What a difference a demo makes. For the past few years, declaring Palm to be in decline, irrelevant, or just plain dead has been a national pastime among tech pundits. The unveiling of the upcoming Palm Pre smartphone and its WebOS operating system yesterday here at CES changes all that. It will still be a challenge for Palm to restore itself to a leadership role in the smartphone industry it created. But its demo yesterday was so impressive on so many fronts that I can’t imagine any rational observer insisting that Palm is Still Dead until the Pre has a chance to prove itself.
Palm’s demo of the Pre was deep enough to answer plenty of questions about the device and its OS. But I’m left with plenty of others. Some of them may have answers right now (I’m going to pay a visit to Palm here at CES and try to get them). Some will only be answered in the months and years to come.
If you’ve got solid information or smart guesses on any of this stuff, I’d love to hear them….
1. Why did Palm announce the Pre now? Presumably in part because FCC filings make it tough to keep a phone under wraps until the very last moment before it ships. (If the Pre appears right at the end of its promised “first half of 2009″ schedule, it’ll follow roughly the same announcement-to-shipping timetable as the original iPhone.) Normally, companies are really careful about pre-announcing products and thereby running the risk of people losing interest in the products that they’re already selling. But you gotta assume that Palm in its current state doesn’t have much to lose, and that the Pre is so radically different from current Palm models like the Centro that it isn’t really competition for them.
2. How long will it be Sprint-only? A few of the people who I have discussed the Pre with here at CES have winced when they’ve uttered the word “Sprint.” Or, at least, not looked terribly happy. Palm has apparently said it’s working on a GSM Pre; it’ll be interesting to see how long it takes to show up, and who sells it when it does.
3. Does it have iPhone-style visual voicemail? I sure hope so. But Palm didn’t have much to say about the Pre’s phone features at its unveiling.
4. What happens to the current Palm phone lineup? Will it continue to produce models such as the cheap Palm OS-based Centro and more powerful, Windows Mobile-based Treo Pro? Do they all go away the moment the Pre ships? Will they eventually be replaced with WebOS-based phones, like a $99 WebOS-powered Centro equivalent?
5. Why only 8GB? Palm is one of the first companies to adopt Apple’s approach of sealing a lot of flash memory into a phone. But it’s not matching Apple’s 16GB iPhone 3G. It’s the one obvious area where the iPhone trumps the Pre from a hardware standpoint.
6. Will developers climb on board? Palm’s strategy of making WebOS a platform that anyone who knows how to write Web apps can use should help. But developers have to choose priorities, and they’ll only choose WebOS if they think there’s a critical mass of Pre owners out there who might use their apps.
7. Will classic PalmOS apps appear in Pre versions? Such as PocketSensei’s Silver Screen launcher, for instance. It would be cool if developers with a long history with Palm dived in to make the Pre more useful. And Palm mentioned that DataViz is on board, which may mean that a Pre version of Documents to Go is in the works.
8. Is there any sort of compatibility with existing Palm OS apps? I’m kind of guessing not–the webOS is such a radical departure from PalmOS that it’s hard to imagine it running old apps. But maybe there’s some sort of compatibility mode, not unlike the one in early versions of Apple’s OS X that let them run older Mac programs.
9. Will Palm fanatics embrace it? I suspect there are more people who used to be Palm fanatics than ones who currently consider themselves to be ones. But there are surely still a fair number of hardcore Treo enthusiasts. The Pre is such a radical departure from its predecessors that it’s not a given that it’ll delight Palm enthusiasts.
10. What happens to Windows Mobile-powered Palm phones? When Palm got into the Windows Mobile phone business, it said it did so because a lot of big companies wanted a Windows Treo. Are they going to want a Windows Pre? Palm’s WebOS looks so much more sophisticated on every front than Windows Mobile that putting WinMo on it would be like sticking a Hyundai engine in a Lamborghini.
11. How will folks get apps? Palm is saying it’ll have an apps store. Which is clearly becoming mandatory these days. But will it cut venerable third-party software merchants such as Handango and PalmGear out of the action by setting itself up as the exclusive Pre app seller? [UPDATE: Ina Fried’s post over at CNET seems to say that Palm’s app store won’t be the sole source of programs.)
12. How reliable will it be? One of the reasons I stopped using Palm phones–I felt like a traitor–is that the last couple I owned were a little less than rock-sold. (Translation: They tended to spontaneously reboot on me.) WebOS is an uncommonly ambitious operating environment; let’s hope Palm debugs it within an inch of its life. Even if that means delaying the Pre’s release.
13. What does this mean for Android? Until now, Google’s OS has had a lock on the honor of being The Most Interesting Mobile OS That Isn’t iPhone OS. Judging from Palm’s demo yesterday, though, the Pre is a more clever piece of hardware than T-Mobile’s Android-powered G1, and WebOS sports a more imaginative user interface than Android. Google’s goals are so different from Palm’s that it’s hard to compare them: It’s building an open-source OS for use by multiple hardware partners. But you gotta wonder whether Palm will steal some of the buzz that Android now enjoys.
14. What does this mean for Palm? It’s tempting to say that Palm. Is. Back. It would also be a mistake to do so until the Pre is out and reviewers and real people have had a chance to use it. Right now, though, the odds of Palm bouncing back feel at least as good as the odds of it withering away–if it can get the Pre out. And the Pre lives up to expectations. And it’s available on multiple carriers.
Any other questions?