At CES 2009 Palm Pre reached Apple levels of hype. Before this point things were looking bleak for Palm, real bleak. In its glory days the Palm Treo and the PalmOS were the shining stars of the smartphone market, but recently they had fallen so far from grace that in 2007 Palm shareholders took a "poison pill" to make themselves an unattractive acquisition target. Palm took on $400 million in debt and paid out most of the company's cash as a special dividends to the shareholders. So today we have a Palm the desperately needs to refinance its debt and raise some much needed cash. It's not just Palm banking on the Pre's success, cellular service provider Sprint is hoping the Pre will do for them what the iPhone did for AT&T.
The Pre is a vertical slider phone. When closed it has an almost pebble shape and when opened reveals a qwerty keyboard with chicklet keys. The keyboard probably won't be as comfortable to type on as a horizontal slider phone or some of RIM's more recent offerings, but I am sure it will compare well with software keyboards like the one found on the iPhone.
The Pre has the same screen resolution of the Verizon G1, Blackberry Storm and the Apple iPhone. The screen lies flat on the device so there is no bevel to collect dust and pocket lint. Like most smart-phones the screen is pretty glossy so don't expect to pick-up much on-screen detail in full sunlight. The screen is also touch capacitive, so assuming the software is upto snuff, should give good finger accuracy.
All in all the Pre hardware is pretty ho-hum, but it looks like it comes together quite nicely. Quite frankly the hardware designs and build qualities of products like the BlackBerry Curve, HTC Touch Pro, and the Apple iPhone all probably outshine the Pre. The Pre's true advantages lie elsewhere though.
What if you could have the functionality of PalmOS, the usability of the iPhone, and an eye towards the web? Well then you would have webOS, the new phone operating system form Palm making its debut apperance on the Pre.
The webOS user-interface(UI) appears consistent and polished. The OS responds appropriately to finger swipes, pinches, and device rotation. A small virtual dock at the bottom of the screen holds a few shortcuts. WebOS implements a cards interface to multitask between application. A swipe of your finger right or left brings the next "card" into view where you can interact with it. New programs can be started from the launcher screen, where programs are represented by a grid of icons. Again you can navigate through the icons by swiping your finger in the appropriate direction.
In what Palm is calling synergy webOS can unify your contacts and email messages from several different sources into a single view. Although some people might consider this a negative, having their Yahoo Mail and Exchange accounts displayed together. The feature will probably be more useful when it is being applied to contacts since you are more concerned about locating information about a person than where it came from.
Finally webOS includes a must-have for any new smart-phone, a full desktop browsing experience that can fit in your pocket. The browser is based on the webkit engine which powers other smart-phones like the G1 and the iPhone. The UI has been customized to fit with the rest of the operating system. Helpful features like finger zooming and automatic rotation are there too.
Overall the software looks really impressive. One wildcard is, how will the developer community take to the Pre? It's not just about the software Palm writes for the Pre, the iPhone App Store has shown us third party developers can have a large effect on the success of a phone.
If for no other reason than to push their competitors to make better products, I hope Pre will be a success. It has a lot going for it but it also has a lot to overcome being produced by a company on the verge of irrelevancy and on a carrier hemorrhaging customers. The Pre will launch on June 6, 2009 and will be available at BestBuy and Sprint Stores. Look for Apple to steal some of the Pre's thunder with the announcement of the iPhone 3.0 coming a few days later.