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Smartphone vendor slammed over privacy abuses

Aug 24, 2009 — by Eric Brown — from the LinuxDevices Archive — views

Palm has been accused of collecting private data from Pre smartphone users, says eWEEK. In other Pre news on eWEEK, Apple's Steve Jobs allegedly offered Palm a potentially illegal Pre-related non-compete agreement back in 2007, and an analyst predicts rough sailing for the Pre unless it quickly adds more apps.

Palm's information-collecting practices are being criticized as posing an invasion of privacy, says a Michelle Maisto story in our sister publication, eWEEK. The story points to a blog entry by Palm WebOS application developer Joey Hess in which he claims to have discovered that the Pre's Linux-based operating system was sending his GPS coordinates and application usage information to a Palm database.

Palm answered the accusation by stating that its data collection practices are legal and clearly stated in its privacy policy, says the story. While Hess published code that can block Palm's snooping, Palm revealed that users can more easily opt out of the function by simply going to Location Services and adjusting a setting.

Maisto quotes Ezra Gottheil, an analyst with Technology Business Research, as saying that Palm's privacy statement is not sufficiently forthcoming in presenting the full extent of its data collection. Another analyst, Roger Kay, president of Endpoint Technologies, however, suggests that American users are simply being naive in not realizing that any GPS usage is subject to corporate data collection.

"I think it's caveat emptor," Kay is quoted as saying. "You can't assume that you're anonymous. … You leave digital footprints wherever you go." After discussing the widespread spying in the former Soviet Union, Kay then goes on to recommend reading The First Circle by the late Russian human rights advocate Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

Did Jobs' offer to Palm break the rules?

With Palm luring away considerable Apple iPhone talent, and according to Apple, stealing competitive advantage by letting Palm Pre users connect to ITunes, Apple CEO Steve Jobs may be in the mood to send the entire staff of its Silicon Valley neighbor to the Gulag.

Apparently the feuding over staff snatching has been going on since at least August 2007, when Jobs offered Palm a potentially illegal "gentleman's agreement" to cease hiring each others' employees away, according to another Maisto story in eWEEK.

The story refers to a recent Bloomberg story that claims that the Apple CEO made the noncompete offer to former Palm CEO Ed Colligan, as the latter began hiring away Apple employees to work on the iPhone-like Palm Pre a few months after the first iPhone was released in June 2007. Colligan had previously been upset over Apple hiring away Palm employees to work on the iPhone, but by the time of the offer, the iPhone was out, the Pre was being planned, and the pendulum had swung the other way.

According to the story, Colligan rejected the offer, saying that it was "not only wrong, it is likely illegal," according to "communications" between the two that Bloomberg claimed to have received.

Since then, there has been considerable bad blood between the companies. This summer, Apple blocked the Palm Pre's ability to synch to its iTunes site, only to be one-upped again by Palm, which released new code reconnecting the phone to the Apple music service. Since then, Palm issued a complaint to the USB Implementers Forum over the issue, charging that Apple had been illegitimately using its USB vendor ID as a lockout code.

The story quotes a Palm spokesperson as saying said Palm has not been contacted by the U.S. Justice Department, but that the department is investigating "possible collusion in hiring among technology companies." Maisto also quotes Endpoint's Kay again, as saying that the gentleman's agreement offered by Apple could very well have been illegal.

The Pre's app gap

The Palm Pre wowed early reviewers when it arrived in early June with a sleek design, pleasing UI, a multitasking operating system, and cool synchronization features, among other innovations. The phone was not quite up to iPhone standards, but it seemed to outshine early Android-based models from HTC.

By pre-iPhone standards (no pun intended), the Palm Pre's early sales, which have now topped 300,000, have been remarkably good for a new smartphone from a company that had been given up for dead. Yet, the Pre's sales pale in comparison to those of the Apple iPhone 3G S, which launched about the same time.

Meanwhile, as users have spent more time with the Pre, various technical problems have popped up, and the short battery life has been roundly criticized. More recently, some observers prying into WebOS code, have claimed that Palm is laying the groundwork for closing key portions of its code to open source developers with potential "anti-TiVoization" measures.

Yet, the biggest challenge facing Palm is the slow arrival of apps that run on WebOS, according to a sobering eWEEK analysis by Don Reisinger. Last week's announcement that developers can now begin submitting Palm WebOS applications for consideration to the Palm App Catalog e-commerce beta program, is a step in the right direction, Reisinger continues. The program should open the way for the first commercial WebOS apps when the program launches in mid-September.

A wave of substantial commercial apps should help Palm fend off criticisms that after almost three months since its launch, its Palm App Catalog contains only about 30 WebOS apps for the Palm Pre. By comparison, Research In Motion (RIM) offers more than 2,000 applications for the BlackBerry, Google's Android Market is stocked with more than 3,000 applications, and Apple claims more than 65,000 iPhone apps in its pioneering app store, says eWEEK. With feature differences narrowing among high-end smartphones, fielding a large number of mobile apps is increasingly seen as essential.

Amidst growing competition from well-heeled foes, including Apple and RIM, as well as HTC, Samsung, and soon Motorola and other handset makers trying out Android phones, the Palm has to perform flawlessly to succeed, says Reisinger. While the company has performed far better than expected with the Pre, it may have been too slow to stoke its application development machine by publishing APIs, which it did only last month.

Speaking of the commercial app program, he writes, "This seemingly wise move may prove to be too little, too late for the handset maker to overcome the Apple iPhone's dominance."

Time to refocus on the enterprise?

In addition to the "app gap," the Pre has been handicapped by having been launched on the relatively unpopular Sprint network, notes Reisinger. (The latter should change in a few months when the exclusive contract with Sprint is terminated, and Verizon Wireless and possibly AT&T try out the Pre.)

Reisinger notes the Pre's early stumbles with battery life and some other technical problems, as well as a multitasking capability that does not appear to function as smoothly as it initially appeared. Although he suggests that the hardware problems can probably be solved fairly quickly, he also writes that time is running out for the device.

Reisinger's suggestion to Palm is to crank out the apps while it quickly decides whether it wants the Pre to be a consumer phone competing with Apple's iPhone, or an enterprise phone taking on the somewhat less formidable RIM BlackBerry. Although he doesn't recommend either of the choices, he appears to suggest that the latter might offer the best chance for success.


Links to the following eWEEK stories referenced above can be found here (privacy issues), here (Apple's 2007 agreement offer), and here (Reisinger's analysis of Pre's future).

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