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ATPM 15.08
August 2009


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by Wes Meltzer,

A Bird in the Palm Is Worth…

This month’s hot topic: does the Palm Pre represent a threat to the iPhone, or to the BlackBerry? Could it revive Palm’s fortunes?

I remember when the Palm platform was the only platform anyone wanted to use for their PDAs. My Pilot was a terrific little device, and later I had a Handspring Visor Deluxe that kept me organized and scheduled all the way through high school. They lost their way by letting the Treo line and the OS stagnate, but shoot, my dad had a Palm VII, a great device that even supported wireless network data connections in 1999!

Ever since Palm announced the Pre, there’s been a lot of discussion about what it means for Palm and what it means for the rest of the field. The webOS has been in development for more than two years, and the concept of a Linux-based Palm OS dates back to 2004. It’s based on a striking user interface concept, compared to the spectrum from “most conventional” (Windows Mobile, which even includes a task manager) to “most unconventional” (iPhone)—webOS is off the charts. The system is based on the concept of “cards,” in which each instance of an application has one card, and you can shuffle between them depending on what you want in the foreground. Switching between cards looks a little like a mobile version of Exposé. (Caveat: I have not been able to get my hands on a Pre to use yet.)

From what I hear the Pre is really impressive. It seems clear enough to me that the field is divided into basically three classes of smartphones: multimedia devices, e-mail devices, and enterprise office devices. The current Big Three are the iPhone, the BlackBerry, and the Treo and the whole other classes of PalmOS (“Garnet,” etc.) and Windows Mobile phones and handhelds.

I’ve used Windows Mobile, the BlackBerry OS, PalmOS, and my iPhone’s OS X. Each of them has various positives and negatives: the iPhone is easily the easiest to use, but my Palms supported multitasking on a 68380. Windows Mobile even has a task manager, but using it just like Ctrl-Alt-Del to get rid of a hung application left a bad taste in my mouth. The old-school BlackBerrys with the scroll wheel make browsing through long e-mails or long lists a breeze, but to say that the BlackBerry OS goes beyond the absolute, bare minimum with multimedia stretches the truth to the point of breaking.

So, I think the question is, what will the Pre become? Will it lead a category, and if so, which? The iPhone’s, as a multimedia device that happens to be a PDA and phone? The BlackBerry’s niche as the device of people who really need to send e-mail standing on the El ride home? The Windows Mobile phone’s enterprise category, where the ability to edit Microsoft Office documents and even do a PowerPoint presentation without a computer is first and foremost? (Seriously. My Dell Axim X51v could drive a projector at 1024×768 with a simple, $30 adapter cable, and could view PowerPoint files natively.)

John Gruber calls the Pre a “bet the company” product, and I think he’s right.

Because it has a hardware keyboard, the two most obvious comparisons are to the iPhone and the BlackBerry. I think the iPhone’s gotten an unfair rap as not-for-professionals: Mobile Safari saves my bacon all the time, and I use mine for work e-mail every day. Although there are some things about the e-mail handling I wish were different, I don’t miss the hardware keyboard at all. And the BlackBerry is a fantastic device as long as you have access to an e-mail account using the BlackBerry Enterprise Server, and as long as you’re willing to let the BlackBerry do its thing—text—the Web browsing experience is just fine.

The Pre does a little of both. It’s not really just a multimedia device, whether that means “iPod” or “Web browsing device,” because the entire OS is based on Web development. It’s not just a handheld e-mail reader, because Palm can’t compete with the experience of a company whose entire business model is “voice + e-mail.”

I’m open-minded. What did everyone else have to say? Let’s go to the reviews. I’ve split them into three categories: two comparing the Pre to (1) the iPhone and (2) the BlackBerry; and a third discussing the Synergy feature.

Compared to the iPhone

Justin Blanton thinks that the much-discussed idea that the Pre is going to compete principally against the BlackBerry is wrong-headed. He writes, “Palm is looking for customers anywhere it can find them. The delineation between corporate users and everyone else is slowly but surely disappearing, and I’m fairly certain it’s going to be either Palm or Apple that bridges the gap.” More to the point, he’s very impressed with the card UI metaphor:

For me, the big thing about the Pre is the ability to run multiple apps simultaneously; you know, like pretty much every other smartphone in the world except the iPhone. (Despite Apple’s insistence that simultaneous apps would tax the battery too much, etc., I really wish they’d let me make that determination.) The card metaphor that brings the Pre’s multitasking functionality to fruition is fantastic (think cmd-tab switching on the Mac), and I especially like that each Web page gets its own card (this one-page—one-“window” thing would never work for me on the desktop, but it’s perfect for a mobile phone). Cards just feel so natural and “right.” Scroll through the “deck” to switch between open apps and flick a card up to close an application. Nice.

Steven Frank, of Panic Software, sees Blanton’s review and raises it a lot of details. He’s impressed with the UI, and much less so with the hardware, which he says is beautiful but already showing signs of physical distress after light usage. More to the point:

WebOS would need to mature a bit before I personally could replace the iPhone with the Pre as my primary device. But for a 1.0, they’ve performed a minor miracle. It is a highly respectable competitor to the iPhone and other smartphones. I would rank it above Android, and miles above Windows Mobile.

Walt Mossberg, good old Uncle Walt, writes that he thinks the Pre’s software and hardware are “elegant,” and that many users will prefer a physical keyboard to the software keyboard. On the other hand:

I consider the Pre to be potentially the strongest rival to the iPhone to date, provided it `attracts lots of third-party apps, which it sorely lacks at launch. Its design is much better than that of the two other main iPhone-class competitors: the T-Mobile G1, which uses Android, and RIM’s touch-screen BlackBerry Storm.

Claudine Beaumont, the Daily Telegraph’s technology editor, was in San Francisco to observe the launch. She thinks that the device “betters the iPhone in some ways,” and goes on to say:

The Pre ticks all the boxes needed for a modern smartphone—WiFi and 3G connectivity, Web browser, YouTube access, 8 GB of memory, app store for downloading games and programs, Amazon MP3 access for song downloads, three-megapixel camera with flash (although, curiously, no video-recording function; this inspired-by-Apple thing is going too far), accelerometer for switching between portrait and landscape, etc etc.

But it’s greatest strength is its operating system, webOS, built from the ground up by Palm, and designed to tap in to the benefits of cloud computing.

We’ll have more on the Pre and cloud computing later in this column.

Compared to the BlackBerry

Ars Technica is so sure that Palm’s got BlackBerry makers Research in Motion in their sights they even titled their review of the Pre, “Ars Reviews the Palm Pre, part 1: the BlackBerry killer.” Writer Jon Stokes divides the whole mobile-device kingdom into the same categories I use. He says that all of the successful devices do one thing well—for the iPhone, media playback; for the BlackBerry, e-mail. By that logic, he says, the Pre has to be a BlackBerry competitor: it is “as good a messaging device as the iPhone is a media device.” He focuses very intently on its broader messaging capabilities:

In all, Palm put as much effort into making the webOS a first-rate messaging experience as Apple did into making the iPhone a first-rate media experience, and with just as much success… [T]he Pre will do for your personal messaging what your work BlackBerry does for your business messaging. Furthermore, I’m sure that e-mail, SMS, Twitter, and IM aren’t the end of it… [I]f it’s an update or message that comes from a network service, it’s likely that the webOS’s Synergy component will support it eventually.”

BoyGeniusReport finds the screen and the form factor to be excellent—“very pocketable,” they write—but there’s one big flaw: the keyboard. This is a considerable flaw for a phone that wants to take on RIM like David and Goliath:

It’s really not good. My hands aren’t that big (I can type faster than you could ever dream on a BlackBerry, iPhone, or E71) and my thumb literally takes up 3 or 4 keys on the keyboard. There’s less space in between each key than say, a BlackBerry Curve 8300 keyboard, and the texture takes some time to get used to. It’s a rubberized coating kind of like the Centro and Treo Pro, and while the keys are a bit harder (better), the coating could possibly get irritating as usage increases. It’s really such an important area that couldn’t afford to be messed with and we’ll admit it…we’re a little let down. You’re going after the big guns here, and this is kind of disappointing.

Kyle Cordes gives the Pre high marks, from the perspective of a BlackBerry user, because the hardware and software are both so advanced. He was especially impressed by the webOS’ full-throttle embrace of multitasking—apparently BlackBerrys can do that, he writes, but it’s not commonly used. But, after using it for a few weeks, he returned it and got a BlackBerry Curve instead. BlackBerry habits die hard, it sounds like.

Last but not least, the guys at got their hands on a Verizon memo that shows the carrier deliberately positioning the Pre against their BlackBerry Storm, feature by feature. I think Verizon knows something we don’t about whether they’re ever going to get a contract to sell the iPhone…

The Synergy feature

One of the big selling points of the Pre is that it rethinks some of the paradigms of modern cell phones. The biggest is the notion of breaking down the definition of the address book: for historical reasons every device has had its own, but someone at Palm came up with the idea of integrating the new vogue for social networking into your device. In effect, the Pre outsources your address book to Gmail, Facebook, etc. They call it Synergy.

The guys at Engadget, whose Joshua Topolsky turned in an epic, three-part review (one, two, three), think this cuts both ways:

The Synergy premise is simple: it will take your Gmail account, Facebook profile, AIM identity, and / or Exchange data and merge it all together on your Pre, killing duplicate entries, joining together sources where there’s overlap (creating “linked contacts”), and generally making your connected life super-duper awesome. What it actually does is dump pretty much all of your content into the phone without a second thought for what it’s letting through the door… We don’t know if you’re like us, but we don’t want every person we’re friends with on Facebook in the contact list for our phone. Facebook kindly provides grouping for different contacts because it appreciates the fact that not everyone has the same kind of relationship. WebOS? Not so much.

And the Daily Telegraph’s Beaumont calls it “impressive,” and writes that it makes keeping track of conversations a sync by storing them by contact regardless of medium.

The Pre and iTunes

One of the little secrets Palm slipped into the Pre, which you might remember from last month, is the ability to synchronize with iTunes…at least iTunes 8.2.

Basically, it was a hack. They have the Pre identify itself to the computer as a USB mass storage device when it’s initially connected to the computer, but when it’s in media sync mode, it pretends that it’s an iPod by masquerading with the iPod’s device ID, so that it can connect to iTunes.

In the iTunes 8.2.1 update, Apple disabled the spoofing. They’d already warned Palm, they remind us.

Computerworld’s Matt Hamblen notes that this can’t be good for Palm, the tit-for-tat game. He quotes Chris Kellihack of Palm InfoCenter as saying, “The sync capability was a temporary loophole by Palm at best, which left a funny taste in my mouth as a half-assed solution.”

Palm has since pushed out another software update “restoring” the ability to sync with iTunes 8.2.1, by changing the USB vendor ID on the Pre to Apple’s, so I guess this means war. They’ve also complained to the USB Implementers Forum about Apple’s misuse of the USB vendor ID, which just screams of chutzpah (only this month’s second-most chutzpah, if you can believe it).

As I said, I guess this means war.

Another Meaning for “in the Palm of your Hand”

When Google announced their new Chrome OS, a platform mostly intended for running Web applications like the ones they happen to excel at writing, a thousand analogies blossomed.

Was this a play at Apple? Microsoft? Sun? (Remember that Java’s raison d’être was thin computing!) Some other, convoluted computing history analogy?

I remember the late 90s, the last time “thin computing” was in vogue. The idea was that servers were becoming so powerful that you could reduce the hardware cost to the client by making their computers less powerful terminals and running the software over the network.

At the time, this was all about CPU, RAM, and hard drive space—form factor wasn’t an issue yet—but somebody forgot to tell Sun about Moore’s Law. By the time I was a sophomore in high school, in 2000, my desktop had a 733 MHz Pentium III and Intel introduced the 1.5GHz Pentium 4. My dad’s computer, with the 1.5GHz P4, had as much raw clock speed as 1997’s Sun Ultra 450 (although less effective speed), and significantly more hard drive storage space.

So the explosion of cheap RAM, cheap enormous hard drives, and very fast desktop CPUs negated the benefits of thin computing to non-institutional customers.

Fast forward to today. Google wants to build their own interface on top of the Linux kernel and their Chrome Web browser. So the Chrome OS is Google’s play at being the principal software provider for the netbook category. These are very small laptops with cheap, low-speed CPUs from Intel (rather than Intel’s more expensive, low-power-consumption chips, these are just small and slow) and a seven-year-old OS (Windows XP). I didn’t know there was such a category until I saw one at a Radio Shack, where I was buying some batteries, and realized that it was about the size of the Kindle DX when closed.

It’s certainly an interesting category. At the same time, I paid more for my iPhone than for Dell’s Mini 9 (which, by the time you read this column, likely won’t be on sale any longer), which (a) has astonishingly similar specs and (b) is only very slightly larger than the Kindle DX.

(An aside: to me, it’s fascinating that these devices are converging so rapidly toward each other. The iPhone’s screen has 25% of the resolution of the Mini 9 display, versus just 6% of the 17″ MacBook Pro and 20″ iMac displays. I wouldn’t be surprised to see an eventual iPhone with a display resolution in the 1/4-WVGA neighborhood (640×512) and a netbook with a 6.1″ diagonal screen (5.25″ wide by 3.1″ high) and a BlackBerry Pearl-style predictive keyboard.)

Now, Chrome OS doesn’t exist yet. All it is so far is a concept Google is saying they will deliver. I’ll believe it when I see it. But it’s actually strikingly reminiscent of this month’s other topic, the Palm Pre. (See below, if you’re already bored.) Both the webOS and Chrome rely on “the cloud” for storage, which means that some portion or all of your data is stored on servers at Google or elsewhere on the Internet rather than on your hard drive.

I think this makes more sense for the webOS, with its always-on EV-DO data connection, than for a netbook that relies on WiFi and the stupidity of strangers with unlocked networks.

(For the reverse perspective, read Tom Spring in PC World. He thinks they won’t succeed, but, unlike me, he thinks it has the potential to transform personal computing—and for Google to dethrone Microsoft.)

So then, the question is, what does the Chrome OS mean for the big players in the computer software market? There are currently three big players with a feet in both software and OS camps: Microsoft, Apple, and the open-source Linux/BSD folks (principally Ubuntu, Red Hat and Firefox).

John Gruber takes the position that Google would have been smarter to leverage the development work on Android, sort of like OS X in reverse, starting from the mobile end of things. He suggests that supporting two distinct platforms for two applications very nearby on the computing spectrum communicates a lack of confidence in the underlying Android OS to scale beyond cell phone-sized devices. More to the point, he thinks it would have been easier to have one platform, if they intend to get users to expect something other than the conventional computing platform. (IDG’s Elizabeth Montalbano found plenty of analysts who agreed: “Others wondered why Google felt the need to create two OSes targeted at the netbook market, especially since Android is still relatively new and does not yet have a strong position in the mobile market against Apple’s iPhone and other smartphones.”)

But Glenn Fleishman and Adam Engst at TidBITS take exactly the opposite view, arguing not only that the two should remain separate, but that it is a distinction rooted in logic—using the same facts! It’s so much fun when writers play this game:

Google said that Android won’t be affected by Chrome OS. Android is tailored for devices that have small screens, a variety of input mechanisms, extreme battery requirements, and processors that are even lower-powered than those in netbooks. It’s possible that Android and Chrome OS could at some point converge into a single platform, but we can see the advantages of developing a netbook operating system separately from a mobile one. (Emph. mine)

As far as the big stakeholders are concerned, Dan Frakes and Dan Moren agree on one thing: Microsoft should be scared about Chrome OS, and Apple should just shake it off. The risk to Microsoft is obvious, because it’s not just a play for Windows customers; it’s a play to replace the whole Microsoft software suite with Google’s, and anyone else’s on the Internet.

Apple, on the other hand, is selling MacBooks like there’s no tomorrow, and the difference between a $300 cheaptacular netbook and a $1,000 MacBook or $2,000 MacBook Pro is so dramatic that Microsoft’s “Laptop Hunters” campaign doesn’t even touch on netbooks. (Speaking of laptop hunting, the Macalope is loving that John Dvorak’s son bought a Mac.)

Ars Technica, bless them, took a longer look at what the issues surrounding the current crop of operating systems are, and what’s interesting (and what isn’t) about Chrome OS. They think that there are two big issues that Google is trying to solve:

  • First, the data and the applications will run as Web services. This means that the software is always up to date, and storage space is only limited by how much you get or pay for.
  • Second, all that runs on the computer is an OS with a network stack and minimal hardware support, and a Web browser. You can say goodbye to the five minutes it takes me to get Windows XP to boot on my work computer, in this world. The flip side of this is that you’ll have a lot fewer peripherals to choose from; but maybe that’s passé in the post-1990s world. My little sister, who at 18 is on the cusp of the netbook crowd, only carries her iPhone and a Canon pocket camera. I don’t doubt she’d ditch the pocket camera if the iPhone’s were better.

They also think that Google supporting ARM is going to give Intel nightmares. ARM is probably better for a device in this class, with much better (read: lower) energy consumption, but as long as real Windows only runs on Intel-compatible chips there’s never been competition. If the Chrome OS is a success, Intel might lose the whole sector of subnotebooks—ARM already has the handhelds and phones sewn up.

We’ll have to wait until 2010 to see what happens. All of this is merely prelude. But I can safely say it’s an interesting time to be a computer user.

Odds and Ends

iPhone OS 3.0’s new WiFi features mean it excels at hot spots—including any AT&T hot spots. If you’ve set your iPhone so that it will automatically connect to one, like at a Starbucks, then as soon as you pull up a Safari window it will log you in automagically. From there, it’s hello, sweet WiFi. Occasionally AT&T does make things not suck.

  • Nokia’s market share is suffering due to their poor marketing of smartphones (and the Symbian OS, neither BlackBerry nor Windows Mobile). Some analysts are predicting it may not take more than a few years for Apple to pass Nokia.
  • It seems Psystar (remember them?) is attempting to get out of bankruptcy on what may be the biggest pile of chutzpah ever constructed. In May, they entered Chapter 11 bankruptcy so they could have protection from fighting Apple’s legal bills. But it seems that they couldn’t reach an agreement on a payment plan to their legal counsel for their bankruptcy proceedings, according to Computerworld, and AppleInsider reported in June that Apple had gotten the bankruptcy court’s automatic freeze on other court proceedings lifted. So they’ve thrown in the towel on bankruptcy by claiming that fighting Apple is, I kid you not, too expensive to let them also file for bankruptcy.
  • Thomas of Just Another Mobile Monday bought his first Mac a few weeks ago, and he wrote quite a review of it. Apparently he was pleasantly surprised that “all the applications work well together… and the UI slides into place in ways that were previously only seen with WindowBlinds on the PC.” His review is worth a read from the perspective of someone who “made fun of Mac users for most of my life.”
  • If you’ve ever wondered why Japan has the most impressive mobile phones, but they’re not available anywhere else, the New York Times had a really interesting look. Apparently this is “Galápagos syndrome,” named after Charles Darwin’s infamous finches, and it’s a great read.

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Reader Comments (1)

David Zatz · August 3, 2009 - 09:58 EST #1
This was an EXCELLENT wrap-up. I'm going to keep an eye on Wes' columns in future ATPMs. Thanks!

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