What the Palm Pre Stole from the iPhone... and What the iPhone Should Steal From the Pre
As I've said many times before on TiPb, I'm a Palm guy going back to the Palm V, and Treo guy going back to the Treo 600. When Palm essentially abandoned that user-base (see my Palm Treo Pro Round Robin video and review) a few years back, I abandoned them and dove headlong into the iPhone (and now the iPhone 3G).
I still have a very warm spot in my heart for Palm, however, their innovation in the smartphone space, and their focus on zen-like user experience. So, when Palm announced their new WebOS platform and premiered their new Pre handset at CES (see our new baby sibling site PreCentral.net for all the details and a massive hands-on video), I was more than just a little ecstatic. I won't lie, it's the first post-iPhone device that's caught my attention.
Don't get me wrong, I still fear for Palm -- the market is much more crowded than it was when they helped create it, and for all the problems WebOS and the Pre solve, they bring their own set to the table. However, watching the Palm Keynote fro CES I, presented by former Apple iPod father Jon Rubinstein and Palm founder Ed Colligan, two things stood really stood out for me:
- What Palm outright stole from the iPhone and put in the Pre
- And what Apple should immediate steal from Palm and put into the next iPhone OS.
We'll get into both, after the break.
What the Palm Pre Stole From the iPhone
First, stole is exactly the right word. No, I'm not talking about Rubinstein's verbiage (you can copy a Jobs script, but not the delivery, b'okay?) Feature for feature -- gesture for gesture -- the former Apple team headed now by Rubenstein as Palm straight up jacked whole swathes of iPhone functionality to a degree that I'm pretty much certain Apple's lawyers are drafting up whole heaps of infringement claims against them for all those patents Steve Jobs mentioned during his first iPhone introduction back at Macworld. Let's take a look...
Okay, an iClone is an iClone, and many would argue Apple didn't invent the singular black slab that is the iPhone's now iconic shape. Many would also argue there are only so many ways to make a full-screen, touch-screen device. Fair enough. But from that full, touch screen to the singular center button at the bottom, degree of rounded-ness not withstanding, we'll call an iClone an iClone when we see it.
Not only does the Pre look like the iPhone, it's built like the iPhone. It's almost like the iPhone feature set was lined up and checked off one by one: 320x480 capacitive touch screen -- check. Accelerometer, ambient light, and proximity sensors -- check. While the package is smaller in its closed state, and has been amped up (hello A2DP stereo Blue Tooth!), the mold from which it was cast is still patently obvious.
The original Palm PDA platform had a static, lower tier application launcher space, if anyone remembers that platform anymore, but it was interrupted by the stylus input bad, and later hard-buttons took its place. With the Pre, however, Palm has taken a step sideways into the iPhone launcher paradigm. You get five buttons instead of four, and they focus on Palm's nouveau Pillars of PIM -- Phone, Contacts, Email, Calendar, and... up arrow (I'm guess a way to launch more options).
Real-World UI Interactions
It was amazing, back at Macworld 2007, to watch Steve Jobs effortlessly flick through a list of contacts and see them bounce with virtual elasticity when they reached their end. This kind of intuitive visual cuing is invaluable to the user experience. No wonder Palm copied it almost exactly. Flick through the Pre contacts, same capacitive acceleration, same elastic bounce back.
Likewise panels zoom in and zoom out, and slide over each other, just like with the iPhone, to give a sense of stacking and information depth.
Turn the Palm Pre and not only does the accelerometer rotate the screen, it does so with the same animation as the iPhone. No smash cuts like other handsets here.
This is the big one, and the one I think have Cupertino's lawyers revving up their engines. Rumor has it that other post-iPhone capacitive handsets were supposed to ship with multi-touch, but fear of Apple's patents ultimately made them reconsider that functionality. The Palm Pre looks to have done no such reconsideration. Witness: pinch to zoom, double tap to focus, flick to scroll.
It's not just that they used multi-touch, they used the exact same gestures the iPhone already used to do it.
Apple's open source web rendering engine, WebKit (based on the Linux Konquerer technology) doesn't have a huge desktop browser share outside of the Mac, but it's positively pwning the mobile space. Nokia uses it, Google's Android uses it, (some think Microsoft should dump Internet Explorer 6(!) for Mobile and use it!), and now the Palm Pre uses it as well.
What the iPhone Should Immediately Steal from the Palm Pre
What's more important than dwelling on what the Palm Pre stole from the iPhone is what Palm did to extend, and yes, improve upon it. Several of these improvements are so compelling, Apple immediately needs to take a little vengeance on Palm and steal them right back! Which ones?
One of the most impressive features shown off in the Palm Pre demo was the concept of stacked cards, where the center button could "zoom out" and give a real-time, updated view of what was happening on other open applications. The iPhone needs this badly. Not multitasking third party apps will increasingly be seen as a limitation on the iPhone, but RIM or Windows Mobile style Task management is likewise a non-starter.
Luckily, the iPhone already has 2 existing metaphors for this. First and most closely resembling the Palm Pre cards are the Mobile Safari "tabs". Tap the tab button and the current web page zooms out and you see all open tabs. Pick the tab you want, it zooms in full screen. This could easily be adapted to multi-tasking applications.
Frankly, however, I'm not sure its good enough for the iPhone. The second metaphor, CoverFlow, might just be. We don't know what's driving the Palm Pre under the hood, but we know the iPhone has awesome OpenGL and PowerVR graphics that just beg for a drool-inducing task-switching implementation. Flick to change between your apps as easily as you do your albums in iTunes.
To close an app, as the Pre does with an upward throw-away flick, Mobile Safari Tab "X" buttons could be a solution, as could the flick-away, but I'm not sure how necessary that is. In an ideal world, iPhone OS X would transparently handle memory in the background, "sleeping" (saving state) what hasn't been used or isn't prioritized as needed.
As to the reorganization ability of the Pre task manager, I'm not convinced you need it in a switching system as fast as capacitive flicking.
Short of a Mac-inspired Expose for the iPhone, CoverFlow app switching would be killer.
And what better, easier, and more elegant way to implement it than just hitting the Home button in Landscape mode?
Merging the Cloud
Palm made a big deal about the Pre being built from the web up, and it sort of (and it no doubt increasingly is) a big deal. Since we're not sure what kind of media capabilities the Pre will have, the need to cloud-manage 1GB+ movie files may not be a worry to them the way it certainly is to the iPhone, but for PIM data did what they've always done -- nailed it.
Pre hooks into popular cloud data stores, Exchange, Gmail, and Facebook (and perhaps others) and merges all your data behind the scenes to present you with a single handheld gateway -- a unified view. Exchange contacts seamlessly integrated with the matching picture from your Facebook friend was the example given, and it's a game-changing one. Likewise, Pre combines together IM and SMS into a single, person-centric threaded conversation.
Tying in IM, Twitter, and people's own email address cards create something close to what I've always been asking for -- an application that unifies and HIDES all the various pipes away from the user.
This is the type of flawless user experience both Palm and Apple are famous for. Palm is giving it to us first on the mobile platform. Fine. Apple, give it to us next.
(And we won't even get into what might happen if Apple leverages their new iPhoto '09 Faces (facial recognition) and Places (geotagging) technology into this paradigm!)
On the Mac, if you have iChat open and you receive an email from someone who's also an iChat buddy, their availability status is shown to you. Palm's Pre works in a similar manner, showing you IM status in the email app. Sadly, the iPhone currently doesn't do this. It should. Dieter has asked for it repeatedly and he's right. Even though iPhone apps like Pinger do a great job aggregating status, there's no reason it shouldn't become ubiquitous throughout a mobile experience. And there's every reason it should.
As mentioned before, the user interface lines between SMS, Twitter, IM, etc., and even email are and should be blurring, and a way to not only manage all those communication pipes, but seamlessly leverage them as well, is increasingly becoming a necessity for connected users.
Palm has always "just worked" when it came to saving state of data. Add a contact and no matter how complete or incomplete, Palm has just saved that state of the data on the device and for sync. With the Pre they've taken it a step further and saved state right back to the cloud as well.
The iPhone, by contrast, wants you to confirm the save with a button tap. This is okay to prevent fragmentary entries from polluting your pristine data store, but in the real world it's just annoying. If you start entering a calendar event, and you suddenly and urgently need to go into a different app (something that happens in the real world), you shouldn't have to worry about losing whatever data you've entered, or having to start over.
Just like Palm, and like Apple already does in Apps like iMovie, data should just be saved on exit as-is, and synced back to the cloud or local machine, also as is. It's simply a better, more robust user experience.
Familiar not only to everyone who's ever used a Treo, Vista Search, or Mac Spotlight, but truly understood by anyone who's become a QuickSilver (or similar application launcher) user, sometimes typing is just the fastest way to reach the data you want. The Pre does a great, Spotlight-esque job of quickly parsing keystrokes into local and cloud search results, and the iPhone should be able to leverage Apple's Spotlight just as powerfully.
Sure, the Pre has a hard keyboard, which is the last thing I want on an iPhone (remember -- at least for me -- the era of hard keyboards is over!). So what to do?
Stick a Spotlight icon on the Home Screen, what else? Okay, sure, make up something fun... Let me shake on the Home Screen to bring up a Spotlight optimized keyboard. Shake is used in other apps to do neat things, leverage it to let me do killer search as well. Shake, type, boom! (I kid, a little, see quickie mock-up pick).
Either way give me rapid search access into contacts, events, files (yes, give me a single, multi-app accessible file storage bin so I can get some Office action going -- but more on that in a future article), and the option to shoot off into CalDAV, CardDAV, WebDAV (iDisk), or general Web searches.
We didn't touch on everything, including the swiped App Store come App Catalog, or the innovative non-modal notification system, but hopefully this gives some idea of our ideas on where the iPhone brought the smartphone space, where the Pre has taken killer features from that, and what Apple could do to take some killer features of the Pre right back.
But what are your ideas? Anything from the Pre (or other post-iPhone smartphones) YOU think Apples needs to immediately integrate into iPhone OS 3.0?
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