Is Palm Breaking Out of its Rut?

by Martyn Davies on 1st August 2009

While in the US recently, I caught some of the TV advertising for the Palm Pre, which is somehow like a surreal Tango advert.  This is the latest part of Palm’s buzz creation for their device and so far they’ve been quite skilful at creating customer approval and expectation.  Back in March at the Mobile World Congress, the Palm pavilion was a cathedral of Pre, where journos were allowed to see and photograph (but importantly, not touch) as the unit was put through its paces by Product Managers.  The unit was released in the US in June, but In the UK we still don’t get to see the device until Christmas.

Palm Pre

Palm Pre

In the US, the Palm is exclusive to the Sprint network, and they charge $299 in the store, with a further $100 rebate from Palm via mail-in, a common pattern in the US.  The Palm Pre is inevitably compared to the iPhone, since it also has a multi-touch screen, a focus on apps, and the $199 price point matches the iPhone 3GS (2 year contract price), although in the short-term the older iPhone 3G is undercutting at $99.  With the advertising and positioning, Palm are certainly hoping to capture some of that Apple élan and excitement for the Pre.

The iPhone is still exclusive to AT&T Wireless, so Sprint must have been keen to grab the Pre for their customers.  At the very least the Pre is a different design of phone and should attract attention amongst the overpowering display of Blackberries and WinMo devices.  Sprint’s advertising is locking on to the “concurrent applications” theme, i.e. trying to make some headway versus the iPhone that of course cannot currently multitask.  When the Pre comes to the UK, it will be on the O2 network, already the exclusive home of the iPhone, so the emphasis in advertising will probably be a little different.  In fact, you wonder why O2 wants the Pre, as it’s already looking a little top-heavy in the smartphone department?  O2’s catalogue has Nokia N’s and 5800, O2’s XDA series, the iPhone and Blackberrys, to name but a few headliners.

The Pre does look to me like the bastard child of iPhone and Palm Treo, but it’s hardly surprising that the Palm should be influenced by Apple, since in so many ways the arrival of the iPhone has turned the world upside-down for the entire business.  Being related to the Treo is not all bad: Handspring merged the phone and Palm PDA, allowing PalmOS apps to run in the mobile. But having great ancestors does not guarantee the descendants will come right.  Consider Bryan Ferry: famous musician and artist; Otis Ferry: infamous convict and drink driver.  In our time-line things didn’t work out for Handspring/Palm, but in a parallel universe there’s a Palm Inc that grew to take over the whole mobile phone business, and the iPhone was never born.

But there are a couple of things about the Pre that are worthy of note.  Firstly, the Pre has a contactless charging system known as the Touchstone.  The Pre handset sticks to the Touchstone magnetically and charges up by induction, making it very convenient to pick up the Pre without unplugging or undocking.  The Touchstone itself has a rather neat base that uses Van de Waals forces (like geckos feet) to stick firmly to the desk.  Sadly, the Touchstone is not bundled as standard, but is an extra $70 on top of the phone price.

The second thing that I think is noteworthy about the Pre is the way that it approaches apps.  It would be fair to say that Palm have been inconstant when it comes to operating systems over the years, but the latest offering is called Palm WebOS.  The underlying OS is a type of embedded Linux, but the WebOS part allows applications in the form of Widgets to run.  Widgets, in a nutshell, use web technologies, like HTML, Javascript, AJAX and CSS, to implement an app.  Typically, all of the web files (and some configuration information) are zipped up together with a standard file extension for easy installation.  Symbian have been doing this for a while, and the Opera browser can recognise and load a widget.  Really Mobile recently mentioned the current Samsung competition based around widgets, and Vodafone Betavine have also been promoting widgets through competitions of their own.  It’s hard even to remember the world before the AppStore (years BA?), but you might argue that Apple also started on this path, since to begin with the only kind of apps that were possible for the iPhone were web apps.

The promise of widgets is that they will make it easier to create standardized apps for mobile phones, and help to overcome the problems of fragmentation.  Right now software developers have hard choices to make, given that market is so fragmented  (iPhone, Symbian, Android, Blackberry, J2ME etc).  It is argued that phone development will be more accessible, since people with web design skills will be able to come to the party, not just today’s C and Java wonks.  Widget apps should also be more portable.

Widgets themselves are fragmented today with competing standards.  Also in many cases the more interesting features of phones (like compass, GPS, accelerometer) are not addressable from the browser environment.  But if the standards can be worked out, this is the Holy Grail: universal apps that run in a browser environment. Palm also seek this grail.

Whatever sense we might (or might not) make of Palm’s woman on a rock surrounded by orange shaolin monks, there does seem to be some substance to what Palm are doing, and some rather good ideas.  I’m looking forward to the journey.

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