Palm Pre breaks the rules, but can it break into the market?

Palm, the mobile device powerhouse of the 90s, took home best-in-show at the just-ended International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas with a new smartphone that boasts a touchscreen, hidden qwerty keyboard, and a new operating system and syncing scheme.

The inevitable comparisons to the smartphone field's other major players sprang up immediately, and Gizmodo's "In a nutshell: Palm Pre vs. iPhone vs. G1" rose to the top. It gave the advantage to the Pre for its multitasking, built-in physical keyboard, and upgraded camera. Also a plus for the Pre is a removable battery, something the iPhone lacks.


Most impressive, at least from early analysis, is the new WebOS and the different tack it takes in handling syncing. Four years in the making, instead of needing to be tethered to a computer as a home base, it seamlessly interfaces with the web for syncing contacts, emails, and content across platforms. As Ars Technica explains, with the Pre's "Synergy" system, there's no need to sync or save data – it's handled on the fly with whatever cloud-based system a user wants to interact with.

Herein lies the most important difference between the WebOS and Apple's iPhone OS: the iPhone was originally designed under the assumption that the canonical source of a user's data (contacts, calendar, music, tasks, etc.) is a Mac. Palm's WebOS, in contrast, presumes that cloud-based services are the canonical source for your data....

Apps rule

But the Pre's radical framework rethink and slick hardware may not be enough to bring Palm back into the vanguard. The smartphone market is just too competitive, some say. A key appeal of devices like the iPhone are the third party applications that are being developed for it. As the New York Times writes,

Analysts say Palm could have trouble getting outside software developers to create programs that will work on its WebOS phones. Developers are now heavily focused on BlackBerry devices and the iPhone because the number of people using them is large and growing.

But not so fast, Palm says. Its operating system is so developer-friendly that popular Internet radio site Pandora was able to write an application for it in three days, Information Week reports. Palm president and CEO Ed Colligan claimed in the device's launch event that the underlying framework for creating applications was so simple – based on HTML, CSS, and JavaScript – that there are 10 million potential application developers out there.

Easy to create or not, Information Week points out, the key point lies in how Palm decides to make those applications available.

Questions still remain on how WebOS applications will be distributed. The company will most likely take its cue from the App Store and Android Market and create a single store for users to browse, buy, download, and install apps on the go. But the company has not said if this is the case, what payment method will be used, and what percentage of revenue developers will get.

Other competitors

The iPhone and G1 may present the largest hurdle for the Pre right now, but the smartphone market's speed may present bigger barriers to come. Just this morning Australian site Smarthouse trumpeted news that executives from mobile company Telstra were claiming knowledge of a coming Android-based handset from HTC that beats the Pre on features. It's just a rumor for now, but talk about a short-lived time at the top!

[Editor's note: The original version incorrectly said that the T-Mobile G1 lacks a removable battery.]

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