Have we just witnessed the second coming of Palm?

Ex-Engadget editor Ryan Block put it best when he said that Palm’s much anticipated CES announcement “will either mark the beginning of the company’s second coming — or the beginning of the end.” Thankfully, for those like me who were rooting for Palm, it looks very much like the former.

Today the company unveiled its brand new Palm operating system (dubbed the webOS) running on a new smartphone called the “Palm Pre” that features a 3.1-inch multi-touch screen and slide out portrait keyboard.

My initial impressions via both Engadget’s and Block’s live blogging coverage is that Palm has successfully gone back to its ‘organizer’ roots — simple data management and syncing — and updated it for an ‘always on’ Internet age. A mobile device shouldn’t care what services I use or where my data comes from — contacts, social network, IM, calender, media etc. — and should help me stay on top of all that information and communication without having to change the way I do things in order to suit the device. That appears to be Palm’s main aim here and the early signs are that the company has delivered…

The UI looks very slick indeed. I’m talking iPhone slick and much more polished than Android. And unlike Android, the OS is multi-touch (again iPhone-esque) and relies heavily on gestures in a way that is still, apparently, optimized for one-handed use.

See also: Video: Palm Pre and webOS in action

Palm is trying really hard to lower the barriers to entry for developers. This is one of the areas that I feared could be a potential sticking point for the company. Developing for the new Palm webOS involves the use of HTML, XML, CSS and JavaScript. That’s similar to developing widgets for existing web-based platforms but from the looks of things — all of the Palm apps on show today use the same technology (“we’re eating our own dog food”) — still offers developers enough power and hooks into the OS to create some very powerful apps.

The OS is ‘people centric’. Similar to INQs ‘Facebook phone’, the Palm Pre and webOS offers the ability to converge contact information from multiple sites and data points, something the company is calling “Synergy”.  A single contact pane can include various IM accounts, disparate email addresses or screen names etc. pulled in from various social networking sites and other Internet services or locally stored data. While this information is kept separate behind the scenes it’s presented as one view to the user via contact not service (see image above).

The web browser appears to be fast and robust. While this one is hard to verify without hands-on testing, from the live blogging coverage it looks like the new Palm web browser is a worthy iPhone and Android competitor. If Palm hasn’t got this right, it would be a deal breaker for me.

Hardware and software integration. As the new Palm OS was delayed and delayed, I was one of those people that, behinds the scenes at least, suggested that the company might be better dumping its own OS ambitions and simply adopt and adapt Google’s Android. From what we saw today, that would have been the absolute wrong strategy.

In very Apple-like fashion, the new Palm Pre and webOS appears to work hand in hand in a way that only controlling both the hardware and software user experience would allow. Examples include the Pre’s gesture-based UI to bring up application switching or the way that typing on the keyboard drills down into the address book, available applications or goes out onto the web to search Google or Wikipedia.

Carrier support. Sprint in the US will be an exclusive launch partner. Although I hate exclusives, at least this means that Palm won’t have to sell the device direct to consumers without carrier subsidy. Interestingly, in the US the lines are drawn. AT&T has the iPhone, T-Mobile the G1, Verizon the Bold Storm, and now Sprint the Palm Pre. I wonder who will be first to pick up the device in the UK? (Update: My guess is Orange.)

It’s of course early days until we see the first reviews of the Pre and I get to personally play with the new Palm OS and device but from what I’ve seen today, I’m very, very excited. And I’m not the only one. Block’s final live blog entry reads:

Wow. Well, that was kind of amazing, and I don’t say that very often. Yes, we are lacking a LOT of really important details, but there’s little doubt that Palm is back in a big way, and that this OS and device has the potential to make up for all their missteps over the last five years. Can’t wait.

Palm is indeed back and I can’t wait either!

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last100 is edited by Steve O'Hear. Aside from founding last100, Steve is co-founder and CEO of Beepl and a freelance journalist who has written for numerous publications, including TechCrunch, The Guardian, ZDNet, ReadWriteWeb and Macworld, and also wrote and directed the Silicon Valley documentary, In Search of the Valley. See his full profile and disclosure of his industry affiliations.

7 Responses to “Have we just witnessed the second coming of Palm?”

  1. Gaines says:

    This is excellent news. I’m a fan of Windows Mobile, however I know a lot of people who really just need a phone/personal organizer without all the extra stuff who would love this. We’re working on starting a community over at http://www.SprintPre.net

  2. Daniel says:

    I was quite excited by the presentation too, but whenever it comes time for the carrier to come on stage I start feeling sick.
    Personally, hearing how they have nothing to offer apart from suckering people into being forced to use their network to get the phone, kind of takes all the enjoyment out of it.

  3. Alejo says:

    I’m looking forward to checking this device out.

    Minor correction on exclusives: AT&T has the Bold. Verizon has the Storm.

  4. Steve says:

    This looks like they may have increased the usability back to the old Palm days of simplicity-something that people looking for an entry level phone/storage device would feel comfortable buying.

    I also like how multiple scripts are on board regarding the apps. I wonder if Android/Palm’s OS/mac OS’s can all sustain market share or if one will prevail.

  5. dc crowley says:

    I’m an old palm fan who lost the faith. This looks very convincing. The web OS and synergy looks amazing and the low barrier for widgets shows they mean business. I hope they do really well with this

  6. meridian says:

    Should be good competition for the iPhone. This is a good thing.

  7. Steve O'Hear says:

    @ Alejo

    Yes, I meant the Storm. Corrected, thanks.

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