Smart phone from Palm – Game changing ideas at unexpected time from an unexpected place


For nearly 20 years CES (Consumer Electronics Show) has set the course of evolution of electronic products in that year. Undoubtedly, CES has been the largest and most influential show, particularly after the convergence of computing, communications and the consumer electronics market. Many influential products including VCR, CD, DVD, DVR, HDTV, Blue Ray and Xbox, were launched in CES show of the previous years. CES 2009 was held in Las Vegas in USA during January 8 to 11, 2009.

The financial crisis led by US sub-prime lending has a gripping hold on the global economy. Iconic Companies like Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy. GM and Ford are looking for ‘bailout” even to survive, let alone grow. Layoffs are being talked about even by Japanese Companies.

Against such a dismal background it takes enormous energy to show case a breakthrough product.

On January 7, 2009, on the eve of CES 2009 Palm Inc called a special press conference and announced the launch of its smart phone “Palm Pre”. Powered by Web OS, “Palm Pre” has amazing software capabilities. By combining “touch”, QWERTY key board and support to EV-DO high speed network “Palm Pre” combines the “best of breed” features of today’s smart phones and paves the way for the next generation of smart phones. By showcasing Palm Pre, Palm Inc has proved once again its leadership qualities.

Palm is an unusual company that has gone through some really bad times in the recent years. By introducing “Palm Pilot” in 1996, Palm created the PDA (Personal Digital Assistant) market. “Palm Pilot” was an unquestioned leader that introduced many innovations; IR-based ‘becoming” of information across devices and handwriting recognition. It may not be out of place to mention that “Palm Pilot” succeeded in the hand-writing based input method, where “Apple Newton” failed in 1992.

 

By introducing “Palm Treo” in 2000, Palm Inc. entered (in fact created) the smart phone market; it dominated the smart phone market till 2005; unfortunately, RIM (Research-In-Motion) with its BlackBerry and Apple with its iPhone (from 2007) have pushed Palm into the distant third position.

Palm Inc. had many corporate troubles in the past; the founders left, started another company HandSpring, become a software only company, sold off a part to a Japanese company; then the founders returned. in the process the company shrunk in size, went into loss for many quarters and practically many analysts have written an obituary for Palm Inc.

Jon Rubinstein was brought into Palm in 2006 as Chairman by Elevation Partners that invested in Palm. Jon is the person who designed iPod while working for Apple during 1995-2005.

Many Palm fans (introducing the author) had hoped that Rubinstein’s magic will re-vitalize Palm through the design of a revolutionary product. Thankfully, “Palm Pre” is one such exciting product.

BlackBerry from RIM is a legendary mobile e-mail product; BlackBerry is synonymous with corporate mobile email. Apple through its revolutionary iPhone, introduced “touch” into mainstream phone device; other leading handset vendors including Nokia (5800 and N97), Samsung (Omnia) introduced “touch” phones in 2008; BlackBerry Bold has “touch” too. Google introduced G1 phone (that uses Android operating system).

Undoubtedly the year 2008 is a watershed year for smart phones.

BlackBerry and iPhone have set high benchmarks. Nokia with annual sales of 400+ million handsets is a huge competition. It is indeed impressive that Palm is able to take on such a formidable competition.

What is exciting about “palm Pre”

Palm Pre” is a smart phone with impressive specs

  • Ergonomically designed device with a natural curvature for the slide-out keyboard

  • Full QWERTY slide-out Keyboard

  • Gesturebased interface (that goes beyond touch)

  • High speed connectivity using EV-DO (3G on CDMA)

  • 802.11b/g/n for Wi-Fi

  • GPS

  • Multimedia using 3 mega-pixel camera including LED flash

  • USB 2.0 connection

Three sensors

  • Proximity sensor that switches off the keyboard when the user is talking on the phone

  • Accelerometer that lets users switch from “landscape” to “portrait” by simply turning the handset

  • Ambient light sensor to adjust display, backlight and flash control

Replaceable battery (something missing in Apple iPhone)

Brilliant 3.1” display with 480×320 resolution in 24-bit color

The physical dimension of 2.35” x 3.96” x 0.67” makes it the smallest among high-end smart phones (though not the slimmest) and weighs just 135 grams

The ‘touch” is capacitor based (like iPhone) and works really well.

There is a unique wireless touch charger (induction coupling) for those hate wires and bulky chargers

Palm Pre” will run on SPRINT network that has maximum coverage, highest reliability and highest speeds in the United States

What is special about “Palm Pre”?

Palm Pre” goes beyond a well made handset. It is the first device that runs “WebOS” –a phone operating system (based on Linux) built from grounds up. The underlying model is that of “constant connect” to the Internet (not merely the telecom network).

Using a concept “Synergy”, WebOS links contacts across multiple environments -desktop tools like Microsoft Outlook, cloud computing tools like GMail, and, social networks like Face book.

More importantly, it does it “over-the-air” without the user having to “synchronize” to a PC or Mac desktop machine. Also the individuality is preserved; one can read / respond to corporate mail / home mail / web mail separately all using “Palm Pre” or have an integrated view of all mailboxes.

Using a concept of “Layered calendaring”, “Palm Pre” integrates our distributed life. One can maintain multiple calendars across GMail, Outlook or Facebook and have seamless view of ALL the Calendars – either individually or an integrated way, again the synchronization is “over-the-air”.

The messaging is once again combined across multiple platforms; SMS (text messaging), e-mail and IM (Instant Messenger) are unified so that the user can focus on the person to whom one is communicating and not the channel of communication.

Web OS brings the next level of intuitive and powerful user interface something Palm Inc has the tradition of mastering. It uses touch the way iPhone does, ‘pinching” the screen to magnify or reduce image sizes on the fly. Using a “Card metaphor”, “Palm Pre” further simplifies the use of multiple applications.

WebOS is made for mobile device with all its attendant strengths and weaknesses; not customizing a desktop metaphor to suit a mobile device.

Web Os has a browser (based on Web Toolkit) that is fast; renders web pages smoothly.

The specialty of WebOS is its simplicity (to program) in an increasingly mobile world. In the inaugural Press Conference, Palm CEO repeatedly mentioned that knowledge of HTML, CSS and JavaScript (all three are well accepted and widely used standards) is all that one needs to write applications on WebOS; an estimated 10 million developers can start writing applications (if they find “Palm Pre” interesting) right away.

Pandora talks of being able to develop applications in 3 days (instead of 3 months for other mobile phones)

When will “Palm Pre” come to India?

Palm plans to release multiple version of “Palm Pre”. The first model is expected in SPRINT stores in USA before March 2009. Other models including UMTS (to support GSM based 3G network), low cost versions (without keyboards) are expected soon. It may be the end of 2009 when I expect Palm Pre to be available in India.

Needless to say, ZDNet, San Jose Mercury News, BBC, PC Magazine, Gizmodo and ARS Technica have written ‘rave reviews” of “Palm Pre”. It will be interesting to see how it performs in the market in the year 2009.

 

(My Times of India Column in Education Times dated February 2, 2009)

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