Palm - Don't Call it a Comeback
Let's be honest: who saw this coming? Palm's jaw-dropping debut of their innovative webOS and stunning Pre smartphone on Thursday finally stemmed the tide of gloomy questions about the company: did the PDA pioneer still have the talent to lead the mobile computing industry? Would the top-secret Nova become another vapourware Cobalt? Could they overcome an entrenched reputation in the community for trailing the pack? In short: Yes, no, and hell yes!
The tech world has been positively gushing in their praise of Palm's spectacular comeback effort, and the reaction from the denizens of the comments has been similarly favourable. But as pleased as we all are to learn that Palm still has the Right Stuff, there are plenty of unanswered questions about their beautiful new baby. Let's take a cold shower, quell the geek lust and analyse what we have and haven't been told...
Down to the Metal
The new Palm webOS is very exciting: a Linux-based operating system built from the ground up with mobility and the web in mind. Clearly, it's going to tick all the multi-boxes: multitasking, multitouch, multimedia. Plus, Ars Technica has tapped a developer source who's reportedly been working with the Mojo SDK for some time and describes the experience as "a joy". Quoth:
"The platform will allow developers to access most of the phone's capabilities, including calendaring, contacts, music and video playback. It would appear that Palm is very open to allowing developers nearly full access to the device's capabilities... According to our contact, the Mojo framework is extremely nice, well thought out, and significantly improves the speed and efficiency of developing mobile applications on the prė;;."
"I just cannae do it Cap'n! I don't have the power!"
It's packing every wireless connectivity option imaginable, running a suite of smart environmental sensors and has a beautiful big screen. Not to mention one of the most powerful processors yet seen in a smartphone. So when a Palm representative tells Palm Infocenter that "we're not talking about battery life", forgive us if warning bells don't start going DING-DING-DING-WOOP-WOOP-WOOP!
It could just be that with the webOS still very much a work-in-progress, Palm has not yet had the chance to optimise the power-management side of things. And it's an unfortunate reality that battery technology has not advanced to the point where we can get more with less: the market's demands for ever-thinner, ever-lighter devices mean batteries are the easiest things to skimp on. All these caveats aside, we'd love to see something a little more powerful than a 1200mAh battery crammed into the Pre a 1500mAh unit like that seen in the recent Treo Pro would be nice and do much to quell our fears.
Matters of Multimedia
Palm have definitely upped the ante on sync, with their new cloud method seeing your PIM data always backed up and up-to-date. But nowhere at all have they mentioned media sync: how does one get their music, movies, photos and documents onto the device? With webOS having the ability to appear as a standard USB mass storage device, this means that it should be a simple matter to drag-and-drop files. Windows Media Player and Winamp both have the ability to sync with such generic USB devices, so those who use those apps will have little worries.
That said, it's a little disappointing that there was nothing more advanced on offer here: for instance, I'd love to be able to sync all that stuff over Wi-Fi without the need to connect a cable. Just place it on the Touchstone and away you go.
The music-playing application on display was also glossed over very quickly. (Editors note: Stay tuned for a PIC video on this soon) The access to playback controls via the notification area is an excellent idea, but without a greater understanding of its capabilities it's difficult to draw any conclusions about how it will compete with the excellent playback functions of its chief rival, the iPhone. It's also worth noting we didn't see any video playback ability at all: this is something we'll have to keep a close eye on. Such a powerful unit is simply begging for streaming video capabilities.
External storage has become extinct: the Pre is lacking even a micro-SD slot. This is a truly disappointing decision, especially in the light of the massive advances that have been and are continuing to be made in SD technology. It's not a deal-breaker, but it's definitely a heart-breaker.
And this one's a doozy: there's no video recording. For the life of me I can't think of a good reason why. With 8GB of storage on-board and the speedy OMAP processor, you'd think the hardware was more than capable especially when it's been a standard feature on the "classic" Palm OS smartphones forever. Sure, the quality has always been a bit lacking, but it's still an undeniably cool perk to have a camcorder even a dodgy one - in your pocket. Please explain, Palm.
Hang On, Isn't It a Phone?
Absent from Palm's live demonstration of the Pre were any solid details on how phone calls are handled. It could just be for the simple reason that they chose to focus on the more flashy features of the webOS in order to make a more spectacular debut and Palm have a history of great call management UIs on the Treo and Centro but it still leaves a question mark hanging over the issue. My own particular bugbear without a "Hangup" key, how do you hangup a call when you're in another application? The assumption is that there'll be a gesture you can use, but it'd be nice to know for certain.
One thing we do know is that as of this stage, there's no voice-dial functionality at present a curious omission from such an advanced device.
Bankruptcy: Still Not Fun
Two years ago, when the iPhone first debuted, I wrote on this site how the initial minimum price point of $499 with contract was "exorbitant, no matter the feature set". The same is true of the Pre: one mustn't forget that in the end, this thing is still just a (really, really cool) phone and there's a certain point when it just doesn't make sense to splash out so much cash. While I doubt Palm are going to start out so high, it's still unlikely we're going to see the Pre for anything less than, say, $299 with contract. God and maybe Ed Colligan knows how expensive the unlocked GSM model will prove to be.
The latest-and-greatest tech is always pricey, but Palm might want to consider trying to enter the upper-class smartphone market with as cheap a price point as possible, in order to make a big splash and get users hooked on the webOS platform. The second generation of devices can then become the must-have cash-cows. Of course, such a strategy is dependent on a strong balance sheet, and it could just be that Palm can't afford to sell the Pre for too cheap a price. It remains to be seen just how much people will be willing to fork out.
You would have thought that Palm OS Garnet emulation would have been a no-brainer on the next generation of Palms, providing a direct upgrade path for the legions of Treo and Centro owners. Apparently, you'd be wrong: Palm have been cagey in their responses whenever the question has been put to them, suggesting indirectly that it would be up to third parties like StyleTap to provide Garnet emulation on webOS. This is a true shame, with so many useful PalmOS apps already out there rearing to go. Hopefully, there's still time to reverse the decision.
Despite their claims to the contrary, the new gesture-navigation method is also very much a massive break with the past from the Treo's superb one-handed navigation and instant-access hard buttons. It's eye-poppingly gorgeous and looks quite intuitive, but still leaves me unsure as to whether or not it'll be an equally functional method of interacting with the device. One-handed usage in particular may become more difficult, although the below-the-screen gesture area should alleviate matters somewhat.
Going to be a Long Wait
Overall, I'm incredibly enthusiastic about the prospects for both the Palm webOS and the Pre. After so many disappointments from Palm over the last few years, it's fantastic to finally see them once again living up to their heritage as mobile computing pioneers. The new gesture navigation and deck-of-cards application metaphor screams "BREAKTHROUGH!" for mobile multitasking, and the powerful, stylish hardware allows them to proudly strut their stuff against competitors like the iPhone and Blackberry Storm with gusto. Despite there still being a lot more to find out, one thing is certain:
Palm is back with a vengeance.
It'll be an interesting year!
Article Comments(126 comments)
Click here for the full story discussion page...