Most of us tend to root for the underdog. There’s something powerful in
the thought that the most disadvantaged can muster up the strength to
overcome a significant challenge or a more potent competitor.

Few, however, seemed to be rooting for Palm, the company that created the market for the smart phone.

Perhaps it was that Palm didn’t seem to have any strength left. Or perhaps it was that Apple and its iPhone were so appealing that nobody wanted to consider that the fight in the consumer smart phone market wasn’t basically over.

Whatever the case, Palm’s unveiling of its new smart phone, the Pre, at CES last week caught almost everyone off guard.

I’m not a huge fan of smart phones (to me, they’re a utilitarian business necessity more than a fashion accessory) but there’s no denying that the Pre isn’t an attractive phone. More important, however, is the fact that early reviews indicate that its style is exceeded by substance, function eclipsing form.

While I haven’t been given the opportunity to try the Palm Pre myself, I do have a friend in the United States who has and despite the fact that he’s a huge iPhone fan, he was extremely impressed. He told me his initial skepticism was eliminated after just moments of use.

Words he used to describe the Pre include ‘sleek enough‘, ‘intuitive‘, ‘speedy‘ ‘thoughtful‘.

The last word – ‘thoughtful‘ – caught my attention.

Based on my friend’s experience and all the reviews I’ve read, it’s quite clear that, despite its woes, Palm went into the ‘lab‘ and built a viable product. While there are plenty of good reasons to be skeptical and I’m not exactly ready to embrace the enthusiasm of analysts who are usually wrong, even if the Pre doesn’t make Palm an immediate contender for the smart phone throne Apple and RIM compete for, it’s hard to argue that it hasn’t given Palm new life.

And when you’re a company that has been written off, new life (and a bit of Apple-like cheering from the media and blogosphere) is all that you can ask for.

So how did Palm pull it off? The development of the Pre could only have been accomplished with a focus on the user, a healthy dose of introspection on its past failures and current position and a lot of thoughtfulness.

It’s quite clear that Palm knew the stakes were high and invested significant effort and resources in attempting to make the Pre a competitive product in an unforgiving market. From the slide-down QWERTY keypad to the Linux-based webOS that some have called the most elegant and sophisticated web-oriented mobile OS out there, the Palm Pre has done what Palm desperately needed – create a good first impression. And it continues to do so – one of its employees is soliciting developer feedback on how Pre applications should be distributed.

Making a good first impression was important – had the Pre flopped, the demise of Palm probably would be all but official.

The glimmer of hope that the Pre has given Palm serves as a lesson for all companies – to survive and thrive, there’s no substitute for getting back to the basics and focusing on the product.

Far too many companies in Palm’s situation are unable to pull themselves together for one last fight, and far too many companies at the pinnacle of their existence stray from the basics.

In these tough economic times, Palm’s lesson is one that may have some value to companies facing significant challenges of their own, such as Yahoo, GM and the New York Times. And it may have some value to companies that are still holding their own but risk going astray, like Google and Microsoft.

If Palm has proven anything, it’s that you can teach an old dog new tricks.

Underdogs and favorites alike should reflect on the lessons of the past but a major part of developing a dynamic business that is capable of adapting to changing circumstances and overcoming unexpected challenges is finding a way to leave the past behind. Markets are almost always more dynamic than even the strongest companies in them and learning new tricks is the only way to keep up, and when necessary, to catch up.

Whether Palm’s new trick will win it praise from the marketplace in the form of financial success remains to be seen but one thing is for sure – it isn’t chasing its tail anymore.