Going into this morning’s Apple iPhone 3.0 unveiling, one of the biggest questions of the year in the world of tech was how Palm’s upcoming Pre phone would stack up against the iPhone. The Pre looks like it’ll be the most interesting and imaginative new smartphone to date that isn’t an iPhone, and the only one with a software platform that has a shot at out-innovating Apple. (I have high hopes for Google’s Android over the long haul, but if that OS changes everything, it’ll have to do it on a handset that’s more groundbreaking than T-Mobile’s G1.)
Now that we have a better sense of the iPhone software that the Pre will compete with when it shows up–I’m guessing that the Pre’s planned launch time frame of the first half of the year and iPhone 3.0′s summer release will result in both showing up around the same time–it still looks like the competition between the two phones will be fierce and fun.
With iPhone 3.0, Apple is bringing its phone up to parity with the Pre, more or less, in terms of mundane features like cut and paste, MMS, and search. The basics of the iPhone interface, however, aren’t changing much–with the exception of the nicely done cut-and-paste finger maneuvers, iPhone 3.0 is visually and conceptually identical to iPhone 2.1. That leaves Palm with an edge in terms of fresh ideas, such as the Pre’s “card”-based multitasking user interface and hooks into social networking sites like Facebook.
iPhone is likely to maintain an overwhelming advantage in terms of available applications that make it really useful to all sorts of people–there are 25,000 of ‘em already, versus none for the Pre. Even if Palm does a solid job of building a platform and software distribution channel that appeal to developers, it’ll likely be a long, hard slog to get anywhere close to where the iPhone is after less than two years on the market. I think developers are still gunshy about pouring resources into a Palm product–since the Pre was announced, I tend to ask phone software companies I chat with if they plan to support the Pre, and the most encouraging response I’ve gotten is “maybe.”
Service? Both AT&T and Sprint seem to inspire plenty of love-hate relationships among their customers, although there’s enough evidence that Sprint has a strong data network that I’m curious whether the Pre will be avoid some of the iPhone’s AT&T-related challenges.
That leaves hardware. We know that the Pre is trying to compete with the iPhone by being different, not similar: It’s a smaller, more phone-like device with a slide-out keyboard. I’m guessing that iPhone admirers will continue to be partial to its larger screen and full-touch interface, and that a lot of folks who aren’t so sure about on-screen keyboards will find the Pre’s real keys alluring. I’d call it a wash. Except…
We really don’t know what iPhone hardware will be shipping this summer when version 3.0 of the OS is scheduled to arrive. Odds are there will be something new, but it could be a minor refresh, or a great leap forward. Or a whole family of phones including one that’s more Pre-like than the current model. It’s impossible to have an educated opinion about whether the Pre stands a chance of being a better phone than the iPhone until we know what iPhone it’ll compete with.
Of course, the standard disclaimers about the Pre apply: We can’t judge it based on demos, it could ship late, and it’ll have to be a big hit to restore Palm to vibrant long-term health. For that matter, it could be a huge hit by Palm and Sprint standards and still be a vastly smaller one than the iPhone. Whatever happens, I’m looking forward to getting enough hands-on time with both phones to come to some definitive conclusions…