I know some people are confused by all the excitement surrounding the upcoming Palm Pre. At first glance, this model is nothing special. Smartphones with HVGA screens, sliding keyboards, Wi-Fi, and GPS are all over the place, and a few devices with considerably better features are on the market too. WVGA screens are becoming increasingly common on Windows phone, for example.
But none of that matters if the Pre offers a feature that’s harder to quantify but trumps all the rest: ease of use.
It’s the User Interface, Stupid
Many people refuse to get a phone with advanced features because they are too difficult to use. If you are in this category you have nothing to apologize about. I use advanced phones every day, and whenever I pick up a new one I have to spend hours figuring out its quirks. I don’t blame you if you think this is too much hassle.
Companies keep trying to find ways to pack in more features while making the resulting device simple and straightforward, with only limited success.
This is why many people aren’t looking for more features. It doesn’t matter if a new phone has a built-in back massager and can detect tachyon emissions, if it runs almost any of the current mobile operating systems a large percentage of potential customers will turn away because these aren’t easy enough to use.
This is where the Pre comes in. Palm employees with long experience developing mobile devices at a variety of companies have created an operating system with a user interface that isn’t like anything I’ve used before. Its “cards” metaphor is shaping up to be both simple and powerful.
I’ll confess, I haven’t had as much time with the webOS as I’d like, but I can draw an important conclusion from even my limited experience. A device with a bad user interface is hard to use from the first moment you pick it up. The fact that I was able to pick up a Pre and figure out how to use it with a very brief demo is a good sign of things to come.
I’ll have to wait until I’ve been using a Pre for a few weeks to say for sure, but at first blush Palm may have created a mobile operating system that won’t intimidate potential buyers and also offers advanced features, which is going to give it a huge leg up on most of its competitors.
These days, it’s impossible to write seriously about an upcoming mobile operating system without bringing up the iPhone, especially as ease of use is also the hallmark of Apple’s smartphone. Some people have used strong competition from Apple to predict that the Palm Pre won’t do well, but to me the iPhone’s success is a harbinger of success for the Pre as well.
Even today, the iPhone is under-featured compared to the competition, but it has always sold very well. It isn’t this device’s rather basic hardware that is responsible for this, but people’s desire for a smartphone that’s simple to use. And that’s what the Palm Pre is going to offer too.
And that’s what makes the Pre and following webOS-based devices important: they have the potential to be easy to use but capable smartphones at a time when a great many people are looking for exactly that.