Palm Pre: Unlikely to Do Any Killing Just Yet



In his “Palm Fights Back” article on CNN Money yesterday, Adam Lashinksy speaks glowingly of Palm (s palm) and its imminent return to prominence with its so-called iPhone killer, the Palm Pre. He refers to Pre features that, he says, cannot be matched on the iPhone: “snazzy multitasking, universal search, a drop-down keyboard.”

I wonder if Lashinksy has heard about the next update to the iPhone’s OS that neatly addresses two of these three issues?

Push Notification Services might not be “true” multitasking, but then, the iPhone has proven background processes aren’t absolutely essential in a mobile computing device. PNS is a halfway house that provides some of the benefits of background processes without the performance and power overheads. For road warriors — Palm’s traditional customer base — battery life is everything, so we can only hope the Pre’s “snazzy” multitasking (I guess he’s referring to the card-based UI in the picture below) doesn’t have a detrimental effect on the machine’s power reserves.

It's a little late coming, but Push Notification Services provides a clever alternative to power-draining background processes

It's a little late coming, but Push Notification Services provides a clever alternative to power-draining background processes

The Palm Pre uses a card-based UI for multi-tasking

The Palm Pre uses a card-based UI for multi-tasking

So how about Universal Search? iPhone OS 3.0 has Spotlight functionality baked in. That’s another box checked.

As for a keyboard, that’s such a tired discussion we needn’t rake over old ground, except to say that either you can live with a software keyboard, or you can’t. If you can’t, you’ll never fully embrace any touch-based computer. And that’s a shame, because you’re missing out. But I guess if you’re committed to your plastic keys, the Pre offers something the iPhone never will.

Lashinksy adds that the Palm Pre is “undeniably cool” and muses that “if it’s as good as its previews suggest, [it] has the potential to shake up an already crowded and fast-growing industry.”

Shiny Things

Maybe it’s Palm’s recent share price surge (from a low of $3 before the Pre was announced, to a current healthy $12) that has him so impressed by this new device, but I suspect the novelty of a shiny, new toy has put a rosy glow on an otherwise not-particularly-compelling device.

I know, it’s shocking, right? Saying something negative about the Pre! I should be shot! But really, I am still trying to understand why people are so deeply excited about Palm’s new device. I’m not being negative — not really. “Practical,” even “cautious” is how I’d describe my attitude toward a device that has yet to be released. And I’m not the only one being cautious. While some journalists are excitedly declaring the Pre an “iPhone killer,” or talking dramatically about shaking markets, even Palm is taking a (mostly) measured view of its new product.

In a leaked copy of the company’s “Palm Pre Launch Guide,” and discussed in an article today on, Palm declares in big, bright letters, “We Can’t Afford to Sell the Pre to the Wrong Customers.”

This is part of a tacit admission by Palm that the Pre cannot run native applications. Remember when the iPhone was launched, and we had to suffer the inelegant and halting-functionality of Web Apps? HTML, CSS, and a little smattering of Javascript were all we had to rely upon for what seemed an eternity. Well, same too for the Palm Pre.

What if you need to run a specific app on Palm’s golden child? Don’t worry, the Launch Guide has a solution:

Does your company have specific application requirements? Does your line of business require specific product features on mobile devices? If YES, then the Treo Pro is your best mobile device option.

Put another way — if you want apps, don’t buy a Pre, instead buy a phone Palm released back in August 2008. Way to show faith in your product and developer communities, Palm!

To be fair, Palm isn’t calling the Pre an iPhone killer — only lazy journalists are doing that — but in the company’s Launch Guide it does claim that the “Palm Pre Smokes the Competition.” Well, you have to be proud of your own kids, right?

By stark contrast, consider how the iPhone is so well-suited to both the standard domestic and business markets. Undoubtedly, the introduction of OS 2.0 and native apps indelibly stamped the Business Seal of Approval onto the iPhone, and sure, that didn’t happen from Day One. The take-home message? No device is born perfect, but with the right commitment from its designers and developers, it can be markedly improved. I expect this will be true for the Pre, just as it has been true for the iPhone since it launched in 2007. So the Pre will have a lot of catching up to do, and quickly, if it wants to claim an equal footing with the iPhone.

Palm’s device might suit casual users who don’t want to spend money on an iPhone (or join the AT&T (s att) network). But as we fast-approach the launch of iPhone OS 3.0 and higher capacity, faster-performing iPhones (and maybe lower prices), the as-yet unproven Palm Pre looks even less compelling when racked up against Apple’s more mature device.

The Pre might one day be an iPhone killer. So, too, might Windows Mobile. All they have to do is offer everything the iPhone offers and more — oh yes, and do it at a cheaper price-point than Apple. When that day arrives, that’s when we can take talk of iPhone killers seriously.

In the meantime, it’s actually something of a shame the Pre isn’t the ultimate device so many pundits are making it out to be. If it were, Apple’s upgrade path for the iPhone would be much shorter and more aggressive in order to stay ahead of the competition.

I’m really hoping the Palm Pre is a success — because then I won’t have to wait quite so long to get ever-smarter, cooler and more impressive iPhones.

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