Robin Abrams leaves Palm Computing

Networking giant 3Com puts a company veteran in charge of its fastest-growing business.

What could compel someone to step down as president of the most popular handheld-computing company in the world?

That's the question that has denizens of Silicon Valley scratching their heads today. Robin Abrams, named president of 3Com's Palm Computing just six months ago, abruptly resigned last night, effective immediately.

Succeeding her is Alan Kessler, leaving his position as senior vice president of 3Com's global customer service organization. Neither Abrams nor Kessler were available for comment earlier today, and the company was silent about the circumstances leading to the management change.

Abrams is leaving 3Com to "pursue another business opportunity," according to a 3Com statement. She is rumored to be joining a start-up company, but additional information is scarce.

"I heard she got an offer she couldn't refuse from a start-up," said Donna Dubinksy, president of Handspring and cofounder of Palm.

"It sounds like the reasons were personal in nature," she said, adding that she is skeptical that any strategic conflicts led to Abrams's departure. "That does not appear to be the reason for the change."

Just last week, Abrams was proselytizing on behalf of Palm at PC Expo in New York, announcing plans for updates to the platform's operating systems that would enable licensees to manufacturer larger Palm-based devices.

The news generally took the handheld community by surprise. "We're still digging into what's going on," said Peter Andrews, a 3Com analyst at AG Edwards.

"This comes as a complete shock to me," agreed Jill House, an analyst with International Data Corporation, adding "But [her rumored move to a start-up] doesn't surprise me given what I know about her. I'm not surprised she would want to be in an entrepreneurial environment."

Three presidents in one year
With the departure of Abrams, Palm has now gone through three presidents in one year, House noted, referring to Abrams, interim president Janice Roberts, and co-founder Donna Dubinsky. The managerial revolving door may have long-term impacts on company morale and development efforts. "That kind of thing always causes growing pains," she said. "It can create problems--they have to be very careful."

Any turmoil caused by Abrams's departure could intensify speculation that Palm may eventually cede market share dominance to Microsoft and its Windows CE partners. "Everyone is looking to pit Palm and Windows CE against one another--it just adds more fuel to that fire," House said.

Bolting to a start-up is, of course, a longstanding Silicon Valley tradition. "It's not a move you'd typically make unless there's something else going on," agreed Scott Miller, an analyst with Dataquest. "But leaving to go to a start-up is not unusual."

Dubinsky, now a licensee of Palm through her Handspring venture, only heard the news yesterday, she said. "I was surprised," she said, because of Abrams's recent arrival to the company.

Dubinsky praised the quick move to appoint Kessler as president. "The search to replace me took seven to eight months," she said. "It would be devastating to the organization to go that long again. From that perspective, I applaud the decision."

Kessler's service background
Kessler's background in corporate customer service would appear to dovetail nicely with Palm's plans in that area. In the next few months, Palm will aggressively promote its products, Abrams said last week at PC Expo. "We're going to take the cloak off our enterprise plans," she said, noting that the company has been working to expand the number of companies that support Palm.

Kessler has also worked in the corporate sales and services at 3Com, working with companies such as Sun Microsystems, according to a company statement. "He's a long-term employee. The continuity makes sense," Dubinsky said, declining to comment on Kessler specifically.

"He comes from the enterprise side of the business, which is very strategic for Palm," Miller said.

Most agree that Abrams's brief tenure at Palm should not derail any product development. Palm has released three new devices this year--the Palm IIIx, the Palm V, and the Palm VII--and appears to be on track for updates to the technology.

"They just came out with three new platforms," Andrew said. "I think they're set for next year."

Handspring, which is licensing the Palm operating system for its own handhelds, has been assured by the company that no development plans have been affected by Abrams's departure. "My assumption is that the strategy will not change," Dubinsky said. "The message I got attempted to reassure me in that regard."

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