Palm Goes All In

PALM GOES ALL IN By Scott Budman

Not long ago, Palm (PALM) shares were trading for about the price of a cell phone ringtone.

Then, the Palm “Pre” was introduced in January at CES.  I was there, and the buzz was instant.  It was a touch screen phone not only to rival Apple’s iPhone, but one that those who were gathered in Las Vegas (and there were a lot of us in the Venetian that night: reporters, techies, porn stars, you name it) started to talk about in reverential terms: “Better than the iPhone,” said one. “Smarter than my BlackBerry,” said another. “Takes great pictures,” said a third (might have been a porn star, but I’m not sure).

Wall Street also listened.  After having hung up on Palm a few years ago, investors now jumped back in with both, um, palms. Shares of Palm stock doubled, then tripled, finally settling at — given today’s economy — a decent price for a tech stock.  It looked like Palm had a future, after all. 

But here’s the problem:  No phone yet.  All that buzz, and if you want a cool touch-screen phone, the choices are still pretty much your local Apple store, or a BlackBerry outlet.  The Pre is nowhere to be found.  And now, Palm admits that re-starting the buzz could be very expensive.  Like, maybe, nine figures expensive.  And with the company having been hitless for years, 100 million dollars isn’t sitting around waiting to be spent.  The company, by some estimates, has a little more than double that in the bank, total.

So Palm, in Texas Hold ’em parlance, is going all in.

Step one:  Bet the company on the Pre.  Check.  Step two: Raise enough money to do step one.  That’s where you, the potential Palm shareholder, come in.  Palm is planning sell shares of stock to raise enough money to firt market, and then sell, the Pre.  If the plan works, the company stands to make a whole lot more money on sales.  If it doesn’t work, Palm is in big trouble.

Having had an early chance to check the Pre out, I must say that I’m impressed. I like it more than the BlackBerry  Storm, and the Instinct by Samsung.  And those are pretty good phones.  But as good as the iPhone?  Remember how many MP3 players were supposedly “as good as the iPod”?  Those companies all found out that without that sense of cool (not to mention iTunes), they just weren’t gonna hit.  That could happen to the Pre.  Will there be enough developers to create enough apps?  And what about that sense of cool?  Sure, it was an early hit with the press & porn stars, but in this economy?

I’m hoping for a high-five, but Palm might have to settle for a lukewarm fist bump. 

[For more of Scott Budman stories, visit http://www.nbcbayarea.com/news/business/]