Palm's Pre: More (and less) than an iPhone

While the WebOS-based Pre will have a multitasking leg up on the iPhone, Apple could knock another leg out from under the new smartphone even before the Pre launches

It will be interesting to see how Apple reacts to news that Palm's Pre knows how to interact with iTunes. While not a business feature, iTunes support would make buying or switching to the Pre much easier for millions of the iTunes faithful.

Multitasking, another key feature of the Pre, may be a more difficult sell as customers may not understand what the ability to run multiple applications simultaneously gets them. Isn't task switching enough? Especially if you can already listen to music and read email at the same time?

Key to gaining acceptance will be excellent Pre demos showing users what the ability to run more than one application at a time can accomplish. This is fairly easy on a big-screen desktop PC, but on a tiny handheld out-of-sight has always meant out-of-mind for the user.

That could change as developers build applications--Android, Blackberry, Symbian, and Windows Mobile all support multitasking--that do or watch things in the background while only occasionally popping up a report to the user.

Multitasking is conspicuously absent in the iPhone 3.0 operating system, although there have been rumors that Apple is speeding the feature to market. iPhone 3.0 devices are expected to be announced within the next 90 days and the new OS will also be an upgrade to current models.

While the WebOS-based Pre will have a multitasking leg up on Apple at its June 6 introduction, Apple could knock another leg out from under the new smartphone even before the Pre launches.

The Pre gains iTunes compatibility by telling the desktop app that it is an iPhone that doesn't understand Apple's copy-protection. This allows the Pre to download content that isn't copy protected, including iTunes Plus and music that users have uploaded themselves.

Counting on Apple to continue offering a feature it doesn't really need, in this case the ability to not download copy-protected music that the iPhone can play but Pre cannot, seems risky.

Making Pre a less-than-adequate iTunes client probably doesn't work in the long run, but locking out other phones has always been Apple's policy. Will the Pre change that? Not if Apple sees value in kicking its new competitor in the knees.

Also, many users already have large collections of copy-protected iTunes songs, purchased from the Music Store, that the Pre is unlikely to ever be able to play.

In this battle of dueling features, Palm may have the stronger position, but shouldn't count on Apple helping its Pre trounce the iPhone.

David Coursey tweets as dcoursey and can be e-mailed using the form at www.coursey.com/contact.

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David Coursey

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