mcnamee.jpgVentureBeat talked last night with Roger McNamee (pictured left), asking him why his firm, Elevation Partners, would want to buy into Palm, a company that many people see having a tough time ahead, given intense competition.

Some doubt its chances of survival as a standalone company.

[See our initial coverage of Elevation’s $325 million in investment into Palm. Also see the Mercury News coverage. The Elevation-Palm deal comes amid a wave of M&A activity — see coverage here of Flextronics’ acquisition of Solectron yesterday. Finally, the acquisition of Avaya, a computer networking company, for $8 billion by Silver Lake Partners and TPG, announced yesterday, is the latest in a trend of massive private equity buyouts.]

Here’s how McNamee explains the Palm deal. His starting thesis is that mobile is big and getting bigger — that technology is increasingly allowing people to take and get content wherever they want. Only about seven percent of cellphones are smart-phones today. Within some time frame, say ten years, all devices will be smart-phones, he said. And with only a few players with the know-how to offer a full platform — he counts three, Apple, RIM and Palm — this bet makes a lot of sense, he said.

Here’s more on why: A significant cycle of hardware innovation over the past year has made mobile devices smaller, but those devices are imperfect, he said. Each of them — the Q, the BlackJack, the Pearl and the Palm Treo — have had their own limitations. “It’s really hard to do more than one thing really well,” McNamee notes.

Because hardware has made so many advances, the accompanying software makes a significant difference. Apple succeeded with the iPod not merely because it gives you a hard drive to carry tunes around with you, but also because of its surrounding architecture, including The iTunes store and supporting software. People won’t buy music from a platform that doesn’t have all these parts, he said. The same success has been seen by the video-console players, where McNamee has looked closely: One vendor takes charge of the key components and makes them all work together.

So what are the characteristics of the players most likely to succeed in the smart-phone industry? McNamee lists them: They’ve got to be innovative, have software, have good systems engineers and be ready to take risks.

Who fits the bill? “At a minimum, RIM, Palm, and in three weeks, Apple,” says McNamee, “But not everyone.” Many software makers failed at making the transition to graphical mode interfaces on the PC; similarly, many phone companies won’t transition either, he said.

Because all phone will one day be smart-phones, “this is not a winner-takes-all situation,” he said. He believes Apple’s iPhone will be successful. Its base of some 100 million iPod users, mostly satisfied customers, gives Apple a huge start. RIM also continues to do well. And Palm, too, has got what it takes. Having recruited Jon Rubinstein, and benefiting from idea guy Jeff Hawkins, the company has a team of innovators that is difficult to replicate.

And thus begins the slow, steady grind by Palm to reassert itself.