Palm Pre, Game Changer or Dud?

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Palm Pre, Game Changer or Dud?

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We owe a great deal to Palm as it started a handheld computing revolution which eventually was eclipsed by smartphones. Years back at a TMC event one of the important comments I heard was that Palm saw RIM as the most important competitor and not Treo (this comment was made prior to the Treo acquisition by Palm) or Microsoft.

How right the company was but now it is not only Blackberry stealing the handheld computing company's thunder but Apple as well.

In response to the threat from RIM, Apple, Nokia, Microsoft, Google and others, the company launched the Pre, a fantastic looking device which seems to have the functionality of an iPhone with a slide-out keyboard.

The hardware is not very different from other devices - you get WiFi, stereo bluetooth, a replaceable battery, accelerometer, GPS and other things you would find on a high-end Nokia. The one hardware differentiator is the ability to charge the Pre without plugging it in - you just place it on an inductive pad.

The magic is in the software and the company's new webOS which as the name suggests is a web-based application environment where typical web designers and programmers who know CSS, HTML and javascript can get programs up and running on the Pre quite quickly.

In addition there is a conscious decision to integrate address books from multiple services/directories such as Outlook, Google and FaceBook. These are the sorts of concepts which made the Mac worth buying in the eighties but are lost in the iPhone - a device which seems to not acknowledge that cutting and pasting between disparate apps is even necessary. There is no word yet on whether the Pre allows cut and paste but my instincts tell me there are some things that only Steve Jobs can get away with.

Palm talks about the device being smart and integrating the calendar function with GPS and automatically letting you know if you will be late for your next meeting while telling the people you are meeting with you will be late as well.

In other words this isn't just a smartphone, it is a smart OS. And therein lies the

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differentiator. Every time I hit the home screen on an iPhone or iPod Touch I am reminded of how this is the same way the original Palm PDA worked. Nice and simple. But for all the simplicity that comes with today's pocket super-computing organizers, they can be clunky when you need to turn an email into an appointment or you need to transfer an IM session to your favorite social network.

In other words, there is tremendous opportunity for a company to come into the smartphone market with a new device which answers the problems we all have with our devices but don't consciously think about.

Reality hits when the rubber hits the road and people have to decide on whether they should skip the iPhone which has 10,000 applications or the Blackberry with its bullet-proof e-mail and enterprise integration to go with an unknown, untried and untested device.

Then there is the idea that clever software programmers can emulate all these functions pretty darn quickly.

In conclusion I for one think the odds of success for Palm have increased a great deal as a result of this offering and I can tell you that the consumer electronics market will still be relatively healthy in a slow economy.

So there is great potential but from concept to execution there are hurdles. One is already emerging as Sprint is the carrier of choice and the service provider has seen customer churn at record levels in recent years. In addition, Google is now in the smartphone business and Nokia knows it is losing share to Apple and will be a ferocious competitor this year. Then there is the Storm and a slew of new Microsoft devices to contend with.

But maybe, just maybe if enough developers get behind the Pre and the OS is as advanced and seamlessly connected as we are being told, Palm can come back from the near dead. Hey, Apple had a foot in the grave as well and look at them now. If there is one thing I have learned in my years it is that industries and companies virtually all go through up and down cycles. Perhaps 2009 is Palm's time. They certainly can't wait much longer and those who want to see even better smartphones in the future should wish them luck.




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