My first smartphone was a Palm Treo 600 and so my last 2009 Smartphone Round Robin "away" review focusing on Palm's new webOS platform as embodied by the Palm Pre and Palm Pix does not lack for symmetry. Between the two, last year I reviewed the Palm Treo Pro which I quipped was more HTC than Palm, ran Windows Mobile and not a Palm-made OS, and had a keyboard that was hard to consider "pro" level. 3 years of round robin, three totally different platforms from Palm, and only this review for me to try and make my own sense out of it.

Luckily I had the mobile accomplisher himself, our editor-in-chief Dieter Bohn to show me Palm's new platform and their new devices, and the truly exceptional community over at PreCentral.net Forums to help understand where it's at and where it's going.

(And just a reminder, every day you post on that PreCentral.net thread, or any of the official Round Robin threads, is another day you're entered to win one of six (6!) new smartphones!)

Now let's get this on...

Previously on Palm

First, this is where Palm stood last year, without a PalmOS device in the competition, represented instead by the HTC-built, Windows Mobile running, Treo Pro:

And now, just one year later Dieter was kind enough to show me the Palm Pre and Palm Pixi running the all new, all different, all Palm webOS:

CrackBerry Kevin and I also stopped by Palm at CES 2010 to check out the new Palm Pre Plus and Palm Pixi Plus for Verizon:

And here are the rest of the contextual links:

Hardware Design

I'm starting with hardware only because every other review started with hardware, and I'm telling you that because I really wish for this one review I didn't have to start with hardware. But I'm a sucker for consistency.

And the Palm Pre Hardware Just...

Well, it isn't great. The concept is killer, don't get me wrong. The river-stone ergonomics are beautiful. The execution, however, especially on the early units, was really unfortunate given how much else Palm got right.

After using the iPhone's glass screen for years, using the plastic screen on the Pre just feels... not good. The first Pre I tried at a local Best Buy had a screen protector over the plastic, and I found it almost unusable. If I was Kevin I could figure out some witty, spot-on analogy about layers of prophylactics between me and my multitouch but I'm not and I can't and so I won't. I'll just say Palm needs to switch to glass and now.

The Pre is also a vertical slider. It looks like an iPhone slab but pull down and a full physical keyboard is revealed. While this could be a best-of-both-worlds compromise, the lack of an official, built-in virtual keyboard means (unlike the Motorola Android Droid) you have to use the physical keyboard and... it's not great. A couple of Pre devices I've tried didn't have very solid feeling sliders and all of them had cramped quarters that made the physical keyboard not that enjoyable for me. I had to use the tips of my fingers/nails and still watch out on the top ridge of the display and the sharp edges of the sides.

I'm not sure what they could do to fix it, though Dieter says the new Palm Pre Plus is an improvement in the feel of the keys itself. That, combined with the better build quality control could be part of the answer. I look forward to spending more time with it in the future to find out.


Palm Pixi By Contrast...

Eschewing the slider for their second webOS device, Palm returned to their roots with the front-facing QWERTY. They also returned to the form factor of the Palm Centro, which saw high sales if low margins during the final year of PalmOS.

The device is tiny. It's deceptively tiny. It's so tiny that, like in the Dark Knight movie, you half-expect that if Dieter's Pre ever broke at the mechanism, he'd pull a release, a full Pixi would eject, and he'd just keep on typing. Actually, he'd likely type better because, counter-intutively, the Palm Pixi keyboard feels better than the Pre's. I don't know if it's crazy Pixi magic, or just the better Feng Shui of not having to type inside the Pre's cavity, but the tiny keys worked well.

The huge problem here, however, is that Palm reduced the screen size to fit in that keyboard. This isn't the Treo 240x240 or 320x320 of yesteryear. In 2009, never mind 2010, screen size matters. Aspect ratio matters. In a post-iPhone, capacitive era how we interact with our device is more screen-dependant than anything else. There are times you won't need a physical keyboard (watching video, playing games, reading e-books). There's almost no time when you won't want the full screen. Sure, it's only a few pixels shorter, but on a screen that small, the difference is noticeable. It's like having a 16:9 HDTV for a year or so, then suddenly getting a 4:3 SDTV again. You know what you're missing.

There's no easy fix for that easy, unless they jettison the physical keyboard and go with a fullscreen Pixi with a virtual keyboard. Many would hate that, but it's something I've been increasingly considering as of late...


Is the Era of Physical Keyboards Over?

Originally this section was going to be called "the era of physical keyboards is over" but a funny thing happened on the way to writing this review -- I kind of changed my mind.

Physical keyboards on smartphones are a strange beast. That a QWERTY button layout originally intended to prevent jamming on ancient IBM typewriters still exists on some of the most modern gadgets today is... either stupefying or a testament to the intractability of consumer typists.

Interestingly, Palm didn't start off with physical keyboards. The Palm Pilot had no keyboard and used a proprietary form of handwriting recognition. The iPhone doesn't have a physical keyboard either, and does offer recognition for Chinese character input, but uses virtual keys for most other languages, and sticks to QWERTY for English.

Rumor has it, physical vs. virtual keyboard was a huge area of contention between Apple CEO, Steve Jobs and then-Apple VP and head of iPod, Jon Rubinstein. Jobs didn't want a physical keyboard, Rubinstein did. And we all know how that turned out -- we have the iPhone sans-physical keyboard and Rubinstein has a new job as CEO of Palm.

It should come as no surprise, then, that when the Palm Pre debuted and looked a lot like an iPhone with a physical keyboard, many (and yours truly included) figured it was the iPhone Rubinstein always wanted to build.

He wanted the keyboard so much, as mentioned, he sacrificed screen real-estate on the Palm Pixi for it. I find that absurd. I would have removed the keys and made it an iPhone-nano-esque slab. As I said, until this review, I would have whole-heartedly exclaimed "the era of physical keyboards is over".

But then I started thinking about the BlackBerry and how the Storm2 is no replacement for the 9700 for their user-base. Just like it took a long time to transition from CLI (command line interface, the text-only days of DOS prompts and UNIX terminals) to GUI (graphical user interface, the windows, mouse, pointer paradigm we see today), it will take a while to transition from physical keyboards to virtual ones. And just like some people (not gonna say neckbeards!) still turn off the GUI on Linux, go pure Terminal on Mac OS X, and ignore WIndows completely, some people have been so raised on physical keyboards, even on tiny little devices, that they wouldn't transition to virtual even if, from an overall usability standpoint, they could or should.

BlackBerry is the easy example because they're essentially messaging devices. The iPhone is essentially a big screen you fill with media and apps, so that's an easy example of where the virtual keyboard fits best (especially Apple's still unequalled implementation thereof).

And that brought me to the crux of this long, rambling, tangent -- what's the Palm Pre (and webOS in general)? I had the same question about Android and pretty much determined it was Google's mobile insurance policy. But Palm is a mobile company. It's not an "also have" like Microsoft. It's their sole reason for being, and they're one of the original innovators in the space.

So I wondered again, what's the Palm Pre? And then I realized Palm told us from the beginning -- it's the fat middle. Where the Treo converged three devices into one, the Palm Pre bridges the traditional, keyboard-centric mobile messaging device with the new, screen-centric mobile platform device.

It's likely not keyboard enough for a BlackBerry addict, and it's not screen enough for an iPhone user, but it's a compromise form factor for those who want the okay-of-both-worlds.

I'm so happy with the iPhone keyboard that I'll never go back to a physical one. I use my iPhone keyboard far more than I ever used the physical keyboards on my Treo 600 or 680 because it works better for me. Not having to engage forearm muscles to depress tiny keys and hold the rest of the phone stable while I do so is a huge advantage in my book. It's just effortless and it just works. I won't be writing novel-length compositions on a BlackBerry anyway, so no argument about volume of typing impresses me. Likewise, I see enough physical keyboarders glancing constantly at their screens that muscle-memory no longer resonates with me as a deal-breaker either. New devices are about consuming information as much as creating it, and even glance-ability requires -- you guessed it -- glances.

One day haptics may be sufficiently advanced enough that mighty-morphin', there-and-gone-again virtual-that-feel-like-physical keyboards are enough for everybody. But right now, today, you have legacy keyboarders who'll never abandon their keys, and devices on Android that still haven't gotten their software right, and there needs to be a middle ground.

Or to be more succinct -- Smartphones are evolving beyond priority messaging devices to priority (data/media/etc.) consumption devices and hardware keyboards are legacy, bolted-on technology comforting for the former but waiting to be obsoleted when technology allows virtual keyboards to better serve the latter (and we're part of the way there with the iPhone).

(hat Palm didn't have hardware keyboards when the Pilot was priority PIM device is interesting as an aside. And no, Dieter, I won't take that back ;) )

Inductive Charging

Palm debuted it with their Touchstone accessory. Cool. Future. Let's me leave this section on a positive note.

Software Experience

Okay, here's where webOS is interesting enough that any complaints about the hardware take a back seat. First let's get something out of the way. We've teased Palm about having the former head of Apple's iPod division as their CEO, and about bringing over a bunch of iPhone engineers to help create webOS. We've listed what webOS adopted from the iPhone (and we're far from the only ones), but it's important to remember the iPhone wasn't made in a vacuum. The icon grid as launcher, the tabbed phone app, and other paradigms existed in earlier Palm Pilots and Treos and Apple took them and put them together with a bunch of other stuff for iPhone OS. Likewise, some of the multitouch gestures in webOS are the same as the iPhone (and thank goodness), the way Cards works is greatly expanded from, but visually identical to how iPhone Safari Pages work, etc. In the end, they'll figure out the legal issues and we'll say the user benefits from a certain amount of consistency when it comes to these platforms. With that behind us...

HTML, CSS, JavaScript

Palm faced a huge problem when launching webOS. They couldn't really bring PalmOS developers forward because the platform was different and, unfortunately, the time it took between the decline of PalmOS and the rise of webOS meant a significant amount of developers had moved on. iPhone 2.0, meanwhile, had re-framed the mobile discussion for the second time, going from killer UI in 2007 to being all about apps in 2008, and Palm didn't have the money or mindshare of Google who was already offering the Android alternative. So what to do?

In a move I called brilliant at the time, they decided to make their UI layer, and hence development environment, out of web-standards -- HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. While they would -- and did -- take a performance hit by essentially running localized web pages as apps, it meant anyone who knew how to make webApps could fairly easily develop for webOS. (That Palm named it webOS shows how seriously they take that concept).

Apple tried a non-localized version of this with iPhone 1.0 and it's "sweet" (TM, Steve Jobs, WWDC 2007) WebApp SDK. It failed. But 2009 brought far more robust web technologies, including HTML 5 with SQLite for local storage, CSS3 with animations, and a whole lot more maturity in WebApp development. While Palm hasn't succeeded with this to App Store levels, no one else has with interpreted SDK (Java) or native apps either. Palm has succeeded to some degree, however, and iPhone 3.0 is now supporting localized HTML 5 apps on the iPhone home screen, while RIM, Android, and others are embracing WebApps and widgets.

It was a gutsy gamble. I still think Google saw webOS, smacked themselves in the Android and raced to make Chrome OS in response. It's also clearly a first step for Palm. Just like Apple released a full, native SDK for iPhone 2.0, Palm is now offering native plug-ins for games like Need for Speed (something that WebApps can't do, and even WebGL might struggle to get them to do as well).

It's not perfect. webOS' lack of contrast in the UI still flabbergasts me. More practically, it's sluggish at times, especially on the anemic Palm Pix processor, and it can take far too long for built-in apps like the calendar to launch. It also presents problems for developers who want to hide their source code, although Palm now has a solution that doesn't involve limiting apps to onboard RAM (something Android and BlackBerry still suffer from). Full GPU support might (though I think likely not) improve that, but hardware is always getting faster and bandwidth is (hopefully) getting bigger. Palm will benefit from both. In a year or two, it will be buttery smooth and still enjoy the flexibility and future-proofing that is webOS' promise.

Synergy Contacts, Multitasking Cards, and Non-Modal Notifications

Three areas where webOS absolutely kills are their Synergy contact system, their Cards visualization for multitasking, and their non-modal notification system.

Synergy, as far as I can figure out, takes all of your online data points, sucks them in while maintaining them as separate silos, then aggregates them, filters out duplications, and presents you a unified view of the data. So, for example, you have Facebook friends, Gmail contacts, a couple of Exchange accounts, and an old Yahoo! setup. Synergy will take all that, figure out that 700 of them are the same, create a unified contact that has all the information for each of those 700 (while leaving each untouched on their own service), and present you a single contact list containing those 700 as well as all the other (unique to Yahoo! or Gmail, etc.) contacts. I can't explain it as elegantly as it works most of the time (on occasion it won't match and you'll have to do some work to help it), but it's the future of contact management as far as I'm concerned -- with a few caveats.

If I don't want Google's terrible, promiscuous email retention polluting my phone contacts (or Facebook messing up my Exchange) that needs to be easily managed (it might be on webOS, I didn't get into it but hope it is). Also, an easy way to export the final, Synergy-zed contact list for backup -- or replacement of other online contact data bases! -- would be nifty. That webOS' approach allows them to elegantly handle multiple Exchange accounts is testament enough.

Cards for multitasking is likewise the future. If you've used Pages on the iPhone Safari -- where you can keep several web sites available at the same time and easily zoom out, see all the pages, swipe across to change them, and then zoom back in -- then imagine that but taken to the ultimate, logical, extreme. That's webOS Cards. Instead of just web pages, every app including web pages gets its own Card and you can zoom out to see them all, swipe to change between them, and tap to zoom back in. Yes, that means webOS supports multitasking for 3rd party apps, something only Apple apps are allowed to do on the iPhone.

It works well on the Palm Pre. It works mind-bogglingly well on the Palm Pre Plus (Dieter had 50 apps up all at once). It works so well, in fact, it kind of makes me sad I can't drag and drop elements from one Card to another. Why give me that fantastic visualization, why make a windowed multitasking interface for a small screen, if the biggest advantage of doing it -- drag and drop -- isn't implemented. Unless, of course, that's the "next step". I'll keep my eyes peeled for webOS 2.0...

Notifications, in terms of webOS, means once again I have to complain about the iPhone's current, modal implementation. Modal, if you're not familiar with the term, means that once the notification pops up, you have to either "dismiss" (and lose it forever) or "view" (and interrupt whatever you're doing) immediately. There is no later. And if another notification comes in, it obliterates the previous one entirely. With webOS, like Android, you're told about a new notification but you're free to ignore it and the system will just keep track of them for you until you choose to take a look at them. That difference means everything, especially when you start getting a ton of notifications coming in.


It's not all rosy for Palm, webOS, the Palm Pre, Palm Pixi, and their mobile strategy going forward. Sprint exclusivity might have guaranteed Palm some money but it doesn't seem to have given them the sales they needed. They're hitting Verizon now, and AT&T soon, but if they'd gone on Verizon sooner (before the Droid) they could have had a much bigger impact. Unlike Apple, Google, or Microsoft, they don't have billions in the bank or other businesses to prop them up. Unlike RIM or Nokia, they don't have entrenched business or international market share to ride. It's going to be an uphill battle for Palm. That they've accomplished and innovated so much in just a year is an outstanding accomplishment, however, and means I'll be cheering as they battle up that hill.

For iPhone users, switching to webOS means you gain a physical keyboard and those nifty Synergy, Cards, and notifications. You'll also gain a more "open" system as Palm has treated hacking webOS in a way Apple almost certainly won't for the foreseeable future. We didn't really get into the whole homebrew (think jailbreak apps) and patching culture of webOS, or Palm's efforts to reach out and embrace developers, but kudos to them for doing it. If that's something that's important to you, and Android/Google is a non-starter, it's certainly another plus in Palm's column.

As I write this, however, Apple might just be on the verge of announcing iPhone 4.0, and that just might "invent" multitasking for iPhone users. Better contact and notifications might be on tap as well. Hey, maybe even an iPhone on Verizon. The soonest we'll know is this Wednesday's "Come see our latest creation" event, otherwise Apple usually shows off new software in March and new hardware at WWDC in June.

I'm not saying wait and see before you leap to webOS or another platform. I'm just saying... wait and see.

The biggest thing about this year's Round Robin is that every device-maker brought the competition. Apple is still ahead in some areas, but they've been overtaken in some others. Apple having to catch up... that's good for iPhone users, and it's good for everyone.

Things are exciting again!

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