Peter Kafka

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Palm Unveils Its iPhone Rival: The Pre. Don’t Expect to Buy One Cheap.

Palm used to own the smartphone market, but now it’s barely hanging on amid competition from Research In Motion’s (RIMM) BlackBerry line and Apple’s iPhone. Today the company unveils its long-awaited comeback plan: Nova “Palm Web OS,” an operating system the company has been working on for some two years. Will it be enough?

I’ll let the gadget pros assess the operating system and the Pre, the first phone that will feature it, once they’ve actually had a chance to play with them. But my first impression is that the phone incorporates a lot of iPhone-like features and flourishes–primarily the multi-touch screen and gesture system for manipulating data–but boasts a keyboard. That’s promising.

I’ll also note that the Palm folks spent very little time on the phone’s audio-visual capabilities, so it doesn’t look like they’re trying to take on Apple (AAPL) there. And there was no talk about corporate email compatibility–they’re clearly not shooting for the hardcore BlackBerry user, either.

The biggest unknown is price, which went unmentioned during the demo. My assumption is that Palm (PALM) would try to take market share by coming in significantly lower than the $200 or so Apple wants for its iPhone. But when I ran that theory by Palm CEO Ed Colligan, he looked at me liked I’d peed on his rug. “Why would we do that when we have a significantly better product,” he asked, then walked away.

Translation: Bargain hunters are going to be disappointed.

EARLIER Real-time notes from the Palm press conference:

Here’s former Apple exec and current Palm executive chairman Jon Rubinstein, with the windup pitch: Not enough to just have a good phone. Need good applications, too. Now here’s CEO Ed Colligan explaining why Palm can pull this off: “Mobile is in our DNA. We do mobile. That’s all we do.”

Still in windup mode: Colligan explaining history of the smartphone. Now explaining that today’s smartphone user has lots of stuff on the Web.

This is a new platform, “from the ground up.” It will be cloud-centric, not desktop-centric. Name: “Palm WebOS.”

Built with developers in mind: “If you know HTML, CSS and javascript, you can develop applications for this platform. That’s it.”

Back to Rubinstein, to applause. “It is my pleasure to show you the new Palm Pre.” Big applause as he holds up a gadget with a 3.1-inch touchscreen display with multi-touch capabilities. First impression: Looks like an iPhone with love handles.

For the gearheads: EvDo, Wi-Fi, 8GB, GPS. Bluetooth, 3-megapixel camera with flash. (John Paczkowski chimes in via IM: “Dude, 3 megapixel camera with flash is KILLER. I don’t know why apple hasn’t done that.”) “By popular demand” can remove back and replace battery (knowing applause).

Slide-out QWERTY keyboard. (Applause).

Now for actual demo:

Contacts scroll back and forth with iPhone-like gestures. There’s also a “gesture area” that sits below the screen, so you can manipulate data, photos, etc., without touching screen. So far: This is an iPhone with an extra gesture area. This is a compliment, by the way. More gestures bells and whistles.

Now demoing a new “deck of cards” metaphor that replaces the desktop for getting access to stuff on your phone. “How’s that for some real newness, hmm?” More applause.

Running through email, contacts, IM. All connected via “synergy.” Unclear whether Palm is trying to trademark that term, but they’ve referred to it throughout the demo. One messaging app for all your applications: SMS text and IM threaded together.

More multi-touch, zooming, pinching, etc. Like an iPhone. Screen rotates if you turn device sideways. Like an iPhone. Can use “gesture area” to flick around screen without getting in way of screen. Unlike an iPhone.

Glancing discussion of music player. But not playing up audio-visual à la iPhone. No mention of video at all so far. Real focus has been on UI and playing cards metaphor.

Back to Rubinstein, showing off a very cool gadget: Touchstone, a magnetized conductive charger.

Colligan on how phone fits in marketplace: Not just for work. Not just for play–“can do video and music and its fun to play with.” But again, they haven’t highlighted video and music.

Exclusive launch partner: Sprint (S). I hope the EVDO works better than my Sprint broadband card is performing today. Here’s Sprint CEO Dan Hesse: Stressing how Pre will be comfortable for “first-time users.” You can see where this is going: Palm isn’t trying to convert iPhone (or BlackBerry) users here. It’s trying to nab someone who doesn’t have a smartphone yet.

Hesse citing praise from Gizmodo, a “very well-respected Web site” re download speeds. I’ve seen so many Dan Hesse TV ads that its a little disconcerting to see him live. But he looks pretty much the same in real time as he does in black and white, strolling around Manhattan in an overcoat.

Hesse promises to have Sprint staff available to help users figure out how to use this thing. “We expect that the Palm Pre is going to be an iconic and in-demand device.” Taking pre-registrations now at Sprint.com.

Colligan: Available first half of 2009, “as soon as possible.” Not certified yet.

Here’s a new partner: Facebook. COO Sheryl Sandberg takes the stage. Now this is synergy: Sandberg’s brother-in-law is Marc Bodnick, a top exec at Palm investor Elevation Partners. Unless I’m missing something, there’s nothing exclusive in the Facebook/Palm relationship, though; Sandberg simply promises that Facebook mobile will continue to evolve and that she’s looking forward to working with Palm.

Colligan wrapping up. Praising Rubinstein, whom he brings back on stage. And we’re done. Back in a minute.

(Bear with me as I cover this live–my Sprint broadband card is giving me a very narrow Web connection today. Here’s Palm’s official real-time take on its own product, via its own blog.)


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