Is it possible to out-iPhone the iPhone? Again and again, we’ve seen other manufacturers come up with phones that try so very hard to look and work like Apple’s blockbuster, such as this one, this one, and this one. Some beat the iPhone on specs; none has come close to matching its appeal, imagination, or sales. For all the poseurs out there, the iPhone still feels like a product in a category of one, nearly two years after it first shipped.
But maybe the way to truly rival the iPhone is to counterpunch. What if a phone ignored some of the iPhone’s most obvious virtues, choosing to zig where Apple zagged? What if it aimed to rival not the iPhone’s look and feel but its spectacular record of innovation? What if the overarching goal was to be a really good, really inventive next-generation smartphone?
What, in other words, if it were Palm’s new Pre?
Back at the Consumer Electronics Show in January, Palm unveiled the Pre with one of the most startling, sexy demos in tech history. Judging from the time I spent with a Pre this week, the phone lives up to most of its considerable promise. The hardware is quite good, but it’s the software–in the form of Palm’s webOS, the long-awaited successor to the groundbreaking-but-obsolete Palm OS–that makes the Pre so special. And the combination of the two is enough to catapult the Pre into a two-phone race with the iPhone 3G. (I suspect that one or more Google Android phones will be in serious competition before long, but the only Android phone to ship in the U.S., T-Mobile’s G1, is behind the iPhone and Pre by a furlong or two.)
Many people will find reasons to avoid the Pre, from its price ($299, or $199 after $100 rebate with two-year contract) to the fact it launches only on the Sprint network (a Verizon version is supposedly about six months away). Still, even if you never buy one, it’s a significant product. The Pre is so solid in so many areas that I expect multiple aspects of its hardware and software niceties to influence and improve competitive products. Maybe even ones from a company in Cupertino named after a piece of fruit.
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