Palm Prē

This week at the CES, Palm announced its newest software platform and the smartphone to go with it. Personally, I'm impressed for a variety of reasons. pre

First off, Palm has put together a stunning hardware and software package. Check out some of the videos (another) of it in action. It's slick and intuitive, which is definitely what Palm needed to pull off for people to pay any attention to them. As one journalist stated, "my iPhone suddenly felt old and played out." What better praise could one have for a new device?

From what I saw, there are three things that really caught my attention. The first is what Palm calls "synergy," which is really the phones ability to display related information in a single interface. As an example, the messaging application shows messages from all sources (sms, aim, whatever) in the same thread. You don't need 3+ applications and interfaces to communicate with only one person. On a mobile device, this seems like it will play out to be a huge advantage.

The second thing is the phone's ability to multi-task well. Applications can run in the background (something that the iPhone does not currently allow) and bring up notifications when events occurr. This in and of itself is not that innovative, but I think Palm's card metaphor for managing applications and interfaces is. It seems to work well given the capabilities of the device.

The third thing that caught my eye is how well the interface works with gestures. I really like the idea of having a small gesture area below the screen so users can give  input without having to worry about accidentally clicking buttons or activating other functions. On top of that, the whole system seems to work well as a touch driven device. Even though I like gestures and a multi-touch screen, I'm really glad they included a physical keyboard. All of this combined seems like it will really work well on a mobile device.

So the actual device aside, there is another aspect of the event that is interesting to me: the press reaction. Before the  announcement, everyone seemed to be commenting on how much of an uphill battle Palm had before them. It had been a long time since Palm was viewed as a player in the cutting edge smartphone market (at least in the US). It seemed that a lot of critics felt it would  be an almost insurmountable challenge for Palm.

At the moment, a few days after the announcement when (to my knowledge) no one outside of Palm has actually held the device, the response of the press seems overwhelmingly positive. I think Ars Technica came up with the best word to describe the situation when they called it a resurrection. If anything, this device might be famous for how quickly it changed the outlook for Palm as a company struggling to survive in a market that is becoming more and more crowded with big players like Apple and Google. Sites are already posting comparisons between the iPhone and G1 and already (again without any real hands on time) they are showing the Pre in a positive light.

I had hoped that Palm would have something strong to show, but I didn't expect so many journalists to become so entralled with the phone so quickly. Outside of  Apple, this sort of thing just doesn't happen that often. My hope is that Palm takes advantage of it while positive forces are aligned on their side.

From what I can see, there are two outstanding issues that, potentially, could become game changers. The first is price. All of this will be no good for Palm if everyone ends up loving the device but doesn't buy it because it's too expensive. They really need  to think this one over before the announce the price, especally given the way the economy has turned out and the strong competition (which seems to have taken advantage of carrier subsidies). My thoughts are that Palm should launch the Pre with a low price. If they don't gain marketshare fast, I think the Pre might slip from the limelight.

The second issue and perhaps the most important aspect for the phone's long term survival is the development platform. The Pre runs what Palm is calling Web OS. The reason for this is that the development tools/sdk use prevalent web technologies (HTML, CSS, Javascript). What  makes it unique is that hooks have been provided to tap into the capabilities and services available on the phone (think: contacts, messaging, storage).  The advantage is that there are many developers who are very fluent with these technologies. The (potential) disadvantage is that the platform may be limited in some way. The Pre could face a situation where users will feel a strong desire to jailbreak their phones or use some other method to tap into the native capabilities of the device.

Closely tied to the development tools is the applications distribution service (assuming they create one). I think Palm should build one, but that it definitely should not be exclusive. In other words, developers should be able to use a Palm app store to easily sell their software, but they should not be prevented from selling through other outlets or simply giving it away for free on their homepage. I would hope that Palm has been in the PDA/smartphone buisness long enough to realize this, but I suppose there is always the temptation to follow Apple's (flawed, imho) app store example.

In the end, I'm really impressed by what Palm showed off and I wish them the best of luck going forward. Despite the positive reaction, it seems that Palm still has an uphill battle ahead of them. I hope they make it to the other side, because as it stands now, I don't think I'd mind having a Pre in my pocket.

Update: Here is a link to a video of the entire presentation of the Pre at CES. The middle of the video has a really good demonstration of the UI features and interaction with the device.