Who Will Pick Up Palm?

Palm shares plunged in late trading Thursday after the company posted yet another dismal quarter and warned that revenue for the current one will fall far short of Wall Street expectations. The company will have to take substantial charges to help its carrier partners eat through excess inventory, and whatever luster once existed for its flagship Pre is long gone. The question now is, who’s going to pick up Palm?

Palm’s last-ditch gamble on webOS has been a disaster. The operating system — which debuted last summer on the Pre — has received solid reviews, but an utter lack of effective marketing from Sprint (s s) — and more recently, Verizon Wireless (s vzw) — shackled handset sales. And an upcoming partnership with AT&T (s t) — which looked to be Palm’s last chance at redemption — is reportedly fizzling already after the carrier delayed the launch of webOS handsets, slashed its order and cut its marketing budget.

So what are Palm’s options? CEO Jon Rubinstein is projecting a “stay the course” attitude, saying better training of Verizon Wireless sales staffers will begin to pay off — a questionable theory given the flat-line demand for the Pre Plus and Pixi Plus so far. Producing a tablet would be an interesting strategy, as James over at jkOnTheRun suggested yesterday. But the market for tablets is still very uncertain, and there’s little reason to believe Palm can move a different kind of hardware when it can’t sell phones. So a suitor will likely sweep in and pick up Palm, snatching up webOS — the company’s most valuable asset — and a sizable patent portfolio. Here’s a quick rundown of the most likely (or most highly speculated) candidates for acquiring Palm — including their odds of doing so:

  • Google (s goog): The most intriguing play on the board, Google might be compelled by Palm’s patent portfolio, as Gizmodo noted yesterday. What’s more, Google and Palm both operate Linux-based mobile operating systems, which would make it easy for Google to cherry-pick the best features from webOS and add them to Android. Google could easily afford Palm, and as a bonus would keep it from falling into the hands of a competitor. Odds: 7-1
  • Dell (s dell): The Texas computer vendor joined the smartphone space a few months ago, launching handsets in Brazil and China, and will soon launch an Android-based device through AT&T. But its late entry means Dell will have a hard time differentiating its hardware, and coming to market with its own mobile operating system, app store and developer community could be a great way to stand out from the crowd. Odds: 7-1
  • Hewlett-Packard (s hpq): HP’s tiny smartphone business is dissolving in the superphone era. Picking up what amounts to a turnkey mobile OS would be a huge — if costly — move to attract attention and breathe life into its mobile business. Odds: 11-1.
  • Nokia (s nok): Nokia has long been mentioned as a potential buyer for Palm, but successfully marrying the two has become an increasingly difficult proposition. Nokia already claims the world’s most popular smartphone OS in Symbian, and its Maemo — um, sorry, I mean MeeGo — operating system appears to be its long-term strategy. What’s more, Ovi has gained impressive traction in recent months. Adding another platform to the mix would only serve to distract Nokia just as it finally appears to be regaining its focus. Odds: 25-1
  • Motorola (s mot): Another hardware maker that might be compelled by the idea of owning its own OS, Motorola’s $8 billion in cash ensures plenty of capital to pocket Palm. Yet despite what Om suggested earlier this year, taking on a mobile operating system would likely be more than Motorola could handle, given its difficulty in regaining its once-dominant market share in smartphones. Marriages of two weak players from different spaces rarely end up happy. Odds: 30-1
  • Microsoft (s msft): Palm and Microsoft seemed like a great fit just a few months ago. But that was before the gang from Redmond went public with its plans to scrap Windows Mobile in favor of Windows Phone, an impressive, consumer-targeted platform set to debut late this year. Windows Phone may fail gloriously, but there’s no reason to bring another OS into the fold — and webOS is largely considered to be Palm’s most valuable asset. Odds: 35-1
  • Cisco (s csco): An acquisition of Palm would enable Cisco to immediately expand beyond infrastructure into the mobile consumer market. Such a move wouldn’t exactly be unprecedented for Cisco, which last year bought the maker of Flip Video camcorders for $590 million, but maintaining a mobile operating system is a far more sophisticated endeavor than simply churning out camcorders. Odds: 40-1.

This is only a partial list, of course, and new potential suitors are sure to emerge as Palm begins to circle the drain. The clock is ticking, and there’s almost no hope Palm can reverse course at this point. So someone in the mobile space might be able to do very well by picking up a dying company at a cut-rate price.

Related content from GigOM Pro (sub req’d):

Could Games Redeem Windows Mobile and Palm’s webOS?

Image courtesy Flickr user nathangibbs.