Monday, 12 January 2009

The Palm Pre: Think Similar

Palm died. Palm OS died. Get over it.

Now let's talk about this new company, and product, that happens to be named Palm. I don't know if they'll survive or not, but they have a chance, and they're definitely interesting.

That was my overall impression after visiting Palm at CES 2009. The differences started with the meeting room itself. Rather than shelling out for a (very expensive) booth, Palm had an upstairs display room off the show floor. That in itself is not unusual; companies low on money often take a display room at CES so they can have some sort of presence at the show. Usually they get very little traffic, because you have to make an effort to find them.

But there was a short line outside Palm's room. A friend and I got into line, and the Palm folks asked us for our business cards. They went away for about 30 seconds, came back, and pulled us both out of line. "You can go right in."

I'm not sure why they did it, since neither of us are VIPs. But somebody was screening the cards and pulling out anyone whose name they recognized. That was the first sign that I was dealing with a different company -- although the old Palm was pretty well organized, that level of attention to detail would have been unusual.

The second difference came when we entered the room itself. A display room at CES usually is an empty space about 40 feet (13m) or more on a side, with one big presentation screen, some chairs, and a couple of demo stations along the walls. You can take in the whole thing in 30 seconds. Instead, Palm had divided its space into almost a maze, with little meeting rooms (lined with couches) and corridors, all set off by gauze curtains. Along the "corridors" were abundant food carts (with servers, another unusual touch), and small stations where employees were giving continuous Pre demos to groups of up to about a dozen people. You could get very close and intimate with the device, although no touching was allowed.

It felt like a technology harem.

I don't think the old Palm would have decorated quite like that, let alone shell out that much money for exhibit space in a time of layoffs and financial stress.

The presenters were extremely well briefed and disciplined, although they didn't feel robotic. They showed the features they wanted us to see, and wouldn't be baited into going further. The overall impression of the space and staff was extreme design consciousness, a bit of opulence, and intense discipline.

Very un-Palm-like. More like boutique Apple without the rock star CEO.

Think Similar

The theme continued in the product. The Pre does not look like the Treo or any previous Palm product. If anything, it looks like an iPhone with some of its limitations fixed. The design of the hardware, graphics, the fonts, the way things move on screen, and the touchscreen gestures are all elegant, and reminded me intensely of the iPhone. You can even do a pinch gesture to shrink and expand things, which I thought was patented by Apple (this shows why I'm not a lawyer).

Unlike an iPhone, you can run multiple applications at the same time and switch between them. There's a thumb keyboard built in. The battery can be replaced. The APIs are supposedly based on web standards, so many people should be able to program the Pre without learning a new OS. Palm says it will have a software store built in, but the app approval process won't be as restrictive as Apple's. Palm will also apparently allow companies to port other platforms, like Adobe Flash, to the Pre, which addresses another iPhone drawback. (There's a comparison table between the iPhone and Pre here, but it focuses mostly on hardware specs.)

In contrast to all the iPhone references, it's very hard to spot any Palm legacy in the Pre (other than the company logo). The calendar still compresses unused hours, which was one of my favorite Palm features. But literally that was the main similarity that I noticed.

The device won't run current Palm OS apps, although I think Palm is open to someone porting a Palm OS emulator to the device if they want to. But I don't know how you'd operate those apps without a stylus. The browser is based on Webkit, so no more Blazer (yay).

The design of the interface looks nothing like Palm OS. Palm's old design ethic was all about sacrificing beauty in order to produce maximum utility. The result was often extremely efficient but plain (okay, ugly). The new Palm treats aesthetics like Apple does -- the device has to be useful, playful, and beautiful. That's incredibly hard to design, but apparently Palm has imported enough Apple talent to pull it off (or at least to make the demos look good).

Will Palm survive?

Prior to CES, it was fashionable for a lot of people online to predict Palm's imminent demise. That was a misreading of how the world works -- we technology insiders lose interest in a brand long before the public does. Palm still has a strong name, and it will get a good hearing in the market.

So the real question is, is the Pre good enough to make Palm profitable? I think it's too early to answer.

For one thing, we can't touch the product yet. The canned demos were incomplete -- I didn't see the dialer or the software store, for example, and I don't know details of how the product will sync. The SDK hasn't been released, so we don't know what it will be like to create apps for the device.

But my biggest concern is about the strategy, not the product. I'm not sure who the customer is for the Pre. Dr. Rob Enderle took time off from diagnosing Steve Jobs' medical condition (link) to tell a San Jose radio station that the Pre is a better e-mail device than the iPhone and a better consumer device than a Blackberry. Which is probably true, but misses the point -- it's probably a worse entertainment device than the iPhone (because it doesn't have iTunes) and probably a worse e-mail device than RIM (because it doesn't have RIM's server infrastructure). So who exactly is it best for?

Mobile devices that sell well usually have a well-defined market of people who look at them and say, "that one's perfect for me." The Pre is intensely elegant, which intrigues aficionados like me, but there aren't enough of us to make a lasting market. Beyond that, it's apparently perfect for people who want a compromise between a Blackberry and an iPhone, but don't need the best of either. Who are those people? And are there enough of them to make a business for Palm? I honestly don't know.

I guess the old Palm installed base might be a first source of customers, but many of them have moved on. Although there's a lot of enthusiasm on the Palm discussion forums (for a wonderfully detailed article, check here), longtime Palm users don't appear to have a lot of compelling ties holding them to the new device. Their old apps won't work, and they'll have to learn a new interface. Usually when a company makes a transition like this without backward compatibility, the user base reads it as an invitation to consider alternatives. Palm cannot take them for granted -- and even if it could, they alone are not enough to sustain the company.

What it means for the industry

Regardless of whether Palm survives, I think the Pre does some important things to the industry. It's the first smartphone that matches the iPhone on overall UI aesthetics, and it fixes many of the drawbacks of the iPhone. Other smartphone companies will be under pressure to match the Pre's features. Mobile companies like Samsung and Motorola, which lack software expertise, look increasingly vulnerable to gradual share erosion.

I'm very hopeful about the application development model for the Pre. By basing its development model on web standards, Palm apparently will empower the world's vast base of web app developers to quickly create Pre applications. If Palm implements the APIs right, that is a very smart move. It aligns Palm with the forces of the web, and might even make Pre the preferred mobile development platform of the web app community.

I don't know if that alone can make the Pre a success -- mobile devices usually build a base first with a particular function and then branch into apps. But it gives Palm a much better shot than it would have had if it tried to create yet another proprietary platform. The brass ring in the mobile app world is getting the attention of the web app community, and Palm now has a shot at it.

Google, are you listening?

What to do if you're a user


We'll learn tons more about the Pre as it gets closer to shipping. Apple's undoubtedly working on new iPhone products (I'm betting on a smaller device, like a Nano version of the iPhone), RIM's getting the Storm debugged, Nokia is finishing the N97, and there are rumored to be more Android devices coming.* If you're thinking about getting a smartphone, you're going to have a great selection later this year. Hold out until you understand more about your choices.


*There are probably some more Windows Mobile products coming too, but does anyone care any more?

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