When Jon Rubenstein and his band of Apple cast-offs unveiled webOS and the Palm Pre, they were hailed as the next Apple. So it’s only fitting that the Apple of 2010 is taking it’s cues from the Palm of old.
Remember back in the day, when Palm’s market capitalization was bigger than GM’s? While I think we can all agree that Palm was never really that big, they were the driving force of mobile tech in their day. And they did that because they were masters of efficiency, squeezing the best user experience out of the hardware available at the time. Over time, through countless management and ownership changes, Palm lost sight of this core competency.
To a lot of people in the tech world, Apple’s not exactly the first company that comes to mind when someone says “pro-consumer.” I’d argue that while Apple is heavy handed in their app store policies, et cetera, it’s all with the best interests of the consumer in mind; they’re trying to make the user experience as good as it can possibly be. And in so doing, they’ve taken a few pages directly out of Palm’s playbook.
For three generations, the iPhone and iPod touch screens have been the same half VGA 320×480 as the Palm and Sony Clie devices of years ago. Now Apple’s competition is rolling out higher resolutions screens, and Apple has to answer. Consumers can see the difference between the iPhone’s 320×480 and the HTC devices with 480×800 screens. But the iPhone OS isn’t resolution independent (as, ironically, Palm’s new webOS is), so how does Apple roll out higher definition screens without breaking the hundreds of thousands of apps people already use?
Palm had a similar problem in the early 2000s. They’d pushed their 160×160 resolution screens as far as they could, even adding color. But Microsoft’s Pocket PCs had 240×320 quarter VGA screens that just looked better. So Palm doubled their resolution along both axis—effectively quadrupling the resolution—to 320×320. New applications could make full use of the additional pixels, but older apps were automatically scaled up, or pixel-doubled, by painting a 2×2 square of small pixels for every pixel of a 160×160 screen. Older apps worked just fine, and new apps looked even better than QVGA apps on Pocket PCs. (Eventually Palm added another 160 vertical pixels to replace the old silkscreened Graffiti text input zone that could be used for display when text entry wasn’t needed, bringing us to the same 320×480 that all iPhones use today.)
So how is Apple addressing the resolution problem? As seen on the new iPad, they’re using the same solution Palm did. Apps written aware of the iPad’s larger XGA (1024×768) screen take full advantage of the new resolution. Older iPhone apps can run either at native 320×480 in a small window, or pixel doubled up to 640×960, taking up most of the iPad’s screen. When Apple releases the iPhone HD this summer, it will ship with 640×960 screen nearly the same physical size as the current HVGA screen and automatically pixel double older apps to take up the full screen. Because the screen sizes will be nearly the same—actually, it looks like the iPhone HD screen is a tad smaller than the iPhone 3GS’s—these older apps will look exactly the same as they do on older iPhones. But updated apps designed to take advantage of the extra pixels will look amazing, better than anything on Android devices because of the iPhone HD’s superior pixel density. Thanks for the idea, Palm!
Let me give you another example. At the recent iPhone OS 4 sneak preview event, Apple unveiled how they would address what had been considered the key flaw in their mobile OS: multitasking. Instead of running an arbitrary number of full apps in the background, chewing up memory and processor cycles that the foreground app—the app the user is actually choosing to pay attention to at the moment—the way webOS and Android do, Apple decided to go a different way. Instead, they will continue to default to running only the current active application at any given time, and allow developers to opt in to using specific APIs allowing background threads when they’re actually going to do something useful. You can keep streaming music from Pandora in the background, but the bulk of the Pandora app quits when you’re not actually looking at it. You can be notified of an incoming Skype call without having to leave Skype running. The user gets the benefits of multitasking, but not the resource bloat downside.
When Apple announced this, it seemed vaguely familiar to me, but I couldn’t place why. Then a friend of mine pointed out that it was familiar because this is exactly the multitasking implementation that was to be in Palm OS 6, known as Cobalt to Palm OS 5’s Garnet. Cobalt never appeared in a shipping device, but that was more due to the byzantine politics and rights issues behind Palm and its spin-off PalmSource in the mid-2000s. Architecturally, Cobalt was sound, and its method of multitasking would have been far more efficient and snappy than the alternative in Windows Mobile. By extension, Apple’s multitasking in iPhone OS 4 should be far more efficient and provide a faster, more consistent user experience—and without the need for gigahertz processors and 512MB-1GB of RAM found in Android devices—than found in Android and webOS phones today. Keep in mind the Palm Pre was considered a poor multitasker with 256MB until the updated Palm Pre Plus with 512MB, while the iPad, designed with iPhone OS 4 in mind, only has 256MB, as does the iPhone 3GS. iPhone multitasking will be disabled on the 128MB original iPhone and 3G, so obviously Apple has determined that 256MB will multitask just fine.
Good ideas are good ideas, and Apple has picked up the baton from Palm as the user experience champion in mobile.