Palm Pre, Will it Save Palm?

Palm Pre

There was another big announcement from last week’s Consumer Electronics Show that I have purposely held off commenting on. Palm announced their next generation phone, the Pre, and their new WebOS. The tech media has been touting this device as the best announcement of this year’s CES. Full disclaimer: I have owned and used a Palm device since the year 2000, which is one of the reasons I’ve been holding off on this post. I watched the palm keynote, and was extremely excited about this device, and wanted to let the hype wear off before commenting on it. I also wanted to wait until I could get my hands on everything that has been written about this thing to date, and not just drink the “Ooo-purdy-new-phone!” kool-aid. Well, I’ve been sitting on this for a few days now, and can honestly say I’m still very excited about this phone. That said, there are still many things we don’t know yet, but from everything I’ve read out there, this thing seems to be the real deal.

So what’s so great about this thing?

Hardware
Some people love the look of the Pre, some people think it’s kind of ugly. Personally, I like it. It’s got a nice organic shape, the rounded corners are everywhere, from hardware to software. Plus, the best part about this thing, it has a hardware keyboard. Like I mentioned above, I’ve had several Palm phones, the first cell phone I ever bought was a Treo 300, and I’ve upgraded to future Treos from there (300>600>650>755p), so a hardware keyboard is important to me. I could probably learn to use a software keyboard (ala iPhone), but if I’m torn between two exact phones, and one has a hardware keyboard, I’d probably prefer to go that route. I also really like how it gracefully slides out of the phone. Most of the navigation, and simple day to day activities can probably be accomplished with the touch screen, but when I need to type an email or txt message, it’s really nice to have the ability to slide out a full keyboard. The other nice is the touch screen (ha!). It extends below the screen’s viewable area (around the silver button at the bottom) for a gesture area, which is a vital part of the user experience. Otherwise, the hardware on this device is what you’d excpect from any modern smart phone.

  • High-speed wireless (EV-DO Rev. A or HSDPA, depending on version)
  • 802.11b / g WiFi with WPA, WPA2, 801.1x authentication
  • 3.1-inch 24-bit color 480 x 320 display
  • Built-in GPS
  • Bluetooth 2.1 EDR with A2DP stereo Bluetooth support
  • 3 megapixel camera with LED flash and extended depth of field
  • 3.5mm headphone jack
  • 8GB of internal storage (~7.4GB user available)
  • MicroUSB connector with USB 2.0 Hi-Speed
  • Proximity sensor for detecting when phone is near face
  • Light sensor to automatically dim display
  • Ringer mute switch
  • Removable rechargeable battery
  • Width: 59.5mm (2.3 inches) Height: 100.5mm (3.9 inches) Thickness: 16.95mm (0.67 inches)
  • Weight: 135 grams (4.76 ounces)

This device has only just been announced, so these hardware details could still change before it becomes available.

Software
One of the things that palm has been working on for quite some time is their transition from their old tried and true PalmOS (Garnet) to a new Linux-based OS (codenamed Nova). They have been talking about this transition for several years, and have been plagued by delays, leaving many to wonder if it was vaporware. So, with their existing PalmOS getting extremely long in the tooth, Palm had to come forward with something truly amazing, or be prepared to curl up and slowly die. To tell you the truth, I was fully prepared for the later of those two options. I heard about the announcement at CES, but was ready to be underwhelmed. My phone contract is up in May, and I was ready to leave the platform for the first time in almost 10 years. Palm had been sitting dormant for way to long. There were too many players jumping ahead of them starting all the way back with Microsoft eating away at their handheld market (before they even started making smart phones). Now with the smart phone market really taking off, with iPhone, Android, Windows Mobile as the big players, it was hard to see how Palm could even think about taking that lead back (for some interesting history on how Palm whittled away their lead in this market, Engadget has some good historical perspective). Given all of that, Palm definitely came out swinging, and is definitely prepared to compete on the same level with the iPhones and the Androids already out there, maybe even pushing the bar a little higher. Nova, now officially named WebOS is definitely an impressive step forward.

The WebOS has some really cool things going for it, but again, we only know what Palm has told us, so until these get into people’s hands, it’s still up in the air. The interface on the Pre looks really impressive. Palm seems to have really taken the time to think through how you can and should interact with a handheld device. There has been a lot of thought put into using the Pre with one hand, for instance, if you touch and hold in the gesture area and then slowly move up the screen, you’ll get a floating quick launch-like bar of your favorite apps. These types of usability tweaks seem to be scattered throughout the entire OS. I guess this makes sense given that Palm pretty much invented the handheld interface, and these types of decisions are in their DNA. On top of the well thought out interactions, the UI design is beautiful. It looks like a modern smart phone.  Some other nice software features are true multitasking. Palm has created a great interface for multitasking on the device. They metaphor they use is a deck of cards spread out on the Pre’s “desktop” representing all of your open applications. You can flick through them, reorganize them, or close them all from one place. You can also set up a card or instance of the same application open multiple times. An example of this would be several cards of the browser application each open with a different website (kind of like a tabs interface in modern browsers). Another nice software feature in WebOS is how it handles alerts. Say you get a txt while you are writing an email message, or browsing the web. WebOS doesn’t take focus away from the task you’re in the middle of, it simply puts a small icon, or partial screen of the alert letting you handle it however you want. I think one of the truly great features of WebOS is how it uses the web (appropriately named eh?), or cloud to manage calendars and contact (and possibly more – we’ll see). The way this works is you’ve got contacts in all kinds of places on the Web (Gmail, Facebook, etc.). WebOS takes all of these collections of contacts and figures out where there are duplicates, or where a contact represents the same person, and brings it all into one place on the Pre. So if I have a contact on the device, and it sees there is a record of the same contact in facebook, yet maybe the Facebook contact has a different phone number not listed with the original, it pulls all that information together into one place. It does the same thing, pulling calendars together from across the web. If I have a work calendar on Exchange and a personal calendar in Google, it let’s me see it all together in one place on the Pre. I’m sure there are things I’m missing, but so far this software (what we’ve seen of it) looks really amazing. To see a good video demonstrating more of the UI, PreCentral.net has a great video of the device on their site.

There is one more piece of all this having to do with software. How difficult will the Pre be to develop for? That again, is a tough question to answer since many of the details haven’t been released yet. Palm claims that it will be very simple to do though, given the development environment is pretty much just web development. Palm has said it is all based on HTML 5, CSS, and javascript, and that everything they’ve demoed thus far was created using just that. The development environment was/is also a piece of whether or not this thing flies. Like I mentioned above, there are quite a few smart phones out there already established, all having their own development environment. Adding yet another way to make apps for a smart phone would just dilute that developer community more, most likely leaving Palm without quality apps. Choosing to go with technologies that millions of developers already know and use on a regular basis was very smart on their part. There is already a huge community out there to make apps for this new device. That does leave a few questions though. Exactly how powerful will this environment be given that it just uses web technologies. I think most common things can be created, but more complex development might take a bit more. A good example, and one were Apple’s iPhone really shines, is in games. It would most likely tough to create a well-made 3d game, like you see all across the iPhone App store with only web tools to do it with. It would some lower level access to the device to be able to do that. Maybe that will happen, it is still too early to tell what exactly Palm has up its sleeve. My guess is that most developers will be able to use the common web development environment to do what they need. For anything beyond that, I’m willing to be that Palm may have a little bit more complex SDK available, but with a few more hoops to jump through to get it.

Final Thoughts
I’ve mentioned several things that are cons on this device, but probably the biggest is we don’t know everything yet. Palm has been purposely tight-lipped on several things. What is the battery life on this thing going to be? At least they have a removable battery (yes, I’m looking at you when I say that iPod/iPhone!), but am I going to have to swap batteries in the middle of the day? How much is this going to cost? Palm is partnering exclusively with Sprint for the launch, which is fine with me since I use Sprint, and will have a contract end in May, but we don’t know how much this bad boy is going to run. Rumors say from $149-199 with a new contract or extension to $399-$499 without. If they’re smart they will price this thing at or below the price of the iPhone. Also, what kind of service plan will I need to use this? Will Sprint go AT&T on us and force us into a special (more expensive) Palm Pre plan? Will this thing only work with the cloud? The thing that makes this phone great is how well it works with the internet and data in the cloud. But, will it only work with the cloud? An example: I currently have an encrypted password application on my Treo that I sync between an encrypted password application on my desktop. This type of information I don’t want flying around the cloud, or being stored there. The cloud is great, but there is something to be said for a simply desktop sync when it’s called for. I guess we’ll wait and see how all of this lands. As we get closer to the release, (full) details of this device will finally make it into our hands.

Palm has been up and down a lot in their sordid history. They lead the way in the handheld market, and seemingly squandered it away over the years, building themselves up again with smart phone, but not without squandering that away as well. Before this announcement at CES, the death knells were definitely sounding for Palm. This was probably going to be their last time at bat, so they either had to hit it out of the park or lose the game. I think they did that with the announcement of the Pre and WebOS. The technology press has been a buzz since the keynote. I haven’t read much negative news about this thing. Some even call this thing an iPhone killer. I think saying that has become a little cliche lately, but if any device has a chance, I think this one does. Will I go right out and buy one of these when my contract is up? I doubt it. I like how it looks currently, but there are a lot of nice smart phones out there right now, and by the time I’m ready for one in a few months, who knows how much the landscape will change. I’m very impressed with the Pre, and what Palm has done, but we’ll have to see how it all looks when this device actually hits the ground.

4 Comments

gravatar Mizidy

My only real concern about the “web standards” as a development platform is that Apple tried the same thing and got torched in the media for it. I wonder why Palm is getting a bit of a pass on this.

That being said, almost 2 years later and a number of hours on iPhone Safari design, I actually agree that the web as a platform is a decent choice.

gravatar Scott

@Mizidy I *think* the development platform is going to be different than what Apple did. Note that I stress the *think* since we really don’t know for sure. What Apple did was allow you to create an button to what was essentially a website that lived off of the iPhone. As I understand it, Palm is actually using HTML 5 which includes client-side storage capabilities, plus a JSON-based message bus to tap into the phone (camera? GPS? other native apps?). So you’re really not just making a special website to view from the phone, you’re writing something that lives on the phone, and taps into the phone, but using web languages. There isn’t a whole lot released on this yet, but http://developer.palm.com/ does have some clarification. I think that’s why they’re not getting torched like Apple did. But again, nobody knows till more of the Palm dev docs show up.

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