Mobility

Five reasons why the Palm Pre will be a homerun

Palm has done a platform reboot with its new webOS and the company is swinging for the fences with its first webOS device, the Palm Pre. So will Palm strike out or hit it out of the park? Here are five reasons why I expect it to be a homerun.

Palm has done a platform reboot with its new webOS and the company is swinging for the fences with its first webOS device, the Palm Pre. So will Palm strike out or hit it out of the park? Here are five reasons why I expect it to be a homerun.

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Palm deserves credit for making a bold move to completely reboot its mobile operating system with the webOS. It also brought in hardware guru Jon Rubinstein from Apple to help design a breakthrough smartphone to jumpstart Palm's position in the market.

Make no mistake about it, Palm has bet the company on the Palm Pre smartphone and the new webOS that powers it. If there are any unexpected problems with the Pre and it falls short of sales expectations when it launches on June 6, it would be financially and morally devastating to Palm.

However, I doubt that will happen. I expect the Pre to be a big hit, and here are the top five reasons why:

5. Palm knows how to build an ecosystem

With all of the momentum that is building around the iPhone as an application platform, Palm has a lot of ground to make up (and, for that matter, so do BlackBerry, Windows Mobile, Android, and Symbian). The thing Palm has going for it is that it knows how to build an ecosystem around its products. It did it before with the original Palm Pilot.

In fact, before the runaway growth of the iPhone App Store, the Palm OS still had arguably the widest collection of third party applications for any smartphone. Most of those apps were a legacy from the Palm Pilot, but many of them were still among the best you could find for a smartphone. Palm's new webOS will even include an emulator that will run classic Palm OS apps. But, we should also expect lots of flashy, new webOS applications because the webOS platform is friendly to programmers, and working with third-party developers is baked into Palm's DNA.

4. The carriers want an iPhone competitor

Sprint has a deal with Palm to be the exclusive U.S. carrier for the Pre through the end of 2009. Verizon has already announced that it plans to start carrying the Pre at the beginning of 2010 and AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson said that he wants the Pre on AT&T. So, within a year, the Pre will likely be available on all of the top three U.S. carriers, plus a GSM version of the smartphone will likely be spreading across the globe by then.

Many of these carriers covet the Palm Pre because the iPhone, with its exclusive carrier deals in various countries, has become a magnet drawing customers away from current carriers to the iPhone's carrier (AT&T in the U.S.). Since the Pre looks like that first smartphone that can stand toe-to-toe with the iPhone technologically, it's very likely that many of the non-iPhone carriers that offer the Pre will market it with heavy promotions that will drive sales.

3. The webOS will be a strong development platform

Applications for Palm's new webOS are built with HTML, Javascript, and CSS, which are the standard languages for today's Web developers. Comparatively, iPhone apps are built in Objective C and Android apps are built with Java.  That gives iPhone and Android a few more powerful tools to work with, but it also means that webOS will natively be more Web-savvy and will be faster and easier for developing apps.

The challenge is that Palm has so far limited access to the Palm Mojo software development kit (SDK) to a select group of partners. If Palm is going to compete with the iPhone and its application juggernaut it's going to have to open up its new SDK to the wider world as soon as possible.

2. Touchscreen + Qwerty

Qwerty devices such as the BlackBerry Curve, the Nokia E71, and Samsung Blackjack are all excellent email and data entry devices, but they are not very useful for Web browsing or reading a lot of text. Conversely, full touchscreen devices such as the iPhone, the Google G1, and the BlackBerry Storm are all excellent for Web browsing and reading text, but their keyboards make them less useful for typing emails and other kinds of data entry.

So the ultimate device should combine a touchscreen and a qwerty keyboard, right? The G1 makes a noble attempt, but it's flip-down keyboard is awkward and not very effective. The Palm Pre represents the first effective fusion of the two, although it's not perfect either. The Pre keyboard is even a little smaller than the BlackBerry Curve, so it will be tough for people with large fingers to use. Nevertheless, it's the first smartphone to effectively combine a full touchscreen with an effective qwerty thumboard. Other devices will likely follow its lead.

1. It is the first true multi-tasking smartphone

The most revolutionary part of the Palm Pre is its multi-tasking functionality. While all of the Pre's current smartphone competitors have very limited multi-tasking, the Pre provides the computing power for full multi-tasking and does it in an elegant interface that makes it easy to flip through apps and get real-time alerts on-screen.

In the webOS, applications appear as a deck of cards that you can flip through with the swipe of a finger. Each app is one card and can be organized, managed, and closed using touchscreen gestures. The webOS also offers on-screen alerts that pop up along the bottom of the screen. For example, while typing an email, you might be an IM message and have a meeting alert from your calendar. Both items would appear along the bottom of the screen and a simple tap would take you into either application.

This makes the Palm Pre feel much more like the computing experience that all of us are used to on a desktop or laptop PC, and that's the Palm Pre's biggest contribution, and it's biggest draw.

For more insights on Palm Pre, iPhone, and other tech topics, follow my Twitter stream at twitter.com/jasonhiner

Bottom line

The Palm Pre will be the next big step forward for the smartphone as a computing device. BlackBerry created the smartphone category in the early part of this decade with the first thumboard, Palm briefly helped reinvent the smartphone with the Treo and its phone/email synergy, and then the iPhone brought the full Web and application experience to the smartphone. Now, the Palm Pre brings true multi-tasking to the smartphone. That, combined with current market forces and Palm's mobile DNA, will make the Pre one of tech's biggest success stories of 2009.

UPDATED:

Not everyone agrees that the Pre will hit it out of the park. Here are two alternative viewpoints to consider:

Also, the first product reviews of the Palm Pre have arrived. These actually tend to fall in line with my assessment of the Pre. Take a look:

About

Jason Hiner is Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He writes about the people, products, and ideas changing how we live and work in the 21st century. He's co-author of the book, Follow the Geeks.

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