Palm Pre and webOS Preview

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At long last, Palm, Inc. has unveiled its new operating system and the first device that will run it. I was at the announcement of the webOS, and spent quite a bit of time afterward getting briefed on the Pre.

Palm PreI can’t say “it was worth the wait” because Palm would be in much better shape if it had come out with its new OS at least a year ago, but I will say that the webOS exceeds my expectations. It is a very well designed and easy to use operating system, capable of going head-to-head with any of its competitors in features and ease of use. It still needs some tweaking, but isn’t expected to debut for several more months, so the developers have time. 

The Palm Pre — that’s the slightly silly name for the first webOS-powered device – is a decent model. I wish it was going to be a touch more cutting edge, but I don’t find much to complain about.

No Palm OS Here
Before I get started on what webOS is, I have to cover what it isn’t: it’s not Palm OS II. Specifically, it does not have the ability to run legacy Palm OS applications.

Palm says it expects there to be a third-party Palm OS emulator released for webOS, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the people from StyleTap are already looking into it. But Palm itself isn’t going to write one. Instead, it’s going to encourage developers to port their Palm OS applications to webOS, and says the process should be relatively simple if the software was written in C++.

I know this is a bit hard on the people who have been holding on for years for an updated version of the Palm OS, but Palm decided it needed to make a fresh start. I tend to agree. If Palm had just unveiled a moderately updated version of the Palm OS, the company wouldn’t be here a year from now.

webOS also hasn’t been designed with handhelds or PDAs in mind. It is intended for devices with a nearly constant connection to the Internet, which basically requires a smartphone. And the Pre is initially going to be sold exclusively through Sprint, who is certainly going to require customers to sign up for a data plan when at time of purchase. So if you’re looking for a traditional handheld, you might want to look elsewhere. 

Update: MotionApps has announced an emulator that will allow the Pre to run legacy Palm OS software. To learn more, read this article: MotionApps Classic Emulator for Palm Pre Preview

Web Focused
With a name like “webOS”, there can be little doubt where this operating system’s focus is. To understand what this means, I’ll contrast it with the Palm OS.

I’d never thought much about it before, but the Palm OS is focused on the PC. Handhelds and smartphones synchronize with the Palm Desktop, and applications are installed from the desktop.

The new webOS synchronizes with the Web, drawing its data from online services like Google and Facebook. There is no webOS Desktop. Users will be buying and installing applications over the Web, too. 

It’s not throwing the baby out with the bathwater, though. webOS-based smartphones like the Pre will act as removable drives, so all that will be necessary to put music and video files on them will be to connect the devices to a PC.

webOS applications are based on HTML, JavaScript, and CSS, which are web-based technologies. In many cases, its basic software functions as a web browser for accessing content that is stored on the device. If you’ve ever browsed locally-stored content, you’ll understand why these applications are so fast.

UPDATE: This article originally had an error in it. I said that while developers will have the option of using HTML, JavaScript, and CSS, they will also be able to use C++. This is not the case. Palm wrote to tell me that developers won’t be able to code in C++, although they will  be able to call device services from JavaScript.

This has left me very concerned about the future of games on webOS. Palm has so far kept mostly mum on the subject of games, and my attempts to draw them out at the announcement were unsuccessful. I’m hoping the company is just holding information back as part of plan to build hype as time goes by, but we’ll have to wait and see.

Let’s Start with the Basics
Palm’s basic goal with the webOS is to create a mobile device that seamlessly brings information together.

These days, we all have our data spread around the Internet, with our work address book on an Exchange Server, a personal address book on Google, and maybe even a second one on Facebook. The webOS has been designed to present the user with all this data, without regard to where it is stored.

Palm Pre Address BookThe webOS address book displays all the information available for each person from multiple different sources. A single person’s entry could have, for instance, phone numbers from an Exchange Server, a street address from Google, and a picture from Facebook. All of this would be displayed to the user together, without regard to where it came from.

Palm Pre CalendarThe calendar works the same way. The webOS can pull calendar information from a variety of sources and display it all together, with entries color-coded by their source (as shown here). If all this data at once is overwhelming, the user can choose to display or hide the entries from individual sources. When there’s a event happening from a calendar source that’s currently being hidden, its time slot is, though empty, a slightly different shade, so the user knows there’s something happening then. 

If someone has an Exchange email account and a Gmail account, the webOS can display messages from both on a single list. Naturally, replies go back through the appropriate account, and the accounts can be displayed separately if the user prefers, but the concept is to simply the situation by letting the smartphone deal with where messages are coming from, and let the user just read their email.

Another example is instant messaging. Suppose a Pre user is exchanging messages with a friend on AIM, and the friend shuts down his laptop. The user can easily switch from AIM to SMS and continue the conversation, which will be displayed on the same card as the AIM messages, and earlier Google Chat ones, too.

A universal search feature is included, which can search the basic PIM apps, the Web, an Exchange Server, and more. 

Palm calls all this “synergy”, which means “the whole being greater than the sum of its parts”. I think this is a cool name. In fact, it might have made a better name for the first webOS device than “Pre”.

A Good Ol’ App Launcher
Palm Pre App LauncherPalm’s new operating system needs a simple way to launch applications. The Palm OS depends on hardware buttons and an icon view of applications, and the webOS uses a modified version of this.

When no applications are in the foreground – either because none are running or because they are all running in the background – the user sees a blank screen with a  launcher bar featuring five software icons at the bottom. Flicking from the bottom of the screen brings up the application launch screen, with icons in a 3×4 grid. Tapping on an icon to launch an application will close the launcher, or flicking upward again will do the same.

The launcher bar can be brought up at any time by pressing at the bottom of the screen and moving the finger up.

Keep an Eye on the Cards
webOS is capable of running multiple applications simultaneously, just like a PC. Moving between running apps on a PC’s large screen is easy, but coming up with a way to handle this on a smartphone’s small display is a challenge.  The system Palm has devised seems quite workable.

Palm Pre CardsTo understand the webOS’s basic user interface, think about a deck of cards. Each application has its own card, but applications can open multiple cards, too.  So it’s possible to have several emails or web pages open at once, each in its own card.

These are analogous to the windows on a PC, but aren’t exactly the same. All cards are lined up side-by-side in a row, and switching between them just requires a flick of the finger. It’s possible to zoom out and see several cards at once, and change their order by dragging cards around. To close an application, flick the card up off the top of the screen.

Notifications, such as an incoming email, appear at the bottom of the screen. Palm’s intent with these is to make them visible but not intrusive. A notice that the user has received an SMS message doesn’t take over the screen and won’t interfere with the grocery list they are writing.

Web Browser, Multimedia, Etc.
Everything I have talked about up until now has been impressive, but if the webOS didn’t include a highly functional web browser, the rest would have been a waste of time. Fortunately, that’s not the case.

Forget about Blazer, Palm’s terrible browser for the Palm OS. The new one is vastly more capable: quickly and accurately rendering webpages onto the Pre’s small screen. It allows the user to zoom in on the content they want, either by tapping on the screen or with a multi-touch gesture: place two fingers close together on the screen, then slide them apart. This will expand the section of the screen being touched. 

Palm Pre Web BrowserI asked about support for Macromedia Flash — necessary for YouTube videos and some very graphical websites – and got a solid “No comment”. I’m taking this as a sign that something is in the works.

The webOS has been designed to appeal to consumers, so naturally it also includes the ability to play audio and video, as well as display images. I saw demonstrations of all three of these functions, and all performed solidly.

Business Users, Take Heart
I just mentioned that the webOS was designed to have consumer appeal, but that doesn’t mean that Palm is ignoring business users. The Pre will come with many of these features this group demands.

At the top of the list is support for Microsoft Exchange. I’ve brought this up in passing this several times, but I want to state it explicitly: the webOS has support for Exchange ActiveSync built into it, allowing emails, calendars, address books, etc. to be synchronized.

In addition, it will come with software to allow email attachments to be viewed, including Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. This will be developed by DataViz, who makes DocumentsToGo for several types of smartphones. This application wasn’t ready to be demonstrated last week, but I’m expecting it to be very functional. I’m also expecting a “Pro” version that allows document editing to be for sale very close to the debut of the Pre.

As Palm explained it to me, the intent is to make a device that can be used as a work smartphone, but not to the point that’s deployable by IT departments. There’s not going to be many of the tools that are necessary for an enterprise model, such as remote wipe. At least, there won’t be at launch.  

Palm PreThe Palm Pre Itself
I have been talking mostly about the webOS, but I’ve also made frequent mentions of the Palm Pre, because completely dividing the hardware from the software isn’t really possible. But it’s time to talk about the device. Mostly I approve of the design, but not 100%.

First off, it will have a 3.1-inch, HVGA (480 by 320 pixel) display, where I would have preferred a larger, higher-resolution one. True, the iPhone has a screen with the same resolution, but if the Pre is going to succeed in this very tough market, it needs to be better than its competitors.

This display will be a capacitive touchscreen. Without going into the technical details, this means it will work best with a fingertip, and there will be no stylus involved. This is definitely on my approved list, as styli are just too 1995.

This device will come with an accelerometer, as well as light and proximity sensors. Among other things, this means that whatever the screen is displaying will automatically rotate so that it’s always upright. 

The overall design of the Pre is good. It uses a tablet shape, with a QWERTY keyboard that slides out from behind the screen when its in portrait mode. With the keyboard out, the whole device is slightly curved (as shown here).

I didn’t get much time to try out the keyboard, but it doesn’t seem significantly different from the ones on many of the Palm Treo smartphones.

This model will have 8 GB of built-in memory and no memory card slot. I would have preferred a memory card slot, and asked Palm why there isn’t one. I was told that they preferred the simplicity on non-removable memory, and though users would too.

There will also be a 3 MPx built-in camera with support for still images but not recording movies.

At launch, the Pre will be exclusively available from Sprint in the U.S. This version will have EV-DO Rev. A, a form of 3G high-speed wireless networking. It will also include Wi-Fi and Stereo Bluetooth 2.0+ EDR.

In addition, this smartphone will have a GPS receiver and come with with Google Maps and Sprint Navigator.

There is no word yet on cost, other that it will be “competitively priced”. I’m taking that to mean somewhere in the neighborhood of $200 with a two-year contract.

Not surprisingly, many people are wondering when the Pre will be available from other carriers in other countries, but Palm is playing its cards very close to its chest. All I could get anyone to say is that the Pre was designed for a wide variety of groups and countries in mind.

Unfinished Business
Despite Palm’s willingness to show it off, the Pre is still months away from release. Palm will only say that it will be out before the middle of this year.

I can assert that the units I saw demonstrated were missing some promised features, so I’m not expecting a debut before this spring.

I’m also hoping Palm will change its mind and take some of that time to add at least one of the features I think is necessary: an on-screen keyboard. I mentioned earlier that the Pre’s hardware keyboard functions with the screen in portrait mode. This means that there’s no easy way to enter text with the screen in landscape mode. When I suggested this to Palm, I was told that it would be a job for a third-party developer.

A Promising Future?
After Palm’s announcement, I spoke with several technology-oriented site editors about their first impressions of the webOS and Palm Pre, and all of them were impressed. That’s the sense I received from the regular press, too.

I now understand why Enterprise Partners was willing to pump $100 million into Palm; its new platform is worth investing in.

It’s not going to be all smooth sailing over calm seas, though. The Palm Pre is facing some tough competitors, including Apple, Microsoft, Google, and RIM (BlackBerry). But Palm is in a far, far better better position to face them than it has been in many years.

 

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