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CES: Palm hoping its Pre smartphone isn’t postscript

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LAS VEGAS -- This is the city where old stars come to resurrect themselves, and the pressure was on Palm to deliver on its promise to impress at its CES press conference today. The maker of one of the first popular smartphones announced a new platform, WebOS, and a new device, the Pre.

Palm has an exclusive deal for the Pre with Sprint, which is now taking preorders online. But consumers will have to wait to get their hands on one. Palm expects the device to hit the market sometime in the first half of the year.

As analyst Tim Bajarin of Creative Strategies put it: ‘With what they had before, they basically were not relevant in the market, whereas now with this new operating system and device ... they could come back and become a force eventually.’

‘When we designed the original Palm Pilot, we didn’t think of competing with the Newton [Apple’s failed PDA], we were competing with pen and paper,’ Palm President and Chief Executive Ed Colligan said today.

This current era of people wanting to access their information anywhere, anytime presents a new turn on the same problem, he said. However, these days Palm is competing with Apple -- and one of its partners, Google.

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With its rounded edges, the Pre could fit completely inside an average-sized palm. Design-wise, the time, battery and signal meters at the top seem to melt into the phone itself.

Read on for more on the new device and OS.

It packs a number of desirable standard features:

  • 8 gigabytes of storage
  • GPS
  • Bluetooth
  • 802.11 b and g
  • Touchscreen with multi-touch capabilities
  • 3 megapixel camera with LED flash
  • Micro USB for charging
  • 3.5 millimeter headphone jack
  • Weighs 4.8 ounces
  • Stereo support
  • 3.1-inch display with 320-by-480 resolution

Then there are the other features:

  • EVDO
  • USB 2.0
  • Replaceable battery
  • Slide-down QWERTY keypad
  • Accelerometer

The phone works with the keypad open or closed.
The phone is nice and all, but the operating system is really something to note. The operating system seems to take the idea of mobile computing to another, logical level: Mix some good things from the iPhone with that of the Android, then stir them up with a distinctly Palm chaser.

WebOS untangles Palm from its dependence on Microsoft tools. Earlier versions of the Palm smartphones were powered by Windows Mobile. ‘As long as they’re still beholden to Microsoft, they’d just be a third-party vendor, ' Bajarin said.

WebOS was designed with both user and developer in mind, Colligan said. There’s no new language for app developers to learn: just CSS, HTML and javascript.

For those whose fingers miss the language of strokes they learned in the early PDA days, there’s the ‘gesture area.’ But it’s not nearly as involved. A stroke from right to left will take you back a page. A stroke up from the gesture area to the screen will pull up a ‘quick launch wave’ similar to the dock on a Mac.

It approaches all content equally and integrates it pretty seamlessly. Contacts, for instance, can exist in Outlook and Google and on Facebook, but on the Pre they appear in the same list without duplication. It indicates when a contact has multiple sources in the top right with the number -- and shows a photo if there is one.

Instant messaging and texting appear as ‘conversations’ -- the same person can have a string that incorporates communication by either SMS or IM without having to switch applications. (We saw only Gtalk and AIM demonstrated. AOL and Google are Palm partners on the Pre.)

This approach -- what Palm’s calling ‘synergy’ -- is also applied to calendars. You can see all your appointments in one place or drill down from the same screen. Unused time is compressed but still accessible should you wish to schedule an appointment. E-mail can appear as integrated into a single inbox, but you can also drill down.

As for the Web, users can experience the real thing, not a mobile version. And, to make G1 and iPhone users jealous, you can open as many pages as you want. Navigation appears much the same as both of these, with pinch zoom and touch scrolling.

Pages of content, which Palm calls ‘cards,’ can populate the home screen at the same time and be accessed with the swipe of a finger. These can be anything, including e-mail, apps, photos or Web pages.

Search on the phone appears to function much like the G1, intuitively pulling from all sources available.

‘Pre seems like it’s thinking for you,’ Palm’s Colligan said.

One of the nicer features is the notification of appointments and messages. With an app open, these appear across the bottom of the screen and wait for acknowledgment, as opposed to obscuring the app and demanding attention. If you’re playing music, the song title, artist and controls appear in the notification area.

Palm also announced one accessory: the Touchstone, a charging unit that uses inductive technology and looks like a paperweight -- or a misshapen hockey puck. The device can be used while charging on it.

With these coming offerings, Palm is ‘back and a player again,’ Colligan said.

We’ll soon find out if consumers -- and developers -- agree.

-- Michelle Maltais


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