Palm Pre Thoughts

The big news today seems to be the new Palm Pre. It’s a rather beautiful device, though I’m not sure it will save Palm.

  • Developer API – Palm choose to make it literally a “WebOS” (that’s what they call it). Applications are written using HTML5, CSS, JS (via WebKit) and there are API’s to access a variety of services. While cool this does have a big downside. There’s no real way to make it into the gaming platform that the iPhone is becoming. <canvas/> can only take you so far animation wise, not to mention JS isn’t really an ideal language to make a full length game. These applications are essentially widgets. That’s fine for many/most mobile apps, but not all. It also doesn’t allow you to take advantage of 3rd party libraries that aren’t on the device or written in JS.
  • Development Community – Palm is going to have a tough time building a dedicated development community. There will be lots of “widgets” ported to the device, but with the iPhone being mandatory for hot new apps, Android showing lots of potential and backing, and BackBerry being ubiquitous, how many more platforms can developers target in this economy? There’s also Windows Mobile with an established user base. They will need to sell a lot of devices to attract developers.
  • Many Features Easily Duplicated – It has copy/paste, MMS, IM, and other things many people gripe about the iPhone not having. That said, they can be implemented in a software upgrade on the iPhone leveling out the playing field quickly. Hardware wise, the removable battery and 3MP camera can’t be easily duplicated. Those are solid enhancements.
  • Background Applications – Since it’s WebOS, the “applications” are nothing more than tabs in a browser. Application switching is then nothing more than switching tabs. How will this behave in real life? Hard to say. I’m hoping each “application” is isolated into it’s own process similar to Google Chrome rather than one process. I’m not sure how they balance CPU time between competing processes.
  • Battery Life – I can’t find much on battery life. I presume that depends on application usage but it’s not prominent on the Palm site or any review I’ve seen so far.

I should note that since it’s API is essentially building widgets using web technologies, don’t expect to see a Mozilla browser anytime soon. The closest you’d get is a Fennec-like UI built on and around WebKit. It could prove to be an interesting UI experiment, but it won’t share the same technologies.

It’s ironic but so far Windows, Android and BlackBerry are the only major mobile OS’s that allow 3rd party applications to be downloaded directly to the device unrestricted. Maemo does as well, but it’s more internet tablets. iPhone while based on open source require you go through a proprietary app store. Both the iPhone and Android have a kill switch so that they can terminate software that doesn’t abide by their policies. Palm (also based on open source Linux) won’t even allow true native applications so far.

It’s a cool device, but I wouldn’t declare Palm back from the dead yet, nor would I declare them dead. Like I said, it’s competing with 3 mega platforms for not only users, but developers whose applications will bring in users.

Update [1/9/2009 @ 9:45 AM EST]:Clarified App store requirement is for iPhone and that a kill switch exists on both the iPhone and Android.

17 thoughts on “Palm Pre Thoughts

  1. FWIW, Android doesn’t allow native apps either – everything has to be written in their proprietary language that just happens to look a lot like Java. And iPhone native apps don’t have access to the full platform. I think ultimately the question is what kinds of APIs will be available to developers. Clearly Apple has the most flexible platform since you can port your existing C code over, but if Palm or Android provide really compelling stuff built in (3d for your game, simple image processing, etc) then they could be the better platform.

  2. @Ian McKellar: True it does use DalvikVM (note Google never claimed it’s a Java platform), but Android is still a much more complete platform. For example OpenGL ES is going to let you do much more than <canvas/> is going to let you do.

  3. You forgot as has ever one else out in the world that palm started all of the greats things that all of the ‘new’ smartphone have now
    years ago. They started mobile apps, mobile skds, have any of these people blogging out there now ever used a Treo or Centro for that matter. I think everyone has forgotten what palm started… ever single smartphone trend the Palm has had background apps, MMS, camera, mobile apps, hacks… they let the end user use hacks!, for many years now, and they have a huge community who I am sure will flock to the new device and create all kinds of wonderful things for it. Now if they set it up to run old Palm OS apps then there is no stoping them… I have no idea why they wouldn’t….

    Anyway…

    BTW Palm was the first to allow 3rd party apps on there devices right from the start.. look up palm pilot.

  4. “It’s ironic but so far Windows and BlackBerry are the only major mobile OS’s that allow 3rd party applications to be downloaded directly to the device unrestricted.”

    Uhhh… Symbian, anyone? “Only” the most widespread smartphone OS, by far? And how about all the feature phones with Java on board?

  5. @ Filex
    And lets not forget that the previous Palm OS versions allowed 3rd party apps – way before any of the other current mobile OSs. And those apps and that OS are still on devices sold today (Centro).

    Fact: Palm has a better track record than Apple, Rim (Blackberry), or Android for allowing full developer access to not only the OS – but to the hardware beneath the OS (hacks, ARMlets, etc).

    Its true that the new OS is all about a browser rendered interface, but it has already been stated that they will expose deeper functionality to javascript and that this level of limitation is just 1.0. I think they are in a situation like Apple was with the iPhone (though this OS does offer installable apps unlike the first version of the iPhone) in this regard.

  6. What about OpenMoko? (Surely Firefox could be coded for that)

    I’m sure there are plenty other platforms out there.

    and regarding Palms flaws, the OS supports plugins from partners and updates for the future so there’s a good chance that we might see a sandbox for native code or something along those lines.

    and also about them having a hard time to attract developers, I think they already have them (I’ll even try my hand at making something for the phone) though I could definitely see a lot of existing products just being ported over to this interface (maybe even just using iframes) though one argument you didn’t mention, this whole HTML app thing could easily be created for the iPhone and Android (especially since Palms OS runs on WebKit) it could even be added to iGoogle, Netvibes and desktop widget engines, so I’m not sure that Palm may keep their ground here (I say they should add the Garnet VM to the OS for safe measure).

  7. Webkit is gaining language-independent bindings to its DOM model. I’m expanding pywebkit-gtk as an example, to include DOM model bindings. The implications of that are quite something.

    what it means is that all of these platforms that use webkit – such as Adobe AIR, Google Chrome, Palm’s WebOS, Appcelerator and several more – all can be programmed not just using javascript but using literally any programming language that cares to make use of the new glib / gobject bindings.

    So, you could write scripts in python, or perl, or ruby, that would seamlessly manipulate Palm’s WebOS.

  8. @Christopher Blizzard:
    True, thanks for pointing that out. That sentence was originally partially focused on the word “unrestricted” in the previous sentence, and meant for discussing that iPhone and Android both employ a “kill switch”, but in editing I kinda FUBAR’d completely. Who says editing makes things better?

    @Joe:
    Palm came about in 1996. Apple released the Newton in 1993. IIRC the Sharp Wizard also had third party development, and that was pre 1990. I should also note Palm didn’t write their own kernel until PalmOS 4 which IIRC was late 90’s. That’s why there was no threading… their license with Kadak forbid them for exposing tasks/threads.

    Yes Palm was very influential, but it’s not really true that they were the first.

    Palm was the first with true commercial success. Windows was first to widespread desktop popularity, but that hardly made MacOS a copycat.

    @Felix Pleșoianu:
    Symbian is popular, but I wouldn’t consider it on the same league in terms of being almost desktop like. It still falls in the last generation (though it strongly lead that generation, especially considering it’s competition includes BREW). Generally speaking developers tend to have one hell of a time trying to port their apps over to it as there is little like it.

    @SHoe:
    Read above. PalmOS didn’t have threading exposed until 4.0 due to licensing. They were hardly perfect. PalmOS developers struggled for years with sound due to each device supporting sound differently (especially between different manufacturers). That’s why many games only featured sound on certain models. They do have a good track record of “allowing” third party apps, but that’s also because they didn’t have much of a choice. For most of their OS history, the devices weren’t connected (or even aware) of the Internet. The distribution methods were totally different at the time. Even DRM wasn’t where it is today. They were good times. I enjoyed them.

    @Hugh Isaacs II:
    I’m incredibly interested in what OpenMoko is doing. That said, the adoption is really early on and slow moving.

    Regarding developers… they had developers. New platform, new beginning. They are now in a new market. The upside is a new generation of applications. The downside is a new generation of competitors.

    Putting your site in an iframe with minimal browser chrome and making a desktop icon doesn’t qualify as an application. The original iPhone “app store” with the web Apps wasn’t either. We had a term for that, it was called a “bookmark”.

    Widgets aren’t applications either. iPhone, BlackBerry and Android didn’t get where they are for running iGoogle like widgets. Palm can’t expect this to save them either.

    @luke kenneth casson leighton:
    True. And that might be their saving grace.

    Though I wonder if a game developer who wrote a game for the PSP or another gaming device would prefer to port to the iPhone, Android or WebKit with the scripting language of their choice. I think that’s going to be one of the big questions.

  9. One small correction; Android does not require you to use their Market to locate and install applications. You can download and install apps from anywhere. You have to enable this in the Settings, but it’s easy to do.

  10. Of course, I completely missed Blizzard’s post saying the exact same thing. Must not comment on blogs so early in the morning…

  11. The interface looks really cool, and of course very usable the real Palm style.

    I have to disagree your Symbian views as Symbian doesn’t really have to care about apps being _ported_ to it. I guess it has more programs available to it still than any other platform (Palm excluded maybe?). Coding those apps could be more pleasant but still a lot of people are doing it anyway. I suppose they are more business oriented probably because of the business orientation of the whole concept of those phones (until more recently).

  12. i dont get why people are trying to make it about gaming and mp3 player. those things are all different things when i have a nintendo ds and a psp, no way a phone as of right now is going to compare with those things. sure its an extra unit to carry around but no phone will do what a ds or a psp will do so why even talk about its gaming abilities just stupid. then you wanna add it doesnt have enough space for songs and **** and that is why i have an ipod with 120 g, sure again it would be nice to have it on my phone but no phone has that much room so stop trying to compare those things to the phone.

  13. @Robert Accettura
    I see your point. Symbian isn’t as desktop-like as iPhone OS or Android, and if it’s glitz you care about, you’ll want one of those two. Personally, though, I care about flexibility, and a platform that allows me right off the bat to develop in Java, Flash and Python even before bothering to learn the native API – and to distribute my application any way I want – still takes the cake, even if it’s technically one generation behind.

    Besides, I’m not convinced a more desktop-like interface is a good idea on a mobile device. People have enough trouble with the desktop interface even on desktop machines. Heck, the first netbooks had a simplified, smartphone-like interface, and look at their success! (I’m not saying it was the only factor, but it mattered.)

    @stevo We’re not trying to make it about gaming, those rabid iPhone fans are. 😛 Seriously, it *is* an entertainment machine, what do you expect people to use it for? Yes, a serious gamer will want a PSP, but most people aren’t serious gamers; what the iPhone can do is enough for their needs.

  14. The author of this article to me seems to be trying to find everything wrong that he can with the pre. Seems like to me he is PRE-Judging get it, lol. I bet he is another apple die-hard who believes the Iphone will rule forever. Jerks like this author are the ones I like to prove wrong. Mr Medley will be the first one playing with a pre under his covers like a little kid in a candy store
    and never let you know. Its guys like him that make the word underdog a great word!! I LOVE IT

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