Palm pins hopes on Pre, new OS

Palm launched its new operating system, called webOS, alongside a new handset called the Palm Pre, in an attempt to revive the company's prospects amid an increasingly competitive smartphone market.

The Pre will launch exclusively on Sprint Nextel, which is currently taking pre-registrations for the phone. There is no definitive launch date or price information, but the phone will be available in the first half of 2009.

The smartphone maker unveiled the OS at a press conference Thursday at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas that featured Palm executives talking about the need to simplify the mobile web experience and how the new OS would do that by integrating web features seamlessly. 

Palm CEO Ed Colligan firmly staked out the company's position in the market and why Palm could deliver on a new platform and handset. "Mobile is in our DNA. We don't do computers, we don't do refrigerators or set top boxes," he said. "We do mobile."

The CDMA EV-DO Rev. A device looks like a smaller, rounder and slightly oblong version of Apple's iPhone 3G. It has a 3.1-inch multi-touch touchscreen display, slideout, curved vertical QWERTY keyboard and gesture pad beneath the screen that is integral to the OS.  It has 8GB of storage, built-in GPS, WiFi and Bluetooth, as well as a removable battery, ambient light sensor, accelerometer, a 3-megapixel camera with flash and a 3.5mm headphone jack. 

The operating system itself, which is based on a cloud model more than a desktop one, has some highly intuitive and innovative features.

A swipe back on the gesture pad takes users a layer into the user interface, and and swipe up takes the user back, similar to a deck of cards--a comparison Matias Duarte, the designer of the Sidekick, made during his presentation of the OS. While switching, the applications remain live. The operating system also employs what Palm calls "Synergy," combining multiple lists into a single interface. This is used to combine contacts from Microsoft Outlook, Google's GMail and Facebook into a single list; the OS removes duplicates.

Synergy is also used for calendars from Google and Outlook, color-coding the different calendars. Instant messaging programs and SMS text messaging are all combined into a single program and threaded, showing the different conversations at the same time; users can also switch from IM to text message if someone goes offline. This also works for email, and users can look at email accounts separately or in a single screen and will automatically respond from the correct email address (or users can specify which one they would like to reply from).   

In the web browser, users can pinch the screen, and zoom and pan as they do on the iPhone 3G, and use a single URL bar at the top to either enter a search term or a web address. Users can also open multiple tabs, and bookmarks appear as icons.

Colligan called the the device "the one phone you can use for your entire life and really enjoy it."

Palm also unveiled a wireless, inductive charger for the phone, which resembles a paperweight, called the Touchstone. The list of content and application partners Palm has for the phone include Amazon, AOL, Facebook, Fandango, Google, MobiTV, Pandora and TeleNav. 

The company, which once had reliable hits with its Treo and Centro smartphones, has used sales of the now-relatively low-margin devices to keep it afloat. Palm posted a $506 million loss last month in its fiscal second quarter, and saw its sales fall to $171 million, a 39 percent drop in revenue.

Though the smartphone maker got a boost of confidence recently with a $100 million capital investment from Elevation Partners, the onus has been on Palm to deliver something extraordinary that will revive the company's flagging prospects. Palm has struggled to maintain its relevance in the U.S. smartphone market, which is increasingly being dominated by Apple and Research In Motion.

For more:
- see this article
- see this live-blog coverage of the Palm press conference
- see this slideshow of Pre pics

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