Switched On: With Pre, Palm breaks from the Storm

Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about consumer technology.

In a recent interview with Elevation Partners' Roger McNamee, the Palm investor explained that Palm knew it had to step up its game after RIM launched the BlackBerry Pearl, which he described as "the first real consumer electronics product in the smartphone category." The Pearl launch served as the coming out party for the BlackBerry brand among consumers as RIM began stepping up its advertising, and the product's narrower hardware design was a noticeable break with the staid stylings of previous BlackBerry devices.

Indeed, back in November of 2006 as Palm rolled out the somewhat consumer-focused Treo 680, I wrote a Switched On column noting that the Pearl broke with the evolutionary path that RIM had been on and served as an example for the kind of hardware shift Palm needed to make.

Palm finally answered the Pearl with the Centro, a compact, inexpensive, and successful smartphone that has apparently served as the final resting place of the original Palm OS architecture. However, between the release of those two devices, the entry and subsequent SDK of Apple's iPhone proved a far more significant turning point in the evolution of consumer smartphones. The iPhone's resonance and popularity have provoked responses from many competitors, but there is a particular contrast in the flagship CDMA touchscreen handsets released by RIM and Palm --- the other two smartphone developers that grow their own operating systems -- since then.

This time it has been Palm, with its back against the wall, that has made the clean break from the past and created an experience that looks modern, clean and elegant. At this point, the Pre appears to sacrifice some discoverability versus the iPhone and Palm has had to accept tradeoffs without as much marketplace power as Apple to drive as deep an SDK or proprietary connectors as Apple has. However, Palm's webOS rewards with a fluidity evident in both the multitasking navigation among applications and the potential for seamless integration of Internet data into its core applications.

In fact, if its capabilities match to the promise extolled in the McNamee interview, the Pre will live up to its name literally by taking -- or at least suggesting -- actions on your behalf in anticipation of your needs. The venture capitalist gives as an example that the phone might offer to email people you have a meeting with when it detects that you are running late. This level of active assistance would leverage the power of inputs such as GPS and the Internet that were not broadly available at the advent of the Newton, the first digital handheld that sought to take a more active role in managing your life. Since then, most PDAs and smartphones -- and even the iPhone -- have been more passive pocket computers. The imperfect information often provided by these inputs may make this more of a novelty for the near-term, but Palm is certainly ceding nothing on the ambition front.

In contrast, while the Storm has certainly done the iPhone one better in many respects, with a higher-resolution autofocus camera that can shoot video, microSD, Bluetooth stereo, integration with turn-by-turn directions and unlimited music (if you take advantage of those services), and of course, excellent mobile e-mail capabilities for those who have a BlackBerry server. But by keeping the basic popup menu-driven operation of previous BlackBerry products intact, the overall user experience is fractured between the worlds of swiping and typing.

The Storm may have strong appeal to those accustomed to the BlackBerry experience and who want a larger touchscreen. But RIM, like Microsoft, now needs to make more significant changes in this new competitive landscape that includes the approachable finger-driven experience with which Apple broke ground and the richness of knowledge that Palm is pouring into a foundation. It's great to have a Pearl, but when taking advantage of a gestalt that marries new interfaces to the new Internet, the world is your oyster.

Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.