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.