Palm Pre the Belle of the Ball, with Linux on Her Arm

By many of the accounts we've seen, the star of last week's Consumer Electronics Show was Palm's new Pre smartphone, a Linux-based offering with all the features we've come to expect from post-iPhone devices and a few innovations of it's own. Indeed, iPhone appears in reviews of the Pre perhaps more often than Palm, with terms including iPhone killer" and "iPhone-like" popping out of paragraphs like coins from a slot machine. Among the iPhone-like attributes are the ubiquitous touch-screen display, along with 3G service, GPS, WiFi, Bluetooth, on-board camera (reviews differ on whether it is a 2.0 or 3.2 megapixel offering), and third-party applications, while tossing additional specs, including a G1-like slide-out QWERTY keyboard, to the mix.

One such item which drew at least one reviewer's praise is the addition of a "gesture area," a touch-sensitive space below the screen which can be used to navigate without blocking — or smudging — the main display. The most favored feature of Palm's new Web OS — a Linux-based operating system described by Palm as "built from the ground up" &mdsah; appears to be its task management, dubbed "cards." Rather than having multiple windows overlapping, each item — applications, messages, etc. — constitutes a "card" which the user can switch back and forth between, similar to workspaces in desktop Linux.

For those excited by the idea of a fresh Linux-based device to hack on, a bit of disappointment lingers in the air. Palm has yet to release much information about developing for Web OS, saying only that applications can be built with HTML/CSS/Javascript. The application framework for WebOS has been christened Mojo, and a software development kit is expected later in the year, though exactly when remains a matter of speculation. A sneak peek can be gained from Palm's developer site, where it is revealed that developers will be able to store data locally through HTML5 capabilities for offline use, will have access to the device's gesture-based navigation, and can utilize a message bus based on JSON to pull from the device's other services, including location data, scheduling/calendaring, and contacts.

Another feature of the Pre's undercarriage to draw heavy attention is its data synchronization. The Pre will not synch with applications though a cable, as most other devices do, but rather will pull information from the user's online services. (A USB cable will be offered for file/media transfers.) As users log in to their various "cloud" services, the Pre will automatically gather information — contacts, email, instant messaging — and make it available to the user. Palm touts the ability of this feature to keep a user's data more up-to-date than even traditional synching — as contacts change their information online, it will be automatically populated to the Pre, eliminating the need to change it at all. This ability goes further, allowing messages to move across services, transitioning from email to instant messaging to SMS as necessary in the course of a conversation.

Among the aspects of the Pre and Web OS not receiving high acclaim is Palm's decision to break compatibility with applications developed for previous Palm products including the Treo line of devices. According to Palm executives, the company will permit third-party emulation for older applications, but won't be providing it itself, as they expect new offerings to eclipse the need for older apps. Palm Product Management VP Pam Deziel is quoted as saying on the subject: "We're figuring on having developers do great applications."

That may not be too far off the mark, if the reports making the rounds are to be believed. The Chief Technology Officer at Pandora reportedly told CNET that their Pre application was developed in three days, a 30-fold decrease over the time spent developing their iPhone offering. If that proves the norm among turnaround times, developers may well find that emulating older applications takes longer than coding a fresh one from scratch.

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