Pre is not the home run Palm needed

he first reviews of its much-hyped Palm Pre aren't bad, but they are not incredibly good, either.

Someone at Palm should probably be kicking themselves: The first reviews of its much-hyped Palm Pre aren't bad, but they are not incredibly good, either. This sets a pretty low bar for what coming competitors must achieve to appear more advanced than Palm's newest device.

I'd expected the Pre to make me at least a little envious. But our week of testing with the Palm Pre actually makes me glad I'm an iPhone user. I have twice the memory, limited multitasking (plays music while I do something else), and gobs of useful applications to choose from. I've learned to live without a teensy keyboard.

More importantly: I have Steve Jobs and whatever he already has in the product pipeline, plus whatever he conjures up once he (it's now widely presumed) returns to Apple from medical leave.

Next-generation iPhones, if half the rumors are correct, will rebalance the world in Apple's favor, almost regardless of what Palm does between now and their introduction.

Future iPhone 3.0 devices are already generating more excitement than the Pre will be able to sustain after its launch. The anticipated Android device onslaught coming this fall still has time for anti-Pre tweaking.

Devices based on Google's Android operating system already have the key feature that Pre reviewers are focusing on: Multitasking.

My take on multitasking: It won't be a big as deal for users as it is for reviewers, who are (or should be) power smartphone users. The ability to run multiple apps simultaneously will be useful, for sure, but isn't an iPhone-killer. Besides, it's reasonable to expect Apple will soon open its multitasking capabilities up to developers.

Product managers at competing firms are probably thrilled the reviews are out before the Pre hits the shelves. Palm must have been hoping for a homerun, but only got solid double. With expectations so high, Palm might have done better to wait and give reviewers their devices on Friday, with less lead time before the rest of us could buy one for ourselves. Less risk, fewer deflated expectations that way.

One key flaw for the Pre is battery life, which Palm is supposed to be working on improving. You'd think, for as long as the Pre has been knocking around their labs, that this problem would have been fixed by release date.

The issue here is that people who are used to BlackBerry devices and other, less-smart phones find the battery life to be short. Based on our test results, though, iPhone users are much less likely to notice the difference.

Another challenge, less easily solved, is the unimpressive physical keypad on the device. It was a good idea, but poorly executed. BlackBerry users are likely to hate the Pre keyboard.

I'll be watching to see how BlackBerry users react to the Pre reviews and early user word-of-mouth. I never expected many iPhone users to jump ship over the Pre, but the ability to convince BlackBerry users to move to the Pre will be important. That and the Pre's ability to attract people who haven't already purchased a smartphone but have, for whatever reason, not already bought an iPhone.

If Apple really wanted to ruin Palm's day, it would--right away--tell the world when its (presumed) new iPhones will be announced and perhaps tip its hat just a bit as to how many devices we should expect.

Bottom Line: Palm is now back in the market with a solid contender that is already playing catch-up in important areas like applications and is likely to soon lose whatever lead it may have in other areas.

From what has been shown so far, the real coming battle will be Google Android vs. iPhone and in that contest, it's possible that Google OS devices could come out on top. Palm, meanwhile, could end up being left way behind, provided Google can do a better job of rallying developers than it has been able to do so far.

David Coursey freely admits to an iPhone bias. He asks that you please don't use www.coursey.com/contacts to send him an e-mail about it. He tweets as dcoursey.

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David Coursey

PC World (US online)
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