The UI itself is absurdly slick -- certainly on par with the iPhone's interface and HTC's TouchFlo 3D. There are smooth zooms, transitions, and fades in and out of content, and there's little noticeable lag or stutter when moving through actions. Fonts are tastefully chosen, and the icons are akin to OS X's or Vista, with soft shadows underneath and lots of dimension.
Using the interface is mainly accomplished with swipes along the screen and by pushing the center button. A quick swipe up with your thumb slides a launcher (essentially a prettied up traditional Palm app screen) over your current state. What's notable is that you never leave the application you're in to do this. It goes up, then it goes away. Unlike the iPhone (which is really its nearest competitor), webOS provides true multitasking, allowing you to switch between active apps. You don't have to close and reopen, just shuffle through your programs. If you switch to another app, the UI scales back the program you're in down to that deck of "cards," then zooms up the new selection. By pressing the center button on the phone, you zoom out all of your cards, and can swipe through them to find what you're looking for. The content inside of the cards isn't just a snapshot like tabs in Mobile Safari -- they're live applications that can be flipped and manipulated. You can also rearrange the cards in any order by touching and holding, then sliding them around. Gestures can also be used to move back and forward in a document or webpage (swipe left or right), and there's a gesture used to bring up a quick launcher "wave" over top of whatever application you're in.
The gestures are useful, but not immediately natural. There will be a learning curve with this device, but Palm is clearly looking for what makes sense to them -- they've tried to implement components of the old OS in the new one (like having quick access to your most used apps and not bogging things down with lots of dropdown menus), and at a glance seem to have succeeded.
Besides the input and design, there are core ideas that are new to mobile OSs at play here. The first is something that Palm calls Synergy, which allows you to pull together contacts and calendars from lots of different sources, but without altering or merging that data. Synergy will grab the same contact from Facebook, Gmail, and Outlook, then combine those into a "stack" of info for that person on your phone. It looks for duped data, so you don't get doubles of phone numbers or names. It's essentially a contact aggregator, and if they can pull this off, it will end a lot of headaches for a lot of people. It looks like it will do the same for calendars, and it's also pooling IM services together, allowing for modes where you can keep a threaded conversation going with someone over SMS, AIM, GTalk, and other services. It's heady stuff, and only time (and use) will tell if this does what they say it will -- but right now it looks like a terrifically unique and innovative way to handle a myriad of data.
Notifications on the device are handled similarly to the G1, so when you get an SMS or have a calendar event, webOS scales back your app a little bit and brings up a dialog at the bottom of the screen (whereas Android adds them in a "curtain" up top). Palm insisted that this lets you have control over how and when you respond to alerts, rather than having to "dismiss" pop-ups. We like how Android implements this -- we'll see if Palm's variation is as effective.
The OS also has a rich search function which pulls up a dialog when you begin typing something on the keyboard. Like Mac OS's Spotlight, it uses a universal search to pull applications and content, but switches to a web search if you can't find what you're looking for. Right now the phone defaults to Google, Google Maps, and Wikipedia.
While we can't run through every app, we can say that the browser is Webkit based, seems snappier than other Webkit browsers we've used on mobile devices, and a Flash plugin
is supposed to be available for the phone by the end of the year.
There's way, way more to talk about in the UI and OS design, but we'll save that for when we can take a longer look at the device and its interface. The long and short of it is this: the Palm Pre and webOS are the first real challengers to the iPhone's innovative approach to a mobile UI and data management. Oh, and yes, it has copy and paste functions (triggered by holding down your thumb on the gesture area and selecting your text with another finger). Cloud services, syncing (added May 25th, 2009)
Palm seems to be striking a bit of a balance between the iPhone and Android when it comes to services, offering a centralized Apple-style push notifications system for developers, Synergy for pulling / merging contacts, email and calendar data from services like Google, Facebook and Microsoft Exchange, and a "Palm Profile" for backing up phone settings and apps. The Palm Profile, which is tied to a user-provided email address and can be setup on the phone on first boot also helps with OTA updates and App Catalog downloads.
Thanks to phone's reliance on the cloud, users can also send a "kill pill" to wipe the phone by logging into their Palm Profile online. Palm won't be offering a desktop syncing app, but there will be a PC-based "Data Transfer Assistant" for getting data off of an old Palm OS device and onto the Pre. There's been no word on how multimedia syncing is supposed to work, but hopefully the Pre will operate in some sort of mass storage mode when plugged into the computer -- both for loading on music and movies, but also for pulling off purchased media like Amazon MP3s. Cost, release date (added May 25th, 2009)
After almost half a year of speculation, Palm finally confirmed the release date and price for the handset: June 6th, for $200
. That's the price with a 2-year contract, and is after a $100 mail-in rebate, though some retailers like Best Buy will offer the phone at rebate-free for $200. Out of contract the price has been pegged at $549 by sales reps, though that hasn't been "officially" confirmed by Palm.
Unfortunately, word of expected Pre shortages
mean that folks looking to get one within the first week or so might want to look into that age-old rite of gadget lust: lining up for it. Retailers at launch include Sprint stores, Best Buy, Radio Shack and select Wal-Mart stores. Developer support, third-party apps (added May 25th, 2009)
As far as developer support is concerned, Palm has effusively stated that it wants to engage the community and stoke the fires of app development. Given that webOS is based around really simple tenets of web coding, it shouldn't be hard to get in the game and start experimenting for most people, and seasoned devs will probably sink their teeth into it wholeheartedly.