Palm Pre: First impressions

Palm's Pre is the latest device trying to knock the iPhone off its perch

Ever since Apple changed the game for mobile devices with the original iPhone back in 2007, every major device manufacturer has rushed to come up with their own variation on the smartphone in a so-far futile attempt to "kill" the iPhone.

Slideshow: Palm Pre vs. Apple iPhone - How they stack up

Palm's highly-anticipated Pre smartphone is the latest device trying to knock the iPhone off its perch, following in the footsteps of the Samsung Omnia, the BlackBerry Storm and the HTC Dream. The phone's performance on the market is particularly important for Palm, as the company has been losing money and is in need of a hit.

Palm representatives were on hand at CTIA Mobile Life in Las Vegas this week and were eager to give demonstrations of their showpiece wireless device. From a simple design perspective, the phone lives up to the hype: it's a compact device that has smaller dimensions than many popular smart phones and its curved casing gives it a stylishness that the more brick-shaped smartphones lack. Additionally, the device's slide-out QWERTY keyboard gives users more screen space to look at when they're typing.

Although the Pre's design is top notch, the device will likely sink or swim based on how users take to its operating system, which Palm is touting as the big differentiator from other smartphones. The Palm webOS was designed to make developing applications for the operating system simple, as it is based on familiar Web standards such as CSS, XHTML and Javascript. (More on latest webOS developments here)

The idea behind using well-known standards, the company says, is to make it easier for applications to integrate with each other. Tom Pettitt, a senior product manager for the Palm Pre, demonstrated how to hook up social networking applications to contact lists by syncing up his Facebook application to his main contacts list. Thus whenever someone new would add him as a friend on Facebook, their contact information would automatically be added to his main contacts program.

Additionally, the webOS is layered to allow users to keep several applications open at once and to let them flip seamlessly between them. The Pre's main button at the bottom center of the device acts as an all-purpose "zoom out" button that shrinks applications in use and gives users the ability to browse through other apps. Although this sounds like it could be confusing, Palm has designed its operating system to make flipping through apps a breeze. Basically, users can flip through their open apps by moving their fingers from left to right -- or vice-versa -- along the phone's touch screen, just like flipping the pages of a book.

Pettitt demonstrated several Palm Pre applications that have already been developed, including:

-A Fandango application that uses GPS technology to locate nearby cinemas and deliver local show times. The application also lets users purchase tickets directly over their phones and even watch streaming trailers for new films. If users purchase tickets through the app, it will add the show time for the movie to their calendar automatically.

-A Sprint TV application that delivers live streaming of several major television channels, including CNN, the Disney Channel, ABC and the NFL Network

-A NASCAR application that gives users live statistics in real time while a race is occurring

-A Pandora application that streams songs over the Web and that lets users rate songs

The Palm Pre is utilizing a novel "touchstone" charger system that does not actually require the phone to be plugged into a wire. Using a magnetic charger that is plugged into a computer, users can simply place their phone on top of the charger and watch it recharge.

There's no doubt that Palm has put a lot of imagination into the Pre — from its operating system to its charger, the phone has brought a lot of innovation to the smartphone that sets it apart from its competitors. The big question is whether the cascade of new smartphone releases in recent months will crowd out Palm's potential market share and give users a case of hype fatigue when the phone is finally released in June. It would be a shame if that were to happen, because if the Pre performs as well in its final version as it did in this week's demonstration, it will be worth the attention it has received.

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Brad Reed

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