Why Early 2010 Will Be Critical for Palm

Palm (s palm) Pre owners got a bonus gift this holiday season with today’s release of webOS 1.3.5, which promises improved battery life and more usable storage for app installation, among other things. The move makes good on Palm CEO Jon Rubinstein’s recent promise to upgrade the company’s mobile operating system, and it follows the release earlier this month of the Ares SDK, a web-based tool for developers looking to build on the platform. But the struggling manufacturer will need more than just an OS makeover and improved developer tools if it’s to compete in the era of the superphone.

The next few months will be critical for Palm, which has seen its handset sales slide following the Pre’s June debut. The company has promised to take its developer program fully public at next week’s CES show in Las Vegas in an effort to boost development for an app store sorely lacking in titles. And Verizon Wireless (s vz)  is preparing its employees for the launch of webOS devices as Sprint’s (s s) exclusive grip on the Pre and Pixi comes to an end. But the clock is ticking for Palm, which is increasingly being pummeled by competitors such as Apple (s aapl) and Android devices. The company must find better ways of marketing its handsets as they come to market through the nation’s largest carrier, and it must continue to improve the webOS as it fills the shelves of its app store. Palm may be the Jack Bauer of the mobile industry, lurching from crisis to crisis, but what it really needs is a high-profile launch through Verizon in the next couple of months. And it needs to do it without the drama.