CEO resigns. Are you kidding me?!?
September ‘10: HP now, literally, doesn’t even know we exist. Most of their staff left with the CEO, and there isn’t even a person filling the marketing role (or that person’s boss, or that person’s boss) -- there aren’t people filling the marketing department that would liaise with our agency on this campaign. We are flying solo, doing this only because we’re this far committed and bound to the work of our contract.
(not me...I’m doing this because I love it, because I’m emotionally invested in the community I’ve built, because I’m about to get to travel on a road show to awesome cities, and because I’m a contractor still trying to earn a real job.)
Needless to say we had ZERO marketing or PR support on HP’s end. And yet, this campaign needed some publicity. I, personally, was going to look like an idiot failure if we didn’t get some buzz. This was tricky. Because though HP didn’t want to help us, they also wanted total control over their PR message.
A lot of times in political work, “Things fall off a truck.” Some benefit surfaces, and you don’t know where it came from, because its origins are probably not kosher.
In layman’s terms: “It’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission.”
So maybe I have a past life as a PR guy, and maybe I have access to media lists and maybe I know the tricks of pitching the press and maybe I accidentally led an underground PR campaign that got 2700 media mentions. OOPS. Sorry I’m not sorry.
That part get’s more interesting. Let’s go back to that “bound to the work of our contract” part…
I get called into a meeting with important Isobar executives I’ve never met. Turns out Nokia is an Isobar client, our Palm campaign is a conflict of interest, and it never should have happened. We’re now in corporate limbo. If we do too well on the Palm campaign and word gets out, Nokia will sue us. If we bail on the Palm campaign, HP could sue us for breach of contract -- even if they aren’t supporting the campaign and don’t care about it.
So my job now is to basically, adequately, unremarkably go through the motions of the campaign through its completion.
Things get weird at Isobar. The GM leaves (was fired?). Interim GM.
Aaaaaand now my Account Director is leaving to go to Yahoo. That’s how bad this is...You’d rather be at YAHOO!
October ‘10: THE SHOW MUST GO ON. Contractually.
My Account Supervisor and I go on the road show. I have a great time. I love to travel. These are cool cities. I like expense account-paid dinners. I like cool hotels.
The campaign? Meh. Hardly anyone showed up anywhere. Of the 500 phones, I managed to get about half into the hands of worthy causes. Most of the users couldn’t figure the things out. They were before their time (the phones, not the users).
The real highlight of the trip? Finding myself in Austin, Texas, at the same time the mighty San Francisco Giants were winning the world series against the Texas Rangers, and seeing the victory with my own eyes. Fact.
November ‘10: My Account Supervisor gets laid off. I am, literally, the only person on this campaign. HP is gone. Isobar is gone. The “good causes” involved got their phones and now it’s the holidays and they could really care less. I am coming into the office daily, half-daily, quarter-daily, to no one’s awareness, like George Costanza with a Penske file, because we are contractually obligated to service this account.
February ‘11: It’s finally over. Contract expired. I ship about 200 phones back for HP to destroy. They would kill Palm completely by August. I got to keep a box of Verizon gift cards and didn’t pay for service for 5 years.
Meanwhile Isobar’s office continued to ghost, and by the next year its SF location had completely shut down.
I was not the captain. But I was the last man standing on deck. I was the one who’d go down with the ship. Or maybe the better metaphor is...I was Jack, the vagabond tramp who never should have been there in the first place, clinging to the floating debris. The Palm Pre was Rose, drifting.
What does one learn from such a colossal failure? What can one learn?!? You learn about people, that’s what. You learn that among the “brands,” the “companies,” the “corporations,” or whatever constructed entity you want to call it, these monoliths are made of people, and no matter how well they frame their own personal “brand,” their professional image, their acumen...those people are going to do some dysfunctional things.
The “assumptions” here? We assumed functionality. There was none. The product was fine. The hardware sucked, but that was an iteration away from fixing. The software -- webOS -- was cutting edge, and now exists all over Android and iPhone after bits and pieces were scavenged. The product coulda been a contender. It was the people behind it. It always is.