At the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last week Palm announced their new smartphone – the “Pre“. Not that a new smartphone from Palm is necessarily big news – they’ve released several over the past few years. What makes this one special though is that is it built on a brand-new Palm operating system called WebOS, an OS that many people have been waiting for for a long time. You can liken their release of this new OS to the release of the iPhone’s mobile version of OSX or the Google developed Android OS running the T-Mobile G1
Big deal. A new OS. The mobile world is awash in operating systems, fragmenting the space and making it difficult for developers to write software that will gain traction across more than one or two platforms. But WebOS seems to make the iPhone seems antiquated and very non-multitasking. The Pre is very web-centric, in such a way that it extends what the iPhone has set as the bar for interaction with a mobile device. Spec-wise, the Pre has some shiny features – 3.1″ touchscreen, flip-down keyboard, 3MP camera with flash, 8GB built-in memory, stereo bluetooth, etc. Some of these features are an upgrade from the iPhone’s or the G1’s, but some aren’t.
But what I think make the Pre compelling is the contrast that its WebOS makes with the
iPhone’s OS, and, to a much lesser degree, Android. A beef I’ve had with the iPhone for a long time is it’s lack of multitasking. The current iPhone requires you to think too much about what tool you need to communicate. For example, I can’t communicate via Facebook without thinking to myself “I wonder what is happening with my Facebook account. Let me stop what I’m doing on the phone right now, launch the Facebook app, and see what’s up.” Once I’m done with Facebook, I have to close it to get to my next task. This really bugs when you want to run Pandora while surfing the web or stay logged in to AIM while reading email. So, by the time the Pre comes out, I think Apple needs to do two things:
- get their background push notification system (touted by Apple this past Summer) up and running, and
- allow third-party apps to seamlessly move between one another without having to “resurface” to the homescreen any time you need to switch.
The Pre relies on the “apps” being web-appish in nature – think pre-SDK iPhone webapps. However, the Pre apps can run locally and don’t require a network connection (i.e. you are not opening your browser and going to a website to run your app.) This is similar in concept to Google’s Chrome browser model – the browser acts as the OS and allows you to run apps within it, as well as surf the web. A developer simply has to use current web standards like HTML, CSS3, AJAX, etc., to develop apps. These apps should theoretically run on multiple devices. However, will the Pre’s WebOS be able to run games anywhere close to those on the Objective-C-based iPhone OS? It will be interesting to see. The Apple SDK and the apps that have been developed to date (over 10k of them) underscore the iPhone as a media powerhouse and highlight its gaming prowess.
It is also interesting that the iPhone, the G1 and the Pre all have the same screen size – 320×480 (HVGA). Good move – all the iPhone-optimized sites that exist are most likely also now G1- and Pre-optimized. This seems to be the de-facto size for touch screen phones. And all three devices run a browser based on the popular open-souce WebKit (as does some Symbian-based phones such as the Nokia E71 you may have seen floating around.) Same screen size and browser platform are both steps in the right direction for establishing a solid mobile experience.
As smartphone platforms continue to evolve, the desktop/laptop computer will become less and less of a part of the ecosystem. Right now sync is still very much a crucial part of the iPhone experience – you can’t set up or activate your phone without it, you can’t get video content onto your phone without it, and, up until the Macworld Keynote last week, you couldn’t get music content on your phone over the cellular network. I haven’t seen yet where Palm has specified how you are supposed to get all your media content onto the device – my guess is that it won’t all be over-the-air and that there will be a USB bulk-load of media content even though Palm has been very clear that their new OS doesn’t need a main computer to be linked to.
From what I’ve seen so far about the Pre, Palm is trying to revive their smartphone leadership role that they once carried in the days of the Treo 600 and Treo 650 – these we’re the coolest devices on the block. The new Pre seems to bring back some of the energy that the Danger Sidekick brought to the table back in the early 2000’s with their fun & friendly OS that ran backgroun apps, sync with your web-based calendar and contacts over-the-air, and download apps and update your OS over wireless.
There are many more innovative features of the Pre and WebOS that I haven’t touched on here, features that additionally highlight what the iPhone is lacking when it comes to a web-centric device. It will be interesting to see what effect a Pre-infusion will have on Palm in 2009.