The last few weeks have seen a flurry of activity surrounding Palm, the former PDA and smartphone leader which, in recent years, has fallen on hard times. Given that, it’s probably a good time to take a look at where Palm and its excellent WebOS stand in the warp-speed environment that is the mobile smartphone world.

During the tech boom of the 90s, Palm helped develop and popularize a product which would change the world. The Palm Pilot became synonymous with the PDA, much like the iPod has since become with the MP3 player. Later, when the industry started moving away from those stand-alone PDAs to smartphones, Palm was once again at the forefront with its Treo devices. Around that time though, it started to lag behind other more aggressive and innovative companies and was regularly beaten to the punch both in sales and innovation. RIM’s Blackberry gained massive adoption throughout the corporate world and then Apple’s iPhone turned the industry on its ear with its huge, beautiful, touch-driven UI. Palm’s inability to keep up became something of lore in the area until CES 2009 when it seemed that the company had woken from a multi-year slumber by announcing an innovative new device: the Palm Pre, which featured a brand new, built from the ground up operating system. But now, more than year after that surprise announcement - is it all too little, too late?

When it was first unveiled, Pre and its new operating system WebOS, instantly generated tremendous buzz across the smartphone and tech industry as a sort of resurrection for Palm, and possibly the first (at the time) legitimate competitor to Apple’s iPhone. The reviews, especially from technology enthusiasts, were heavily positive, and the company was lauded for going back to the drawing board and writing an operating system that was built, from the start, for a modern smartphone. Anand reviewed the Pre in June of 2009 and went as far as to say that there were things that the Pre did better than the iPhone (and some things it did worse). Ask most Pre users and you’ll likely hear a similar tale of love for their trusty device. The problem, though, is that you might have a hard time finding one of those users. Palm’s recent sales data – and subsequent tumbling stock price – back that up.

WebOS – done right from the start

The funny thing about the Pre is that its short comings are not with the operating system. WebOS is truly an innovation in a number of ways, not the least of which is the first completely usable and elegant multi-tasking solution for a mobile device. You can accomplish things with a WebOS phone that you couldn’t think of doing with other smartphones - namely flipping through half a dozen other applications - all while on a call, and not losing your progress in any of those apps. Picking up a Blackberry after using a Pre is akin to having the lights turned off. Both the Pre, and now the Pixi, feature rich, graphical interfaces, where tasks are easily accomplished and notifications are informative but not intrusive. Functions are easily and elegantly accessed and settings aren’t buried 10 levels deep in menus (shakes fist at Windows Mobile). Sure, the iPhone does this too, as do the growing host of Android-based phones, but WebOS jumps ahead here because of that multitasking bit. After using it for a while, you really will wonder how you ever lived without. Like PC’s, flat panel TV’s and a host of other items, there’s a lot of choice here, and they each have their advantages, even Blackberry’s utilitarian textual system. In most cases, carrier, region, cost, and of course your own personal preference are going to tell you what device is right for you.

Naturally, WebOS isn’t without its faults. It’s clearly a first- or early- generation system, though in the post-iPhone smartphone world, calling anything in this area “first generation” is a little tough. That being said, there’s a little bit of polish left to be had on all of the WebOS-based devices in general. The good news is that Palm is releasing regular, fairly frequent software updates over the air. The even better news is that there is a very active app store (over 2000 applications as of this writing) along with a Homebrew community. If there’s a feature or setting that the core OS doesn’t handle, odds are that there is a Homebrew patch which does that and then some. What’s more, Palm seems to be slowly working some of these into WebOS natively. For example, WebOS 1.4 was just recently released, and with it came a host of changes, enhancements and additions. One of these was what would sound minor, but has been an asked-for feature for some time: an off-screen visual notification for a received text message, email, missed call. For some time there has been a Homebrew patch to accomplish this. It blinks the center button when there’s a pending notification. But in 1.4, it’s a built-in part of WebOS. Another much asked-for addition, included in this update is video recording – and basic editing capability - for the built-in camera. This sort of ongoing development is exactly what a manufacturer like Palm needs to keep people excited about its product especially when it involves listening to customers about desired features. And the Homebrew culture, well it’s quite the breath of fresh air when placed next to Apple’s system where every app is scrutinized and subject to possible rejection for seemingly no reason.

WebOS 1.4 also opens the door on Flash, another big item that gives Palm an interesting advantage over at least some of its competitors. Adobe Flash 10.1 is, as of this writing, in beta and this much-awaited release will bring the popular web environment to a variety of devices, including those running the Palm WebOS. It’s something that the iPhone doesn’t do (and if you believe Steve Job’s bluster, never will), so getting on the mobile Flash bandwagon right out of the gate is something of a coup for Palm, and a one up on Apple (at least some Android based phones will be supported as well).

Interestingly, which WebOS devices will be Flash compatible remains to be seen. At the moment, there is some question as to whether or not the Pixi will support mobile Flash. If a recent Adobe forum posting from an “Adobe insider” is to be believed, mobile Flash will only be supported on ARMv7 CPUs such as the Qualcomm Snapdragon and TI OMAP3 series. This is good for Pre and its ARMv7 generation TI OMAP 3430, but not so good for the Pixi and Pixi Plus which are built around an ARMv6 generation Qualcomm MSM7627.

The Flash issue is a fluid one, and there seems to be news breaking in this area frequently. Bottom line though, it seems a done deal that we’ll see Flash on the Pre (Palm’s CEO said, and demonstrated as much at CES 2010), Pixi might be another story.

Pre evolves & Pixi
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  • Johnmcl7 - Wednesday, March 24, 2010 - link

    There's no 'apologist' aspect about it at all - regardless of what you think of Nokia, their platform has considerable merit particularly in the scope of this article. S60 had a simple, efficient multitasking long before the Pre did and the N900 currently has a better system than the Palm Pre uses. In addition the N900 has full flash support well in advance of any other smartphone.

    These are just simple technical facts which there's no disputing yet as per usual, AT reference most of the current smartphone platforms and entirely ignore Nokia.
    Reply
  • Taft12 - Wednesday, March 24, 2010 - link

    That's nice that it had flash and multitasking a long time ago. What have you done for me lately, Nokia? Reply
  • Johnmcl7 - Wednesday, March 24, 2010 - link

    It's not 'nice', it's something that was blatantly overlooked in the article - AT were quick to bash S60 but now Nokia have produced a newer OS that addresses their criticisms and surpasses many other smartphones it doesn't even get a mention despite praising phones such as the Palms for having an inferior implementation. Reply
  • djc208 - Tuesday, March 23, 2010 - link

    I want Palm to do well I really like the Web OS, but these exclusive contracts are doing more to hurt them than help. Even now, sure the Pre+ is on Verizon, but it becomes difficult to want to buy a Sprint Pre (with the much cheaper Everything plans) when you know you're not getting as much phone as the Verizon guys are.

    I was so ready to go to a Pre when they came out on Sprint. I'd still consider it except that I'm still stuck with not being allowed to have a camera phone at work, which means all but one or two Blackberries are off limits if I want to take it to work, which is where I spend the most time out of the house. And honestly I don't need a smart phone bad enough to want to pay for a BB and the service to go with it. The Pre was cool enough to justify it, the BB is not IMO.

    I know I can remove the camera but buying a device and then voiding the waranty by purposely breaking it just seems stupid. Sure, us camera restricted people are a small portion of the market, but it's really frustrating to watch all this cool tech come down the pipe and outside BB be completely ignored by every other cell phone maker on the market.

    Well, have fun in smartphone land, I'll probably have my little old Sanyo for the rest of my life now.
    Reply
  • Sherlock - Tuesday, March 23, 2010 - link

    2 mins 40 secs to boot....windows boots a lot quicker than that. Reply
  • neogodless - Tuesday, March 23, 2010 - link

    [quote]Of course when we’re talking about performance, the Pre still has a leg up on the Pixi, and the Pixi Plus has the same leg up on its non-plussed predecessor, in that the original Pixi still lacks WiFi.[/quote]

    [quote]If you are going to be viewing a lot of media and browsing the web, you probably want the extra real estate the Pre’s screen provides, as well as the WiFi (assuming you’re on Sprint, if you’re on Verizon it’s moot, so congrats). If you’re used to having a phone that feels more indestructible, you’re going to prefer the Pixi. I’ve been using both phones for a few months and it’s a very hard decision for me. Most of the time I say Pre – it’s just a little more powerful with its WiFi and larger screen.[/quote]

    I swear you just updated it because earlier I was very confused as to whether the Pixi Plus had WiFi or not. You seem to omit the fact that it does in several places! Anyway, this does seem to clear it up for me. Thanks!
    Reply
  • neogodless - Tuesday, March 23, 2010 - link

    Well, the Quote button doesn't work... but neither does doing it by hand. Neat! Reply
  • MonkeyPaw - Tuesday, March 23, 2010 - link

    Yeah I'd love to see the comment section fixed (at least to kill the spammers). I'm also pining for a mobile friendly version on the site-- it's just a little tough on the eyes on my iTouch. Just friendly requests, Mr Anand. :) Reply
  • Anand Lal Shimpi - Tuesday, March 23, 2010 - link

    The comments section will be much improved with the new site :)

    We can talk about Mobile AT after the new site launch :)

    Take care,
    Anand
    Reply
  • MonkeyPaw - Wednesday, March 24, 2010 - link

    Music to my ears! I love your content over the other sites I visit. It's gotta say something when your readers are willing to squint through your articles. ;) Reply

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