Apple is the new Palm

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.

Picking nits: why I’m skipping the Palm Pre

Don’t get me wrong. In many respects, the Palm Pre is a groundbreaking smartphone that portends the obliteration of the line between phone and full size computer. It joins the iPhone and arguably the Android devices as the only computer some people would ever need.

However, Palm missed a lot of the little things in this first release. It’s an admirable attempt, given what they’re shooting for, but the fact of the matter is that the devil is in the details, and Palm fumbled too many. Any one of the following items is easy enough to overlook in an otherwise stellar device. But the difference between, frankly, the Palms and the Apples of the world is that the Apples don’t miss over 20 of them. They add up to an annoying user experience more akin to Windows Mobile than the iPhone.

  1. Tiny, un-thumbable keys. One of the reasons the keys on the Pre (and Centro) keyboard are so rubbery is that they’re intended to be snagged with your thumbnail rather than the meat of your thumb. It works, but it’s not as comfortable or as fast as, say, the Blackberry Bold.
  2. No software on-screen keyboard. If the thumbnail technique doesn’t work for you, there’s no other way to do it. In fact, you even have to slide the device open to enter a things like passwords.
  3. 8GB limit on storage (really 7). 7GB doesn’t hold a lot these days, especially if you like video. Of course, you can’t sync purchased videos from iTunes (DRM), so unless you rip your own DVDs this may not bother you as much as bothers me.
  4. Let’s talk about that iTunes sync, shall we? Palm has done a lot to ensure people can sync the Pre as though it were an iPhone, but this trick only works as long as Apple chooses not to block it. Basically, this works because the Pre reports itself as an iPod in Media Sync mode. But it still reports itself as a Palm Pre on the base USB channel, so Apple could filter this out if they decided they didn’t want to deal with support calls about syncing issues with things that aren’t really iPods.
  5. Try scrolling a long web page on the Pre. Where are you on the page? How close are you to the bottom? You don’t know, because unlike pretty much every other smartphone on the market, the Pre has no scrollbars at all, not even the temporary scroll indicators you see on the iPhone.
  6. And there’s no way to jump to the top or bottom of a long list. On the iPhone, you can tap the status bar to jump to the top. On everything else, you have scrollbars. On the Pre, flick flick flick…
  7. Assuming you don’t fork over $70 for a Touchstone charger, you have to plug the Pre in to charge it. No biggie, but you also have to open and close the flimsy little door that covers up the microUSB port every time you do it. I know they put this here to keep the Pre’s “organic, river-stone” aesthetic, but this is going to get old quick.
  8. For a device that’s designed to be online constantly, to live in the cloud, the battery life on the Pre stinks if you actually connect to anything. We’re talking Android G1 battery life.
  9. And you’re unable to use existing Centro/Treo 800w batteries, even though they’re exactly the same size, shape and pins as Pre batteries. Something about internal “mechanical” differences. Yeah, right.
  10. No on screen speed dial. I know you can assign speed dials to keys on the keyboard (I know way too many people with J names) or put contacts on the launcher (see below), but this is lame.
  11. Speaking of the launcher, Palm didn’t follow their own previous success and include categories. You get three unnamed launcher screens, each scrollable as deep as you like. But given that “out of sight, out of mind, what you really get is one undifferentiated scrolling list, or three iPhone like panels with stuff you’ll forget to look for underneath.
  12. At least you can find applications with Universal Search. You know what you can’t find? “Universal” search doesn’t search calendar, email, memos or tasks. Yeah, so much for universal. BTW, the iPhone does search calendar, email and notes with the 3.0 firmware.
  13. You can’t change notification sounds. Your incoming text messages and emails sound just like everyone else’s. ‘Nuff said.
  14. All or nothing Facebook and Google Contacts sync. A lot of reviewers mentioned this. Facebook and Google Contacts probably include a lot of people you don’t really know or barely know. But you can’t sync a specific Facebook group or just your “real” contacts in Gmail. If you sync these services, be ready to flick through everyone you’ve ever emailed and friends of friends of friends in your contact list.
  15. Memos is a joke, but I’d probably replace it with Evernote, even a launcher shortcut to the mobile version.
  16. Can’t copy text from a web page. The Pre only allows copy (and paste) in “editable” fields. So reading a web page or reading an email, you can’t copy. You can forward the email and copy from that, now that it’s editable, but again, lame.
  17. Given that the browser doesn’t handle Flash, it also doesn’t direct YouTube links to the included YouTube app. Uh, what?
  18. No Amazon MP3 downloads over 3G. We knew about this going in, and I know the iPhone had this limitation when it was first released, too. But the iPhone doesn’t have that limitation now. Why does Palm have to repeat Apple’s mistakes?
  19. The Music app has no “scrub” control to select playback position within a file. Not such a big deal with music, but a really big deal with podcasts.
  20. Music app also can’t filter out podcasts from songs when shuffling if you synced them via iTunes. Lame.
  21. No Latitude or Street View in Google Maps. What’s the deal with this? The Pre has GPS. Why is Google Maps for the Pre so inferior to Google Maps on the iPhone, Android, and for goodness sake, Windows Mobile?
  22. Easy to run into “can’t open a new card until you close some existing cards.” Say what you will about the iPhone and multitasking, but memory management generally isn’t something the user has to think about.
  23. Weak autocorrect. Maybe this isn’t as “necessary” on a device without an on-screen keyboard, but you have to watch what you type on the Pre a lot closer than you have to on the iPhone, or even HTC Windows Mobile devices.

Again, I’m not saying the Pre sucks. It’s a really interesting device, and not bad for a 1.0 product. But Palm has to do better than this if they’re going to save their company. The Pre needed to be as close to flawless as it could be to steal mindshare away from the iPhone and Blackberry. And the Pre we actually got just doesn’t measure up.

Pre starts off behind the eight ball

From c|net:

Sprint Nextel and Palm announced on Tuesday an official release date and pricing for the Palm Pre.

The Pre will be available nationwide on June 6 for $199.99 after a $100 mail-in rebate and with a two-year contract on Sprint’s Everything Data plan or Business Essentials with Messaging and Data plan. In addition to Sprint stores, the Pre will be sold online and at Best Buy, RadioShack, and some Wal-Mart Stores.

Doesn’t sound too bad, right? Pretty much what we expected, and competitive with current iPhones.

Sorta. Don’t forget to read the fine print. Like how that $200 price tag is after a mail-in rebate, so it will actually cost you $300+tax to walk out of the store with it. And then there’s the date, June 6th. That gives them 48 hours to sell this thing before Apple announces the iPhone 3.0 at WWDC. From Wired:

The source told iPhone fan blog Apple iPhone Apps that the new iPhone will launch July 17. Many of the provided specifications corroborate with past rumors that the device will introduce a digital compass and a video recorder, among other features. (The source did not provide a photo; the image to the right is from a past rumor report for the sake of comparison.) Here’s the list:

  • 32GB and 16GB storage (up from the current 16GB and 8GB models)
  • $199 and $299 price points to be maintained
  • 3.2-megapixel camera (up from the current 2-megapixel camera)
  • Video-recording and editing capabilities
  • Ability to send a picture & video via MMS
  • Discontinuation of the metal band surrounding the edge of the device
  • OLED screen
  • 1.5 times the battery life of the current models
  • Double the RAM and processing power
  • Built-in FM transmitter
  • Apple logo on back will glow
  • Rubber-tread backing
  • Sleeker design
  • Built-in compass
  • The camera, GPS, compass and Google map combined will identify photo and inform about photo locations
  • Turn-by-turn directions

Again, this is pretty much what we expected, though both I and Wired find the FM transmitter and OLED screen details a little dicey. But the rest parses with what I’ve heard elsewhere, as well as fitting Apple’s evolutionary update style.

So, this means the Pre will have 41 days, not quite six weeks, to sell against the current generation of iPhones. But once July 17 rolls around, the Pre will have half the storage of the similarly priced iPhone (8GB vs 16GB at the $200 price point, or a quarter of the 32GB that costs the same $300 as the pre-rebate Pre) and will lose a lot of the software advantages the Pre has over the current generation iPhones. The iPhone 3.0 firmware will provide similar universal search and push notification features that the Pre will already have, closing the gap between the two platforms. The Pre will still have true multitasking, but rumor has it Apple’s looking into that as well, and I can attest it’s not hard to add on your own (I love being able to play Pandora in the background while I’m reading).

And on the other side, Blackberry Curves are outselling the iPhone if you count all the Curve models as one. And for half the price of the Pre. So I don’t think Palm is going to cut nearly as much into the full QWERTY messenger market as they will into the sleek touch screen smartphone market.

Is the Pre, on Sprint, worth paying the same price for half the capacity compared to an iPhone 3.0 on AT&T?

First, kill all the lawyers

Palm has trouble, right here in River City. Apple’s COO and interim CEO said on their recent earnings call that they would aggressively defend their intellectual property. He didn’t call out the Palm Pre by name, but the subtext was there.

Palm needs to be ready for this. Apple files for every patent they can think of, and they believe they have defendable patents on multitouch and using a proximity sensor on a smartphone to turn off the screen (which is why you don’t see that feature on HTC devices). Apple also has lots of land sharks, I mean lawyers, and a lot more cash than Palm to handle legal fees.

I know Rubenstein saw this coming, he’s too smart to have missed it and he knows well how his old company operates. So he implemented those two features on the Pre knowing Apple would come after him. Why? What does he know that we don’t?

Palm’s accident of timing

It’s about time something went Palm’s way. And now, suddenly, everything seems to be going Palm’s way. They blew everyone away at CES, are getting tons of positive press in the national media, and now, their biggest rival in the mobile space looks primed to falter.

I don’t think anyone at Palm was rooting for Jobs to step down for health reasons, but the situation is what it is. Currently the mobile market is Apple’s to lose, but their hold is a lot more tenuous than it initially appears. No one has a lock on the still growing mobile market, no one has established numerical dominance, and Apple’s early lead in a field that has only just recently penetrated the consciousness of “normal” consumers could easily repeat their early lead in personal computing, and we see how that turned out.

And now, Apple is losing their rudder. Steve Jobs, the “tyrant with exceptional taste” that has driven Apple in all their successful years, is taking an indefinite leave of absence from the company. He says he’ll be back by summer, but given how much he’s publically underestimated his health problems already, many analysts think this is really the end of the Jobs era and he won’t be coming back, ever. As 2009 wears on, Tim Cook will officially lead the company he’s been de facto leading for a while now.

But there will be a difference. Cook may have kept the trains running on time, but Jobs was the visionary. Jobs was the creative force behind Apple’s big moves. Without him, Apple will have a tendency to coast, to continue doing what they know already works and stop innovating. (It’s worth noting that the internal force at Apple really responsible for two of their big Jobs 2.0 innovations, the first iMac and the iPod, is Palm’s Jon Rubenstein.)

So Palm may have an opportunity here to swipe smartphone dominance out from under a sleeping Apple. If the Pre really is everything people like about the iPhone and fixes everything people don’t like about the iPhone, Palm really could have the trifecta of industry-defining devices (Pilot, Treo, Pre) and take the lead as the company everyone else wants to beat. Before CES, I wouldn’t have bet that Palm could execute well enough to take advantage of that opportunity, but now I’m not so sure. Ed Colligan’s experience with mobile and the cell phone market combined with Jon Rubenstein’s knack for innovation and design are proving a tough combination to beat.

Pre-mature

Don’t get too excited about the Palm Pre, folks. Palm themselves is going to kill it the same way they they killed the Foleo, which could have been the standard-bearer netbook: by fundamentally misunderstanding the mobile market. When they should have unveiled a slick and easy Linux-based netbook, Palm insisted on tying it to a Treo and crippling that the device could do on its own. They were right in that small, cheap laptops would be the next Big Thing in computing, but insisted that they knew better than their customers what their customers wanted. And without a Jobsian Distortion Field (JDF) you really can’t pull that off.

And with the Pre, they’re doing it again. Palm CEO Ed Colligan made a telling comment at yesterday’s CES presentation to All Things Digital’s Peter Kafka:

The biggest unknown is price, which went unmentioned during the demo. My assumption is that Palm (PALM) would try to take market share by coming in significantly lower than the $200 or so Apple wants for its iPhone. But when I ran that theory by Palm CEO Ed Colligan, he looked at me liked I’d peed on his rug. “Why would we do that when we have a significantly better product,” he asked, then walked away.

Again, Ed fundamentally doesn’t get it. The iPhone 3G’s release at $199 changed everything we knew about smartphone pricing. I’ll be dollars to donuts Palm is expecting to get $299 for the Pre with a new 2 year Sprint contract. At that price, they’ll be a niche player at best and fade away before 2010. I’m skeptical of Palm’s assertion that they can go it alone without a supporting ecosystem by tying into everyone else’s ecosystems, uniting disparate sources of mobile data. But if they plan to do it at a 50% price premium in these troubled economic times (drink) over the competing iPhone for AT&T, Blackberry Bold or Storm on Verizon and G1 on T-Mobile, they’re riding the Fail Whale.

Palm Pre is close, but no cigar

Don’t get me wrong. Palm’s keynote at CES was impressive (I wasn’t there, but thanks to liveblogging from gdgt, TreoCentral and cnet, I feel like I was). Palm’s webOS platform and Pre smartphone take the best of the iPhone and Google Android, mix them together and fix all their flaws. It’s an excellent smartphone.

And a year ago, maybe even six months ago, that might have mattered.

The mobile market is crowded and getting more crowded. The line between smartphones and feature phones is blurrier than ever, and might be eradicated entirely if Android fulfills its promise to become the dominant “feature phone” OS. Here in the US, the battle lines are drawn, with each major carrier having a preferred smart platform. Verizon has Blackberry, T-Mobile has Android, AT&T has the iPhone, and now Sprint has the Pre. And even there, Palm is snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, hitching their wagon to a carrier that is best known in the last few years for hemorrhaging customers and money alike. The Pre doesn’t even support Wimax.

See, here’s the problem. The Pre doesn’t fit. It’s a great smartphone, but that’s not enough anymore. You have to plug into a whole ecosystem to make it work. Palm’s intent is for the Pre (which comes with Exchange OTA sync out of the box) to plug into anything, and it might work, but it’s a longshot.

I’ll be sticking with Windows Mobile for my smartphone needs at least for another year or so. Because I use Microsoft Office on my other PCs, sync my files with Live Mesh, manage my media with Windows Media Player, email with Exchange, manage my photos with Live Photos, etc. I use a Microsoft smartphone because I’ve already bought in to Microsoft services. And services are coming to drive device selection, not the other way around. And Palm, as cool as their new platform is, doesn’t supply services.

Maybe this is where their partner announcements will pay off. Facebook featured prominently in their keynote, as did Google. But can someone other than Google make a better Android than Android? I wouldn’t put money on it. Palm’s last fight will be a good one, they’ll go down swinging, but the ending is not in doubt.