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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  • hshendon - Friday, March 26, 2010 - link

    Not only does the Palm have a great, intuitive OS, it has a development community that is doing truly amazing things.

    I have apps that change the way I use contacts and the phone.

    I have apps that change the way messaging looks and feels.

    I have apps that have changed how I navigate and organize apps.

    Now, in a release that came out yesterday, I have an app that let's me tap into the full power of the processor inside the phone. The Pre originally came purposefully underclocked. An awesome effort by a dedicated homebrew development group has released a patch that adjusts the kernal to run the processor at 800MHz. This phone now FLIES. I feel like they have breathed new life into the phone and I am very pleased with the overall packacge now.

    I really hope Palm gets it going in the right direction, because I could not be more pleased overall with a phone or OS.

    (PS -- the form factor and material composition is something I have to agree with the reviewer about. I have addressed this by adding a good quality screen protector and a hardshell case. This has definitely added to the protection and feel of the phone, but I wish the phone felt more solid and indestructible.)
  • KasperE - Friday, March 26, 2010 - link

    I believe a point missed in the review of the market potential of pre and pixi is the economic mechanisms of that type of market. Smart phones are marketed i what may be referred to as an increasing returns regime (W. B. Arthur 1989). A product gains an installed base, this attracts software which in turn increases the value of the product. Think Iphone – the real value is the amount of applications available. The effect is two ways: 1) perceived value to the buyer and 2) perceived opportunity to application developers. It can be thought of as a tipping point where the value of one system (iphone vs. pre) becomes significantly larger and off-sets any personal predisposition to buy the other system. Essentially a lock-in one system occour at this point.
    Apple knows this, and they live by the rules of this game. The launch of the Ipad is a perfect example: Ensure overwhelming and diverse software for the new hardware platform, allow users to use their existing apps. The cost of the Ipad soon becomes negligent compared to he value of the network for which it provides access. Iphone owners can transfer their investment to the Ipad. Oh yes I believe the Ipad will be a success.
    Back to the pre and pixie: Having the perfect OS or indeed any technology is not a guarantee for success – far from it. We have previously been locked-in to crappy tech (VHS vs. Betamax). The ball has begun rolling away from the pre and pixis and it will require huge investments to tip the scale back. A niche strategy is probably the only way for Palm: Offer a compelling selection of business apps and attract this segment

  • droplets - Wednesday, April 7, 2010 - link

    A really intelligent post. Thanks for your input. Palm's Synergy could help it be better positioned to take advantage of this market theory. However, knowing that Palm could possibly go bust, I'm relying on Synergy to sync my contacts to my Google account for when Palm can't pay for Synergy servers anymore!
  • inspire - Thursday, March 25, 2010 - link

    Hey Joe,

    I really couldn't help but notice how much you ripped on the Pre for not being 'solid'. I've dropped my Pre plenty of times - just like Ive done with every phone before it - and it's came out of it all with hardly a scratch.

    As for the center button on the Pre - it's a lot faster than waiting for an up-gesture for me, and it has never gotten in the way of me performing gestures in the gesture area.

    I know these were popular complaints when the device first launched, but seeing you accentuate your dissapointment repeatedly in the article really makes me wonder if you've actually owned a Pre or even used for more than a week.

    That aside, I'm really happy to see somebody commenting on the software. Palm has been great in opening up the platform and in continuously working to improve the user experience for me.

    The sales are unfortunate. Palm flopped early on with its marketing strategy, and when they finally got a second chance during their launch with Verizon, they started going up against 2-for-1 deals on the Motorola Droid at $200, whose marketing campaign had already established it as a serious competitor.

    Palm's main focus right now should be on makin up the market penetration they've lost. They're already losing money, and if they can't figure out something soon, it's going to be bad news for them.

    All said, I snjoyed the article - hope to see more like it.
  • MDE - Wednesday, March 24, 2010 - link

    I'm usually not one to openly complain about grammar, but the dollar sign goes in front of the number. It's $100, not 100$. It's not rocket science, but it makes me feel really dumb when I read it.
  • vol7ron - Wednesday, March 24, 2010 - link

    Can someone start doing a review of the GPS quality in these phones? My iPhone is great, and I'm sure the Droids and Palms are great too, but I'd like something with a little more powerful --- accurate --- GPS.

    Maybe something that if you take for a run isn't a few hundred feet off. Or something that, if you go for a drive, doesn't show your dot some odd yards back, saying "turn here" after the fact.
  • strikeback03 - Thursday, March 25, 2010 - link

    I have used both standalone GPS units and computer-based programs with USB receivers which have the same problem. Sometimes it just happens, sometimes it is the program lagging.
  • alainiala - Wednesday, March 24, 2010 - link

    It truly pains me that WebOS is struggling so mightily, as the last 9 months have been a true joy for me. I picked up the Pre about a week after its launch and have been beyond satisfied with WebOS... I think what really hurt the Pre was its early problems with the hardware and battery life. The sliding mechanism was terrible in the first few months of the Pre's life, and battery life was pathetic until roughly 1.3.5.

    I think its almost a foregone conclusion that Palm is destined to be bought out. It would be a shame, but if it meant the continuation of WebOS, it may not be such a bad thing. I have 2 thoughts on who should be buying out Palm... The more obvious choice is RIM. Blackberry OS is truly getting long in the tooth and would seriously benefit from a innovative new OS. Merging BES connectivity with WebOS and a legit Webkit browser would instantly put RIM back in the race in terms of smartphone innovation.

    My 2nd thought is less obvious, but go with me here... Sony. Sony's Android efforts have been pretty lackluster (Xperia, I'm looking at you). Now, we know that Sony's industrial design is infinitely better than their software development, so a beefed up Pre with Sony's manufacturing prowess would be fantastic. We know that MS is tying Xbox Live into its Windows Phone 7 Series, so it would behoove Sony to do something similar with their mobile devices. We know WebOS is a viable platform for gaming since the release of their PDK, and all their iPhone game ports have thus far proven this. Playstation Network integration on WebOS would get them up to parity with MS and Xbox Live. Sony would have their own mobile OS to call their own and develop around, and WebOS can live on.

    I know its pie-in-the-sky stuff, but heck... better than letting WebOS die an untimely death.
  • jamawass - Thursday, March 25, 2010 - link

    Definitely agree with the Sony angle. Their Palm Clie's were fantastic back in the day.
  • ioannis - Wednesday, March 24, 2010 - link

    "The plastic-on-plastic mechanism just isn’t all too smooth and that little bit of grinding sound is enough to make the phone feel a little cheap...It may be the nature of the beast when it comes to the hardware from a design standpoint. To keep the device to a reasonable size, yet maintain the size of the LCD, Palm had to hide the keyboard as they did..."

    Sliding keyboards are nothing new and there are numerous examples done right. Take the Motorola Droid for instance. Insanely thin profile and rock solid. Having a sliding keyboard should not be an excuse for the hardware woes.

    Having said that, Palm should reconsider the 'must have a physical keyboard' mentality. Some of the top sellers don't have one...

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