Palm Pre one year later; What went right, wrong, and what’s ahead | webOS Nation
 
 

Palm Pre one year later; What went right, wrong, and what’s ahead

by Derek Kessler Sun, 06 Jun 2010 10:53 pm EDT

1 year palm pre

One year ago today the most hotly-anticipated phone of 2009 - the Palm Pre - went on sale in Sprint stores across the United States. The past 365 days brought bright spots for Palm, the Pre, and webOS along with, sadly, a fair share of miscalculations and blunders.

Join us as we review the year in Pre.

The Stumbles

Let's get some of the gaffes out of the way first.

Hardware & Build Quality

Build quality was the obvious major problem that afflicted far too many users. I myself ended up having my phone replaced due to defects three times within the first three months of Pre ownership. Not all users were so repeatedly afflicted by such poor quality hardware, and the build quality has improved notably since the launch (though the spectre of high return rates persists)

While the hardware specs on the Pre were fairly close to top-of-the-line when the Pre was announced in January of 2009, they're looking pretty inadequate now. We know from overclocking and from the Pre Plus that improved hardware specs radically improves the experience of webOS. We can't fault a cash-poor company for not releasing top-end devices - but it definitely has been a factor for the past six months and looms large now.

Marketing

There are many internet acronyms that could be used to describe the reaction we and the rest of the public had to Palm’s increasingly bad launch advertising campaign, but suffice to say it wasn’t good. It was described as weird, pointless, and all-too-often creepy. The problem was the dichotomy of Palm’s intended market, and the market they attempted to address with their advertising. Esoteric commercials like those aired in the early months of the Palm Pre’s public availability were styled and geared more like the kind of ads that sell luxury products like high-end automobiles and jewelry. Meanwhile, Palm wanted to target the “fat middle” of consumers that didn’t know what all a smartphone with webOS could do for them. At issue: Palm’s ads didn’t show them what all a smartphone with webOS could do for anybody. In fact, it took ads from Sprint to even give a fleeting idea of how webOS worked.

Time and time again I’ve pointed to Apple’s iPhone advertisements as the standing epitome of consumer electronics advertising. They’re simple, straightforward, and the narrator tells you exactly what’s going on and a finger shows you exactly how to do it. Easy as pie. While Palm’s more recent ads have moved closer in that direction, they still only goes so far as to explain how webOS works and what makes it so awesome.

As we’ve said before, Palm was afflicted with the TiVo problem; how in thirty seconds do you explain what makes this product better than a VCR? Or in Palm’s case, every other smartphone out there. At the end of the day, Palm failed to differentiate the Pre from other smartphones. Aspirational advertising works for aspirational products, and unless your smartphone is available with ruby-motion keys or gold plating, it’s not aspirational.

App Ecosystem

The creation of a rich app ecosystem was another huge issue. With Android still getting on its feet a year ago, the bigger competition for Palm was getting developers from the iPhone platform. Problem was, it took months for the ecommerce Palm App Catalog to come around. This only helped to fuel a vicious cycle of the modern smartphone buyer: developers want customers before they’ll develop apps, and customers want apps before they’ll buy the phone. With no apps, the customers don’t buy, and with no customers, the developers don’t make the apps that the customers want before they’ll buy.

That’s not to slight any developer working on webOS apps - there's plenty of quality programming in the App Catalog and in Palm’s open web distribution and beta feeds. You know you’ve got a developer problem when the PreCentral homebrew gallery had more apps than the official application store. Thankfully that situation has since resolved itself, but webOS got off to worse than a slow start on the apps front, and the iPhone and Android app stores raced ahead.

Carriers

We can argue about how it did or didn’t take too long for webOS to hit Verizon and AT&T, but that debate will always be shackled by Sprint’s undisclosed exclusivity period. I don't actually blame Palm for going with Sprint.

It’s easy to argue that Sprint was the wrong choice, and while it is true that a bigger launch could have been had on customer-rich Verizon or AT&T, Sprint still had some 40 million subscribers to mine. There were successful launches on Sprint before the Pre, and there have been after. For their part, Sprint did hold the Pre has their flagship device for far longer than anybody could have asked, with the throne finally ceded nearly a year later to the Android-powered HTC Evo 4G. There's also the cold, hard fact that Palm wasn't in a very strong negotiating position when it came time to pick carriers for the launch of the Pre.

The one thing that I do want to throw some blame around for: the lackluster launch of the Pre Plus on Verizon. The Droid still had a monopoly on the energy and excitement in Verizon's base when the Pre Plus came to Big Red and neither Palm nor Verizon had a handle on that. Project Jumpstart was a help, but by then it was too little, too late.

The little things

What we can argue about is how unfinished webOS was at launch, and still is to some extent nearly a year later. All told, webOS was unveiled to the world seventeen months ago at CES 2009, a time when the Palm Pre was the darling of the media and the first possible iPhone-killer contender (we do hate that phrase here). Since that time Palm has pushed multiple updates to webOS bringing it closer to the capabilities of competing platforms, but there’s still considerable work to be done. Consider this: webOS still lacks an API for the microphone and camera, leaving developers unable to record or transmit any audio and unable to access the live camera feed.

Although Palm has pushed out many updates at a impressive clip, there have been some critical bugs in some of them that required a fast-release maintenance update shortly thereafter. There were also plenty of other bugs: App Catalog ecommerce issues, backup servers, DST bugs, Exchange bugs, expired certificates. All of which point to a small company pushing as hard as they can to bring the OS up to speed.

...which makes the iTunes Sync drama all the more aggravating. It was downright silly to think that Apple would turn a blind eye to Palm spoofing itself as an iPod to sync music out of iTunes. And of course, Apple immediately moved to block the workaround in the very next release of iTunes. Palm counter-programmed. Apple did it again. And then a third time. We assume that Palm didn't expend too many resources on this, but given the obviousness of what would happen, any resource was too much.

The Wins

What, you thought it would be all doom and gloom?

Openness, SDK & PDK

Though it came much later than we would have liked, the official SDK and Project Ares were and are a model for open development. The fact that virtually anybody who can make a web page can also develop webOS apps is the sort of thing that is easy to underestimate.

Palm's other big development win: the Plug-in Development Kit. While I'm all for HTML, CSS, and Javascript, the 3D games that have come with the PDK have been vital for what growth webOS has had. It's a key advantage over Android and few people realize it.

Developer support

Once Palm got on their feet with the SDK, they've moved as rapidly and aggressively to court and help developers. In fact, beyond giving them more resources, we hope that HP doesn’t meddle too much in this area. The Palm Developer Relations Team made incredible bounds from their from-scratch beginnings to putting on events like Palm Developer Day and the Hot Apps competition. They’ve also been extremely responsive to developers and worked through some fairly considerable growing pains in the process. The App Catalog now adds around a dozen new apps every day thanks to the hard work of the developer team and their support of the development community.

Palm also took a lead with development, stepping up to the plate to put together an excellent and rapidly developing Facebook app that in many ways has surpassed what is available on other platforms. They also leveraged the technology of the phones and put out the first carrier-sanctioned official Wi-Fi hotspot functionality in any smartphone with the Palm Pre Plus and Pixi Plus on Verizon. The Mobile Hotspot app has been picked up in Europe by O2 and will hopefully spread to other networks now that the functionality has been duplicated in Android 2.2.

The Palm Pixi

Some might be surprised to see me put this in the win column, but despite the slower processor, smaller screen, and baffling lack of Wi-Fi on Sprint, is a remarkably solid smartphone - especially for those new to this whole smartphone thing. The idea of a Centro replacement was a grand one, except that it was a Centro replacement in a time where a brand new 8GB iPhone 3G could be had for the same $99 pricepoint. Still, the Pixi deserves more credit than it generally gets.

Touchstone

Accessorizing was another bright spot for Palm, exemplified in the form of the Touchstone charger. This simple hockey-puck device brought induction charging easily and affordably to the masses (or at least the webOS masses). The device is so popular amongst webOS users that one of the most often requested accessories we hear about are more Touchstone products, from stereo speakers to car docks. Of course, one charging dock isn’t the end of the accessories line - there's the unique artist covers backs for the Pixi series along with bright interchangeable backs of the solid-colored variety. Palm also made sure to release decent cases and sleeves for the Pre and Pixi series phones.

Homebrew

For me, the shining bright spot in the past year has been the homebrew development community and Palm’s sometimes implicit and sometimes explicit support of their efforts.

Palm could have very easily taken draconian steps to lock down webOS, but instead they’ve encouraged homebrew developers from the sidelines, if only by staying out of their way and ensuring that webOS stays open. Palm has even acknowledged homebrew development in seminars and public presentations.

We have seen of installers, applications, and even patches that modify the functionality of webOS. Whereas other platforms require complicated rooting, jailbreaking, and ROM flashing procedures, webOS does not. A simple, 5 minute procedure is all that's required to get your first homebrew installer on the device itself and you're patching away and installing indie apps. It's a testament to Palm for architecting webOS in a way that allows it to be so easily extended just as much as it's a testament to the entire homebrew community (especially WebOS Internals) for keeping the excitement around webOS going.

The biggest win: webOS itself

And, let’s not forget Palm’s major accomplishment in this time: they brought webOS to the masses and survived in a hyper-competitive market long enough to get bought out by HP. Even now, nearly a year and a half after its first unveiling, webOS stands as one of the most advanced mobile operating systems out there. It’s the reason that HP bought Palm, and is the reason that there are still Palm users in this world in spite of the shoddy hardware, strange advertising, and lacking apps. So while webOS failed to save Palm, webOS still will save Palm.

Some of webOS's core features - like Synergy - have been duplicated on other platforms. Many have not, though. webOS offers the best notification system, the most elegant multitasking, the easiest development, the quickest access to core system settings, a great web browser, the easiest (and arguably the safest) hackability of any mobile platform, 3D games, and plenty more.

webOS is quite simply inspired - and it's built for the long term. Palm has literally just begun to tap the potential in this OS - in terms of performance, functionality, and the kinds of devices it could work on, we've still only seen the beginning.

What's next?

So the question that’s before us is “Where do we go from here?” It’s a big question, and certainly not something we can answer with any degree of certainty. One thing’s for certain, HP’s giant bags of money are certainly going to help address many of the issues that plagued Palm over the past year. More money could bring better hardware, more testing, faster development, more advertising, and so on. That said, we’re fans of the concept of money not being the solution to every problem. There’s no doubt that Palm has had money troubles - they wouldn’t have been bought by HP if they hadn’t.

Whatever comes next from Palm, however, won’t be an HP product. No doubt Palm has had something in development to serve as a replacement for the Pre (now, like webOS, pushing 18 months old), and if HP has any hopes of Palm not becoming a giant money pit, they’ll need to release that product. Sure, HP can make some changes and ensure better quality (and they better), but the next device will still come from Palm's R&D.

...and that's as far as I think I dare look. I know HP will continue to make webOS-based smarphones, I know HP is crazy excited to make webOS tablets and, yes, printers. I also know that despite what their CEO said, making any device, including smartphones, is a complicated feat of both engineering and software. We'll all have to see what the future holds for Palm, HP, and webOS together - I'm optimistic that it will be bright.

Thanks to BobAtPitt for his contributions to and inspiration for this article! Additional contributions by Dieter Bohn

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