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Welcome back, Palm

Three cheers for the broken promise

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Analysis After years in a persistent vegetative state, Palm has come roaring back with a gadget that's going to prove hard to beat in 2009. Palm has a new smartphone (Pre), a new platform (webOS), and it deserves all the plaudits that have come its way since it unveiled both at CES in Las Vegas last week. Want an iPhone with a proper keyboard and multitasking? The Pre does all that, and while the first version is exclusive to Sprint's network in the USA, Palm surely has a version for the rest of the world that's compatible with GSM/WCDMA networks.

There's only one chuntering of discontent - and that's from very long suffering Palm developers. The new webOS, they complain, isn't backward compatible with the old PalmOS (Garnet). I find it hard to imagine why it should be. The PalmOS was designed for a very different kind of device: based on a 16MHz Dragonball processor, with no networking, where the most intensive task conceivable might be sorting through a table of a few hundred strings. Today, a mobile device is expected to juggle three baseband radio interfaces at once, and display maps and videos without a hiccup. It also introduces new gesture-based controls. Palm has a rich library of legacy applications, and it could have built a bridge between the new input controller and Garnet - so swipes and other gestures could be interpreted by the ancient applications. But why bother?

When Psion made a generation leap it proudly broke backward binary compatibility - gambling that the new platform was so much richer than before. It kept a semi-official API in the form of the BASIC-like OPL interpreter, but without such a tool at its disposal, Palm didn't have that option. The developer base has been largely dormant for three or four years now. Palm needs these developers back, and the best way is with a shiny new thing. So, in all, it was a wise decision to leave the legacy applications to an emulator, and the business of writing an emulator to someone else.

But what does Palm's return mean for the market?

Swiping a few features

Firstly, let's take stock of how quickly the market has moved. 30 months ago I despaired of the smartphone ever achieving anything like the claims once made for it. The best devices - from Nokia and Sony Ericsson - remained clunky, and few people ever used anything that could be described as a "smart feature". They were phones with OK cameras - but probably slower and less reliable than other cheaper feature phones which also had OK cameras. Why bother?

As the smart device dream died, so did the idea of mobile data. It's amazing how much that has changed. With BlackBerry moving into the consumer market, the iPhone, and even Google introducing yet another new platform, we're awash with options. With Apple, Android and Palm, we can entertain the idea that there's more of a future here than a glorious past. So what might Palm bring to the party?

Well, the company has the advantage of being a second (or third) mover, which should not be underestimated in IT. Let someone else take the Fail - then learn from their mistakes. Or observe which aspects of the device are enduring and valued by users, once the gimmickry has worn off - then steal them, and implement them better.

Apple's iPhone proves that you don't need a stylus, and that a well thought out gesture UI does most things very well. It also demonstrates a crying need for context switching, better integration (the absence of a clipboard really hurts many power users) and Palm has taken full advantage of all three. Have a look at the video - captured by Register Hardware - to see how nicely multitasking is implemented.

There's no reason why the iPhone can't have a real QWERTY keypad, either, the argument being that it spoils the "purity" of the design. People made the same argument against colour TVs once too, I recall.

For my money, the iPhone is the best piece of kit on the market today - if you need something more than a phone, and are prepared to leave your inverted snobbery behind. It's raised the quality of design across the industry. When the novelty wears off, you've still got a great deal of utility, which increases every day thanks to the wide choice of applications. I parted with mine, with some regret, because task switching was so tedious. My current phone does it within a couple of seconds with a couple of keypresses. But it's not invulnerable, and neither is RIM.

Palm looks the weakest of the five smartphone players - obviously one must include Nokia - because it's dwarfed by their cash reserves and (with the exception of Google's Android) customer loyalty. Palm's lack of funds is reflected in its ultra-cautious roll out schedule: Sprint is the guinea-pig, and no GSM/WCDMA version has yet been announced. But build something popular and the developers will come.

At the end of the day, Palm has reminded everyone, technology is just a tool. ®

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