Palm unveils sleek new OS and phone

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All hail the newest Smartphone on the block, the one, the only – the palm prÄ“.

On first impressions the handset looks uncomfortably like the very first HTC Touch. Then its slider drops down, the keyboard is exposed and all preconceived notions and subsequent lawsuits are dropped.

As expected it comes along running the new platform which we assumed would be announced at the same time, which they more or less had to anyway. It’s the newest mobile phone operating system out there, which now goes under the title webOS.

Aesthetically the phone has some nice curves which also puts you in mind of the HTC Touch once again, with all its non-sharp smooth edges. The accompanying blurb to the handset is full of words such as smooth, rounded and ergonomically designed to feel natural in the hand. We concur with all from first impressions, we just can’t wait now until we get our grubby little mitts on the prÄ“ ourselves.

Its display is a 3.1-inch touch screen, not the most common screen size around and we’re not sure if we’ve ever come across those dimensions on a mobile before. To put it in perspective the HTC T-Mobile G1 has a 3.2-inch display, whilst boasting the same half VGA resolution of 320 x 480 as the prÄ“.

Built in are a variety of usual sensors, which they wanted us to be drawn to in the press conference for some reason. There’s the accelerometer, ambient light and proximity gauge which are all present and correct. With the latter being used to disable the touch screen when the handset is held up to the ear. Let’s hope they don’t cheat and just turn the screen off completely. This is one of the biggest irks with the HTC Diamond and other Windows Mobile devices. As the amount of times the screen is needed for accessing the likes of voicemail surely out ways the usefulness, or uselessness of this so called feature.

From the initial specs we’ve seen it appears to be UMTS HSDPA when it ships outside the US, with WIFI and GPS being standard all around. They harped on about the USA version which will be exclusively on Sprint, so the final details for other markets are a little sketchy. Onboard is a beefy 8GB of memory, although there doesn’t appear to be any further expansion possible in the form of a microSD slot.

Running the whole show is the Texas Instruments OMAP3430 processor. It’ll be the first Smartphone on the market to include this, with Palm saying it provides a laptop like performance. Hurrah!

Palm made a joke at the press conference about including a ‘removable battery’ for popular demand; the audience got the gag, laughed loudly and applauded. This was obviously and without any possible illusions a clear dig at Apple, which was very well received and only their first swipe at the iPhone with more to follow.

The product spokesperson unveiled slider in the presentation, showing off the full QWERTY keyboard. He added the accompanying line of – providing a ‘cheesy’ virtual keyboard just won’t cut it. This, if you’re keeping score, is dig number two at Apple and the iPhone.

They might however have been taking a knock at the BlackBerry Strom, but a later slide showed who they’re pitching the prÄ“’ up against and it wasn’t there. A slide which had three other phones silhouetted, as not to cause the wrath of lawyers. Seeing as 93-percent of the world’s lawyers are in America, it was probably a smart move too. The three phones were very easily recognisable as both the iPhone generations and BlackBerry Bold. Just showing who they’re wanting us to see they’re taking on with the prÄ“, and in a very not so subtle way.

When opening the phone to its fullest size the screen slides straight up leaving the keyboard exposed at a slight angle. They’re calling this ‘ergonomically curved’, we’re just calling this slightly tilted as it is no more than that. It does however put you in mind of the arc slider on the HTC designed Sony Ericsson Xperia X1, in the way the screen slides up only at a much more acute angle. If the rumours that we’re all hearing have any worth or merit to them, then the phone has been designed by those very same people.

Palm believe this curved format is much more comfortable to use and hold for typing, presumably as compared to a regular run of the mill straight slider. One nice touch they’ve added here which we’re mightily glad about, is that it will work as a phone both open, and closed. Others we’ve seen in the past struggle with this – it appears Palm has made some ground here. Double hurrah!

Palm mentioned, as they began talking about the underlying new OS to the prÄ“, they’ve always been known for the simplicity of their UI. True some of their phones have been rather simple, but we doubt they were trying to make that point. Without being too facetious, they were just trying to show their platform is much more easier to use than others. After not being overly impressed with the OS layout to the Palm Centro, it would have been very easy to assume they were trying to apologise – they weren’t.

Instead they were just trying to say the webOS works seamlessly with this phone, invisible if you will – as if you weren’t even aware of its presence. This is all very well, but what happens when the next phone featuring the same OS comes out. Palm can’t really say the same line then, as the OS surely has to stand on its own two feet. It was a confusing message they delivered. And one we doubt was fully underlined and looked over by marketing and public relations. More than likely an over excited product manager produced this presentation, without thinking ahead and towards the future of webOS.

They have running along the base of the prÄ“’s screen quick start icons, which looks rather akin to the HTC Touch Diamonds UI. Did someone mention there’s a lawyer in the room? These icons launch the applications whilst being pressed and held down, not double tap here needed.

Scrolling through long screens on the phone is performed in much the same way as on the HTC Touch Diamond. This was demonstrated on a large contact list from the phone, by touching the screen then sliding a finger upwards – where the phone just runs through the content on the screen. It does appear that Palm seem to be taking the best of other phones and including them in the webOS. As this feature alone does look like the iPhone’s functionality within this area, there’s even the ‘bounce’ when you pull a page down and it springs up again.

Underneath the display is what Palm is calling the ‘gesture area’. On this part of the phone minor screen operations can be evoked and controlled. This was demonstrated by swiping a finger from right to left whilst on the contact page. Here a light appears on the right part of this area, indicating pressure, then another light on left becomes alit when that area has been reached. This action reverts the screen back to the previous page, which can also be performed in any other application. This functionality just shows the screen won’t be used a great deal for everyday use. Meaning unsightly fingerprints and smudges won’t be the issue it is with other touch screen devices.

Holding a finger on the gesture area and swiping up opens up the main application launcher, this can be done at anytime and in any screen. It’s an easy way to cut down on the screen’s usage by a small margin. All of which seems eerily familiar; we hate to harp on about the HTC connection but we shall. The swiping from left to right was a feature from the original Touch handset, albeit on the actual screen. This swiping functionality was heavily promoted by them, in fact so much so one title ran a news piece ‘HTC takes a swipe at the iPhone’.

Palm has added a more complex gesture for quick launching of the favourites, these are the most commonly used applications that apparently the users want. This harks back to the trÄ“o and its four application buttons, that were also on the original Palm Pilot of yesteryear. In launching this, a finger once again is dragged from the gesture area up the screen only this time it’s held there. A wave looking bar appears where the finger stops, with those four main applications are then listed across the screen horizontally. Wherever the finger is then moved from left to right, the wave moves up and down accordingly. The actual app required is then launched when the finger is taken away from the screen, on that icon. This all emanates from one action access to everything needed, something they mentioned a few times throughout the press conference. It’s a nice touch and feature, and it’s that good continuity is rife.

Accessing all the running applications, if there are many applications running at once, is also done from the gesture control. Pressing the main button at the centre brings up what’s currently running, where scrolling from left to right moves through the apps. It’s even possible to rearrange the order by just dragging and dropping them into a different arrangement. Palm doesn’t want to think this way of multitasking as applications running on a Windows platform. Which they referred to as a list of apps running like sheets of paper being stacked on top of one another. Instead, they like us to think of this as a deck of cards – wasn’t that the way the HTC designed Xperia X1UI was laid out?

When the user is done with a particular application, it can just be dragged to the top of the screen where it’s shut down. The data here is all saved and can be resumed exactly where it was left off, on the next time it’s launched again. Palm insisted there are no save buttons anywhere on this new OS.

This was clearly a move to distance the webOS from Windows Mobile, and possibly themselves in the process. This could have been a ‘read between the lines’ moment, highlighting no further association with Microsoft. With the new mobile OS finally being a contender to Windows Mobile and Palm no longer needing to lean on Microsoft to run their phones. We’ll just have to wait and see the outcome.

Palm appears to has taken a leaf from the INQ playbook and have integrated social aspects of the web into the prÄ“. In viewing someone’s contact page from the webOS, they’ve also presented various possible means of getting in touch with said person over Outlook, Gmail and even Facebook. With what appears to be webOS actually taking content from the likes of Facebook, and then automatically adding those details to a person’s contact entry. Without being prompted, details such as phone number, email address are all brought over and populated into the prÄ“’s address book. Even the photo used by the webOS contact application to identify that person, is brought over from their Facebook profile picture. Outstanding!

The crosspollination doesn’t end there either. Data from a users Gmail calendar is brought into the webOS and then goes on to self populate appointments and meetings in the diary and calendar features. There are even separate colours to distinguish which calendar entry comes from which source, with auto-synchronisation being kept up. We weren’t told as much, but we’re assuming this can work both ways too.

Email plays a big part with the new webOS and the prē, where the inbox can be presented in a number of fashions. All the email accounts on the handset can be accessed from a single list, in where the emails can be seen altogether or separately by their individual accounts.

Palm has thrown in a nice feature where multiple instances of the inbox and emails can be accessed, and not just one at any one time. If a user were in the middle of writing an email and wanted to open up another they would have to save the email before carrying on, in a different platform *cough*. With the webOS and the prÄ“, the user can simply launch another instance of the inbox in the regular way, whilst gaining access to other emails. Where with that other OS, the original email would have to be saved as a draft, only to be retrieved later from the draft folder.They’re trying desperately hard to mimic the functionality of a computer on a mobile phone, which everyone else has being striving to do also. This type of feature with the email makes some ground, and goes some way in our book to coming close.

Palm kept mentioning ‘synergy’ throughout the launch of the prÄ“, without really dazzling the audience along the way. When they began to show off the conversation functions on the device, this caught our attention. From here, a user can view in chronological order IM chats and text messages and all combined. All the usual methods of contacting someone are available from inside conversations, whilst logging any and all details along the way for continuity. This looks great for interoperability, and a feature that could better the INQ in this way.

The only possible downside is the varied access to multiple IM’s and what’s on offer. There wasn’t a list made available to what’s onboard, which arose our suspicion instantly. When we find out more, we’ll report back but it does appear they’ve left out Windows Live Messenger.

Palm has said that the applications in webOS and on the prÄ“ are all made up from the likes of CSS, XHTML and JavaScript. All meaning it will be easy to develop applications for their phones in the future. Nothing has been said about existing applications they have for their current phones, and if they can be run out on webOS. The word around from other sources has it as a big no, nada, it’s not happening – you get where we’re going with this. This has got to upset some out there, if not many, as we’re getting the vibe from Palm this will be their main OS for some years to come.

They seem to have built-in a good all round search function, one similar to that of Windows to a degree. Just by starting to type a word from the keyboard on the main screen, the webOS starts searching that word across the whole handset. Results are instantly brought up from emails, contacts and applications. If nothing is found, the webOS automatically starts searching the web and in an intelligent way until the results are found.

The web browsing comes across well on the prÄ“, from what we’ve noticed. Fully integrated is the accelerometer for both viewing of website in portrait and landscape modes. Palm, or whoever made it for them *cough* has also brought in multi-touch technology. Where two fingers pinched together can be placed on a webpage, the fingers are then parted and moved away from each other whilst the webpage zooms in further. Zooming out is performed in the exact same way, only in reverse. This has been seen in other handsets before, just not with Palm and it’s good to see. Windows Mobile is still lacking this feature, leaving them somewhat behind at the party.

Another useful feature that Palm has included in webOS is notifications. These appear as a scrolling ticker on the base of the display. It’s useful when the application running is at full size, taking up the whole screen. They’re appear fairly unobtrusive, popping up showing previews of IM’s in a single line of text, SMSs arriving or alarms. The notification messages can be read in full at a later date, as the webOS stores them up just in case you missed one.

Some of these features sets are going to impact on data charges quite heavily we feel. Then we noticed in the small print ‘Unlimited usage data plan strongly recommended’, which we also concur with although we’re unsure if the webOS abilities can be toned down. If not, the handset wouldn’t really be for all customers as it would leave those on pre-pay tariffs somewhat distressed.

It’s been said before don’t fix something that isn’t broken, and the highest form of flattery is mockery. The unbroken features from other phones seem to be in webOS and also the mockery is here too – in the form of straight out copying some of their functions.

It does appear a lot of the features in the phone have been seen elsewhere, from its look to its software. Let’s hope they’re presenting themselves as an alternative to these other phones, whilst accrediting them along the way.

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5 Responses to Palm unveils sleek new OS and phone

  1. Ewan @ MIR January 12, 2009 at 9:34 am #

    I'm liking the look of it!

  2. Ewan @ MIR January 12, 2009 at 10:34 am #

    I'm liking the look of it!

  3. AJ January 12, 2009 at 1:39 pm #

    Yeah, I saw the video yesterday and it looked brilliant – I gave up on Palm a long time ago but I heard a lot of talk about this one and checked it out. Very nimble operating system, zooming in and out of different applications – there are some real improvements on the iPhone here. I am not sure about the keyboard – i prefer mine 'cheesy' but this could be a real rival to the iphone. Launch date is mid year though so just in time for the updated Apple to raise the bar again?

  4. AJ January 12, 2009 at 2:39 pm #

    Yeah, I saw the video yesterday and it looked brilliant – I gave up on Palm a long time ago but I heard a lot of talk about this one and checked it out. Very nimble operating system, zooming in and out of different applications – there are some real improvements on the iPhone here. I am not sure about the keyboard – i prefer mine 'cheesy' but this could be a real rival to the iphone. Launch date is mid year though so just in time for the updated Apple to raise the bar again?

  5. Ken February 22, 2009 at 12:33 pm #

    If anyone is seriously interested in developing applications for the Pre, a couple of us have set up a new site dedicated exclusively to webOS application development. We'll be adding new tutorials and resources to it regularly as new information becomes available from Palm. Check it out here:

    http://www.weboshelp.net

    We encourage you to visit and post about what features and information you want to see, as we plan to evolve the site based primarily on user feedback.

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