CES 2009: Palm Pre (with VIDEOS)

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One of the big announcements at this years CES was from smartphone manufacturer, Palm, which introduced their newest smartphone, the Palm Pre. Jef, Mehan and I were able to see a demo of the new device the day after it was announced in a swank meeting room that was backlit in an orange glow and foam couches and pillows were shaped like stream-smoothed pebbles for seating. The demo was given by one of Palm’s software managers. And I think both Mehan and I agree that not only was the Pre the best in show of CES 2009, that after seeing the Pre in person, it’s clear that the sparkle of the iPhone and the G1 have worn off.

The Pre Device and its WebOS

Taking a cue from the Apple iPhone and Google Android G1, the Pre has a touch interface that allows the user to directly interact with applications with his or her fingers, rather than a stylus, using a multi-touch capacitive touch screen. It works most like the iPhone, but provides a white glow beneath the fingers that are touching the screen. Gyroscopes tell the device which way the user is looking at the screen, and even allow full 180 degree upside-down viewing. A hardware keyboard slides down from the back with vertical orientation, so no on-screen keyboard needs to pop up and take up screen real estate.

Palm calls the new operating system WebOS, which is Linux at its core and the name suggests its development style. What’s immediately noticeable to smartphone users is that WebOS is refined. Palm started where breakthroughs of the iPhone and Android OSs left-off and really thought about what works and what doesn’t. Just a few examples:

  • Multi-tasking with multiple running applications is virtually non-existant on the iPhone, the G1 is capable of it with its pull-down shade, but the Palm Pre really makes multi-tasking happen in a useable way. Apps are represented as floating “cards” on a desktop (kind of like coverflow icons on a Mac) that you can launch, view live and en masse to see what’s happening in each, reorganize, and flick-up and away to quit.

  • Synergy, the technology that Palm developed to allow info from multiple sources to be compiled, viewed, and used from one place. Similar contact information is pooled together from multiple sources, say from one person’s Exchange and Facebook accounts, and displayed as a single merged contact. Events can be pulled from multiple accounts and displayed on one calendar or sorted separably by account. When messaging to a friend, that person’s IM and text messages (and maybe Facebook status updates too?) are consolidated under conversations by that person, instead of independently by the different kinds of messages.

  • User Interface Thought-through. The Pre has a slide out keyboard, so the screen really can take up much of the face of the device. The material that surrounds the screen is black and can make it difficult to tell where the display begins and ends. When in other applications, notifications of new text messages, voicemails, and event alarms unobtrusively float up with a black background at the bottom and push the rounded border of the current app up. It temporarily creates an optical illusion that at least for me, gave the effect that the notifications were actually being displayed below the screen. These messages do not require users to acknowledge them, so they can continue without interrupting what they’re doing. In the calendar application, time is visually shrunken-down, accordion style, so the user can see all of a day’s appointments without having to scroll through hours of empty free time. If users want to schedule an event in that free time, simply tapping on the accordion stretches it out and lets them schedule more events. If only focusing on one of the subscribed calendars, say your Exchange calendar, the events from your other calendars are not specifically visible, but are intelligently grayed out to let you know when you may have other pending engagements. And system-wide search that is smart enough to know when it’s exhaustively parsed everything on the device and ready to find what you’re looking for online.

  • Copy and Paste: Thought it was important enough to give it it’s own bullet.

Possible Pre Pitfalls

Software has long been a shining beacon for the Palm developer community. Despite the long in the tooth devices and operating system, Palm users know they have access to a lot of useful and actively created software out there that can be installed via a direct download, without permission from Palm, Inc. What’s not clear is how that may change for the new Pre and other Palm devices that run WebOS.

The person giving our demo said that there would be a Palm software store on the Pre, called the “App Catalog” where publishers could sell their wares, but that software authors could also provide software via their own independent websites. Sounds good, but when pushed further, it was suggested apps would have to be “certified and well-behaving,” but how detailed Palm’s certification process would be hadn’t been decided yet. PC Mag reports that Palm wants this review to check the sturdiness and security of each application, not necessarily for “content-releated reasons.” We’ll have to wait and see how much control Palm wants to exert over each app or how selective it is with its Catalog.

More reason for concern is how much access developers will have to the Pre’s software and hardware underpinnings. To write an app for WebOS, Palm says all one needs to know is web-technology, like HTML, Javascript, and CSS. According to the same PC Mag article, the Software Development Kit (SDK), called “Mojo” “will have API’s that extend Javascript to access hardware features of the device,” but that doesn’t mean you have unfettered access to the hardware that may be needed for truly innovative applications. Will developers be able to write native code as opposed to being limited to javascript? Could this prohibit the ability of a coder to write their app of choice, like an ssh client, Skype client, or VNC server? How Mojo stacks up to the iPhone SDK which permits native applications but prohibits some access to databases (like the calendar for example), or the Android SDK which too permits native applications, remains to be seen.

In the US, the Palm has an exclusive deal with Sprint to sell the Pre for an undisclosed amount of time. Sprint’s network is CDMA, so even if a user bought the Pre and abandoned their Sprint contract, Verizon is the only other network in the US that it could operate on. Our demo guy told us that there would be GSM-capable Pres sold in Europe soon enough, as well as in Palm Stores after the exclusive as over. Whether or not these devices will be unlocked and capable spectrum-wise of using on AT&T or T-Mobile’s GSM network here in the US still up in the air. Another interesting thought is whether there might be a XOHM / Clearwire WiMAX-capable Pre in the works and those previous promises of openness might impact innovation and competition on this new handset.

Will We Switch?

So where does the Palm Pre announcement put me as an iPhone user? Well, I have to admit I have Pre-envy. Using the iPhone after watching the Pre demo, I feel like it’s chicklet-like icons are now somewhat, well, childish. I long for the ability to truly multi-task among different applications, to pull down and consolidate contact and event information from many sources, without having to jailbreak. I look forward to the day where I don’t have to stop what I’m doing just to dismiss a text message pop-up.

Jef is a long time Palm supporter and user—I think he said he’s almost every version of the Palm (not WinMo) Treo and a number of the Palm PDAs—. Before last Thursday, he’d been waiting for the next Andriod device to jump ship to. Of the Pre, he says he’s “also (mostly) impressed.”

Will I switch from iPhone to Pre? Hard to say, depends on how fast GSM Pres get here, and how tied to the wireless carriers they’ll be. But what is clear is that Palm has thrown down the gauntlet for Apple and Google to compete against the new state-of-the-art smartphone operating system. I hope they will step up to the challenge, if they do the market for more innovative consumer devices will be better off because of it.

Thanks to Jef for helping me with this post.

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