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Friday, January 09, 2009, 09:00 am PT (12:00 pm ET)

Palm surprises with Pre smartphone running new webOS

Palm, Inc. used this year's Consumer Electronics Show to unveil its iPhone challenger, the Palm Pre, which will run a brand-new operating system called Palm webOS.

With Palm's sales lagging against competition from the Apple iPhone and RIM's BlackBerry, the announcement comes at a critical time for the company.  Reaction so far has been positive, with PC Magazine calling the Pre and its slide-out keyboard "CES 2009's Hottest Product", USA Today taking note of "lots of good buzz", and Gizmodo calling it "simply amazing", to name a few.

"Palm products have always been about simplifying lives and delivering great user experiences," said Palm president and chief executive Ed Colligan.  "webOS and Pre bring game-changing simplicity to an increasingly mobile world by dissolving the barriers that surround your information.  It's technology that seems like it's thinking ahead to bring you what you care about most - your people, your time, and your information - in the easiest and most seamless way."

The Pre will be available only from Sprint in the "first half of 2009", according to a press release.  It will be the first device to run the new mobile operating system.

webOS

According to Palm, webOS is a completely new mobile platform with web technologies CSS, XHTML, and JavaScript under the hood.  As a result, it offers a "rich open development environment that's familiar to tens of millions of web developers."

The operating system introduces Palm Synergy, which will collect information from several places into one view.  It will have linked contacts, with a smart recognition system that can pull from Outlook, Google, and Facebook accounts, recognizing the same contact across all three to present a single listing instead of three copies of each person.  Updating a contact on a webOS device will also update it across your various accounts.

Livescribe


Palm Synergy supports layered calendars and combined messaging.  Calendars can be layered in a single view, combining work, family, friends, sports teams, or other interests.  You can toggle individual calendars if you like.  Combined messaging will take advantage of linked contacts to consolidate all conversations with the same person into a chat-like view, even if it started in IM and you want to reply with a text message.

In a subtle jab at the iPhone, Palm's webOS can run multiple apps at the same time, each one "seamlessly connected to the web and always active."  According to Palm, you can instantly flip from one app to another like you would sift through playing cards on a table.

Palm claims an "instinctive" user interface on a multi-touch surface that will make it easy to "flip through a deck of cards and rearrange items simply by dragging them; when you are done with something, just throw it away."  The webOS platform has universal search that will narrow down what you're looking for as you type and deliver results from your device and the web.

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Notifications and updates are delivered in an unobtrusive way "that's a radical departure from other mobile platforms".  Text messages and emails are announced with a scrolling bar at the bottom of the screen that will let you read it right away or later.

Pre

Palm claims the Pre to be the "most integrated and user-friendly phone for mobile users."  A large touchscreen is supplemented with a physical keyboard that slides out from the bottom only when needed for email and text messaging, and Palm says the phone has been designed to feel natural in hand and small in pocket.  Unlike the iPhone, it has an additional gesture area beneath the screen for navigation so you don't have to touch the screen or obstruct the content being displayed.

Livescribe

"As our lives revolve more and more around the web, devices like Palm Pre that transform how we interact with the web will lead the way," said Sprint chief executive Dan Hesse.  "We are focused on bringing our customers a superior experience that includes easy-to-use devices, simple pricing and value with Simply Everything all-inclusive offerings, plus Ready Now, our exclusive retail program that helps customers leave the store feeling comfortable and confident they know how to use their new device."

It will have support for Sprint TV (live and on-demand programming), Sprint Navigation (GPS-enabled audio and visual turn-by-turn directions with one-click traffic rerouting and more than 10 million local listings), and Sprint Radio, with more than 150 channels.  

Palm is anticipating a full set of accessories for the phone, including what it calls the first inductive charging solution.  If the Pre is set down on top of the Palm Touchstone charging dock, you don't need to connect it.  It will charge and remain active for access to the touch screen, watching movies or video, and using the speakerphone.

Livescribe


Several former Apple employees are playing major roles in the evolution of Palm.  Jon Rubinstein, who opened the announcement, is Palm's executive chairman of the board.  Rubinstein was once a key engineer in the creation of the iPod and development of the iMac.  He also worked at NeXT.  Rubinstein's departure brought others over from Apple in his department, and some common ties exist between the two companies in Palm's PR department.  Palm Director of Software Chris McKillop worked on the iPod and iPhone teams as well.

Features
  • High-speed connectivity (EVDO Rev. A or UMTS HSDPA)

  • Wi-Fi 802.11b/g

  • Integrated GPS

  • 3.1-inch touch screen with 24-bit color 320x480 resolution HVGA display

  • Gesture area beneath the screen, which enables simple gestures for navigation

  • Slide-out QWERTY keyboard

  • Email, including Outlook EAS (for access to corporate Microsoft Exchange servers), as well as personal email support (POP3, IMAP)

  • Messaging support (IM, SMS, MMS)

  • Desktop-class web browser

  • 3-megapixel camera with LED flash and extended depth of field

  • Standard 3.5mm headset jack

  • Support for pictures, video playback, music

  • Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR with A2DP stereo Bluetooth support

  • 8GB of internal user storage

  • USB mass storage mode

  • MicroUSB connector with USB 2.0 Hi-Speed

  • Proximity sensor, disables touch screen and display when near ear

  • Light sensor, dims the display according to ambient light

  • Accelerometer, orients web pages and photos to your perspective

  • Ringer switch, silences device with one touch

  • Removable, rechargeable battery

  • Weight: 4.76 ounces (135 grams)

  • Dimensions: 2.35 inches (w) x 3.96 inches (l, closed) x 0.67 inches (d) [59.57mm (w) x 100.53mm (l, closed) x 16.95mm (d)]

Availability and Pricing

It comes to the United States first from Sprint in the first half of 2009 with a world-ready UTMS version for other regions to follow.  Pricing has not been determined, although we do have some indication that Palm won't look to aggressively undercut the iPhone's pricing.  

All Things Digital's Peter Kafka asked chief executive Ed Colligan if the Pre would be priced below $200:

"He looked at me like I'd peed on his rug.  'Why would we do that when we have a significantly better product,' he asked, then walked away."



Analyst Reaction

Wall Street investment firm Needham's Charlie Wolf saw the webOS as a return to Palm's "software roots" and also praised the Pre, writing, "Give credit where credit is due.  With its new operating system and smartphone, Palm lives to fight another day."

Wolf sees Palm targeting the mobile phone customer who hasn't yet bought a smartphone but wants one.

"Palm is not going after RIM in email or the iPhone in multimedia," he wrote.

Predicting 1.25 million sales in FY2010, Wolf wrote, "The biggest initial negative is that the Palm Pre will only run on the fast fading Sprint network in the U.S."

He allowed the 1.25 million estimate could be "dramatically" low if other carriers end up selling the phone.

More information about webOS and the Pre is available from Palm.