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.

One carrier to rule them all?

From engadget:

Think you’ll have to wait until June 6th for all the Pre surprises to emerge? Think again. A breaking Reuters report has just dropped one of the biggest cellular bombshells of the year: Verizon Wireless, America’s largest mobile operator, will soon be carrying Palm’s Pre. Oh, that’s not enough? No worries — it’ll also be selling a “new version of the touchscreen BlackBerry Storm,” which is obviously the Storm 2 that we’ve been toying around with. The report makes clear that both phones would be cleared for shipment in around six months, which certainly jibes with whispers we’ve heard about Sprint’s mighty short exclusivity period. The news came from the company’s Lowell McAdam, the top executive for the venture of Verizon Communications and Vodafone. To quote: “Over the next six months or so you will see devices like Palm Pre and a second generation Storm.” First Sprint, then AT&T, and now Verizon? T-Mobile, where you at?
[Thanks, E]
Update: Seems Mr. McAdam continued on by noting that VZW would get the Palm Pre “and a cousin.” Hmm, Eos, anyone?

So Verizon is getting the Palm Pre, the Palm Eos, the Blackberry Storm 2 (now without inherently limiting click screen) and we keep hearing rumors from trusted sources about Verizon getting some variant of the iPhone. Probably not just a CDMA version of the 3G, as that would potentially violate their contract with AT&T, but I’ve heard rumors that Verizon may be getting either or both the iPad tablet and the iPhone Mini.

Admittedly, this is all speculation, but I’ve pointed out before that each major US carrier seemed to have a standard bearer smartphone platform. Verizon pushed Blackberry, Sprint had the Pre, AT&T had the iPhone and T-Mobile had the Android G1. Now it seems Verizon might be moving to consolidate everyone else’s marquee phones under their own banner. Anyone got any good Android on Verizon rumors?

The big switch

I’ve had it. You’ve failed me for the last time, Windows Mobile. My Touch Pro is stripped down to just about stock. Nothing more installed on it than GPS Today, WMWiFiRouter and Evernote. And still, it’s slower than my iPod Touch, freezes more than my iPod Touch, and using the touchscreen is less responsive and precise than my iPod Touch. In fact, since getting my iPod Touch, I’ve been consistently amazed at how much I put up with from Windows Mobile, how much I just accepted as “the way things work” because I didn’t know any better.

Well, I’m done. Windows Mobile, even with HTC’s TouchFlo 3D or even the new Spb Mobile Shell 3.0, isn’t good enough compared to the competition. 6.5 won’t be appreciably better, because they didn’t fix the right things (a shinier UI doesn’t mean squat over the same crappy memory management) and Windows Mobile 7, due in late 2010 maybe, brings a whole new set of issues. If I’m going to switch platforms, I may as well do it now.

iPhone 3G 16GB for $150, an offer I can’t refuse?

AT&T has a pretty sweet deal going on right now. I can get a refurbished 16GB iPhone 3G for only $150, delivered 2-day right to my door (which, now that I’m living in a house, I actually have). Order it Monday, and I could be setting it up when I get home from work Wednesday night, give me something to do while I’m installing Windows 7 RC (which comes out on the 5th). That’s really not a bad deal at all, and I still have an iPod Touch I could sell and recoup some of that (or just give it to my 13-year-old niece who has already cracked the screen on the netbook she got for xmas). And word on the street is that you can even get AT&T to credit your account to offset any early termination fee from the carrier you’re leaving. I really can’t see a downside to this. I even like the fact that it’s a refurb, meaning an actual human being has gone over it and said, “Yes, this is okay to sell.”

Waiting for Godot, er, iPhone HD

My original plan, such as it was, was to use the iPod in conjunction with my Touch Pro until June 8th, the first day of WWDC, Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference. This is when they’re expected to officially release iPhone OS 3.0 to the unwashed masses, and everyone expects them to unveil shiny new hardware as well. Both generations of iPhones were released at WWDC and went on sale shortly thereafter, in late June or early July. For a while now, the speculation has been that they were going to release a new, HD-capable and maybe even HD screened iPhone, something to compete more directly with the newer 800×480 HTC devices. But in the last week or so, that rumor has lost steam.

Look, I have no idea what Apple’s going to do. Neither, frankly, does anyone else outside of Cupertino. And maybe Kevin Rose. But anyone else, it’s just educated guesses. Sometimes you can get a long way on educated guesses, but they’re still guesses (see: difficulty in actually making any accurate predictions in climate science). We just don’t know, and basing my purchasing decisions on what I think Apple might do isn’t the best way to go. For what it’s worth, I think we’ll see only minor changes at best to the iPhone 3G, maybe colored backs. The HD stuff will go into a new Apple iPad a little smaller than the Kindle, but all screen. Nice, but not a phone. So for my money, a cheap iPhone 3G is as good now as in July.

Wither Pre?

Of course, the other reason to wait was to see the Palm Pre in person, to ponder it’s pocketable perfection (I’m a sucker for alliteration, sue me). But the more I learn about the Pre, especially in relation to what I’m learning about the iPhone, the less interested I become. For one thing, I have come to loathe and despise sliders. The Pre is a vertical slider, so it’s slightly less onerous than my Touch Pro in that you don’t have to wait for the screen to rotate, but lacking an on-screen keyboard you still have to pop it open even for trivial text entry, like passwords. Ask any G1 owner how long that takes to get old.

The uncertainty about application availability is another sticking point for me. I know what’s available for the iPhone, and have made lots of purchases from the iPhone App Store already (including spending at least $50 already in software I’ve since replaced with alternatives, but that’s all part of exploring a new platform). The webOS App Catalog, however, is still a mystery. We know some of the players that will have apps ready for launch, but a lot of the really important ones for me are still question marks. Will eReader have their reader app ready for launch? How about Evernote? We don’t know.

So between discomfort with the hardware and uncertainty with the software, I’m more and more inclined to give the Pre a pass. And I’m definitely ready to leave Sprint, so that’s another point in the “no Pre for me” column. Which brings me back to getting an iPhone 3G, and the sooner the better.

The Palm Eos, my other smartphone

Of course, we also got some news this week that allows me to hedge my bets. I’m the kind of guy who ran out of fingers holding “undo” places in Choose Your Own Adventure novels back in the 80s. I like to keep my options open, have an escape hatch. And Palm may provide me just that. We got a leaked render of another webOS device this week, what many are calling the Palm Eos. This front facing QWERTY candybar phone is clearly the replacement for the Centro, and should retail at $350 before carrier discounting, putting it somewhere between $100-200 with contract. It’s taller than the Pre but much thinner, very similar in form factor to the iPhone. It kind of looks like a Treo Pro with longer screen (320×400, shorter than the iPhone or Pre, but longer than the Treo). And it’s a GSM device using the AT&T UMTS bands.

So, in theory, I could buy an iPhone 3G now, upgrade it to the 3.0 firmware in June, and then down the line buy an Eos for $350 off contract. Then I could swap my SIM card (it will be nice to be back on a network that uses them again, CDMA ESN swaps just aren’t the same) back and forth between them depending on whether I want the all touch screen experience of the iPhone or the mix of capacitive touch and always available QWERTY of the Eos. Best of both worlds, and on the same account. Both sync with Google, so my data’s the same either way, especially if I have Evernote on both as well.

And I’ll finally be rid of Windows Mobile and all the annoyances it’s brought me. And that’s a good deal no matter which way you slice it.

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.