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3Com's Janice Roberts on Palm's future

In a critical time for 3Com, Janice Roberts this week steps aside as acting president of the Palm Computing division, passing the torch to Robin Abrams.

Janice Roberts this week steps aside as acting president of 3Com's Palm Computing division, passing the torch to former Verifone executive Robin Abrams.

The move comes at a critical time for 3Com.

As the company struggles with increased competition and watches its stock price sink, the popularity of its PalmPilot line may be 3Com's saving grace. Today, the company revised its estimates for the third quarter, saying a seasonal slowdown will result in sales and earnings numbers far below consensus estimates.

Roberts spoke with News.com, sharing her thoughts on her time at the helm and her focus as senior vice president of business development for 3Com.

Q: Did you ever give any thoughts to staying with Palm as president?
A: It's a very exciting business and it's always a temptation to say, "Oh yes, I'm going to do this." But actually I've got so many other things going on and so many opportunities that I think it's important for me to focus...I love Palm, but I also would like to be in other things and my skill is looking at new opportunities for 3Com. I have a very sort of global orientation.

Q: There have been three female chief executives of Palm (Donna Dubinsky, co-founder of Palm Computing, Janice Roberts, and now Robin Abrams). Was this intentional?
A: Some similar characteristics. Pretty expert people, confident people. If you look at Donna or Robin and myself there are very different backgrounds from very different parts of the world and all that, but common traits.

Q: How closely will Palm work with Handspring, Donna Dubinsky's new venture with Palm co-founder Jeff Hawkins?
A: I like to stay close to Donna, because she really knows the industry, so I'd like to see Handspring be successful. And obviously it's very important to her to understand where the platform is going. She's already spent some time with Robin, and obviously has an ongoing very strong relationship with Mark Burcow who leads our platform business and also with me. The 3Com connection is very important for her as well.

Q: Have you found being a woman to be an asset or a hindrance in what is considered a male-dominated, high-profile sector?
A: I think the issue is--and it sounds sort of immodest--but if you are quite talented and if you go for it and you've got something about you, then you get a higher profile. So it's to your advantage. I think if you're a woman and you're mediocre it's a disadvantage, because you get noticed and people notice you're not very good. But I think if you do a good job, then actually it can be still a good thing.

Now the issues are not so much about the business world, it's about the whole personal life and having children and all that sort of stuff.

Q: Do you consider yourself a role model for women?
A: No, I never did until I had children. It's interesting to me, when I was pregnant with my first son, I found that people treated me differently. Everybody started talking to me about babies and home. Before everybody only ever talked to me about branding and marketing and buying this business and that business. Suddenly everybody started to talk to me about breast feeding, etc., which is a real leveler, let me tell you!

I have a reputation for working a lot, but you can be human and you can be normal and you can have a personality and you can have a family. And so I suppose I do take it more seriously now.

I think with women there are no inhibitors other than confidence, in a way. It's really doing what you want to do. But sometimes women aren't particularly confident about what they can do. They're less competitive by nature. I just think that it's OK to be who you are and to be successful.

So I suppose in that perspective I'm somewhat a role model. I've always said you never need to sell your soul to be successful. You never need to be an asshole. And I've always tried...though sometimes I probably am. And that's probably a female value. I've certainly never heard a man say that.

Future of Palm Computing

Q: Is it difficult to build a brand as you aggressively focus on licensing?
A: It's very important to understand that there's going to be a whole proliferation of devices that are going to be based on the Palm OS--that's our plan. And there's going to be other devices, some that will be totally integrated, some that won't. It's also our goal to make sure that these devices interoperate with technologies such as Bluetooth.

3Com will make certain devices, compact devices...more design centers, different types of Palm devices than we do today. But I don't expect us to get into the cellular telephony market any time soon.

There are other markets in the communications space, in the entertainment space, and the education space where we want to license the Palm OS. And so we are going to structure ourselves in a way that enables our partners, our licensees to feel comfortable.

But the relationship they have with the Palm operating system and the Palm platform is not compromised because we also develop products.

Q: What are some of the partnerships Palm is focusing on for licensing?
A: We're very focused on the handheld form factor or less. So that's our focus today, that sort of form factor. You can see a whole host of handheld types of products dedicated maybe to different vertical segments that use the Palm OS for healthcare, education, retailing and so on.

Obviously cellular telephony and phones of all different shapes and sizes. And we think cellular today, but there could be other types of telephony. And pagers--those type of devices. So really mobile communications devices. But if you think about it and of course we're here in the U.S. and we tend to be very pager-centered and very data-centric, particularly around here. When you get off the plane in Europe or in Asia, it's different--people are very voice-centered, particularly in Europe they tend not to use pagers; they use cell phones. So there's future potential there.

So we're really sort of on the cusp of getting even more active in this space. And I find that really exciting and it's great for 3Com too, you know because as we develop and extend the license to more communication-type devices, those devices generate a need for infrastructure. And guess what? 3Com provides the infrastructure too via our remote access products and so on. We've been very, very focused on wireless activities, converged networks, voice and data.

Q: How solid is Palm's hold on the market right now? Is there a serious threat to Palm's market share dominance?
A: Well, first of all I think you build a position in a market like we have and you have some barriers to entry because of the position we have, the number of units sold, the brand, the product--all those types of things, the design.

But you can't constrain a market. You can get an early advantage, but you can't constrain it. I really believe that. I like competition, because I think it makes you focus more on the customer and do better. And we can't be complacent. People trying to constrain the market get very complacent...I'm going to sound like Bill Gates now.

There's always someone who comes in, right? And can do something different because that's what the industry is about. But what I sense is from the handheld people I've spoken to is that they see the success of Palm and they're more focused on adjacent space, complimentary spaces than rushing head-on actually.

So I think that you'll see people who are going to be focused on the games market. I think you'll see people focused on vertical applications. And there's going to be a huge environment for those. No, I actually think, my own view is--and we have to bear this out--there will be less of a clone market. But I think if you're going to license the Palm space you can't say: "You can't have it, but you can." And I think that's really hard to do.

Q: How important is your development community?
A: I think the operating system has so many key characteristics that make it suitable for licensing for these types of devices--communication devices, and particular simplicity, the ease-of-use, the user interface.

And now we have these many types of developers out there. To me it is really compelling, talking at our developer's conference to 500 people in the room who represented businesses, they were basing their businesses on the Palm, on our operating system, on our product, on our applications and so on. And I think it's important for those developers to feel that there's going to be other companies than 3Com developing products to build the market for them, to build the Palm economy.

I think that it makes absolute sense for us to license our operating system because I think we've got an operating system that works extraordinarily well and I think it has real value. I think it has great advantages over Windows CE.

Palm vs. Windows CE

Q: How much of a threat is Microsoft with its Windows CE devices?
A: I don't think Microsoft has got any momentum in the pure data-centric hand-held area. And I firmly believe that we're the only handheld business making money--and we're making money, Palm is making money.

I'm more concerned about licensing in the communications space actually. You know, the whole voice and data world coming together. So I also worry more about what the cellular telephony companies may do than other hand-held manufacturers.

So I think we're in a good position. So Microsoft's a competitor. What are you going to do, lie down and die? Well no! I think there are areas where Microsoft is just hugely successful global company. But I think the world is changing and when things transition there are opportunities for new leaders to come in.

Q: Is there an advantage over Microsoft because there's kind of a diluted brand there because there are so many manufacturers?
A: I don't think Cassiopeia is a household name. I don't think it's ever going to be a household name. I think we can make 3Com and Palm household names You'll see some interesting stuff, stay tuned. Just look at billboards and read a few books, you'll see some things.