Palm's last, best gasp may be in fact a lifesaver. The Pre drew early rave reviews, and the news keeps getting better as the device nears launch date.The better news for Palm is that Verizon has also committed to shipping the Pre once the Sprint exclusivity window expires in 6 months, which means Palm isn't betting its future on a network that is hemorrhaging customers at an alarming rate. Initially the Pre will only be available on the Sprint network, which while it has done a great job of marketing itself of late (particularly with those awesome black and white spots with CEO Dan Hesse), and is racing to extend its 4G WiMAX network as quickly as possible, is nevertheless the poor relation among the major U.S. carriers.
Throw in the news that Pre can fool iTunes into syncing music files, and you have the makings of a real challenger to the iPhone. (Surely didn't hurt Palm's developers that CEO Jon Rubenstein is an Apple alumnus.)
In addition to telephony and music, Pre will let customers run multiple applications simultaneously (rather than having to switch from one to the other).
Multitasking is conspicuously absent in the iPhone 3.0 operating system, although there have been rumors that Apple is speeding the feature to market.
The Pre WebOS is based on Webkit, which not only puts it on a par with iPhone's touch screen, but gives it the ability to run Web applications richly, which is a key element of the user experience.
More importantly, supporting Webkit (and HTML 5) means that Palm can attract huge numbers of developers to create applications for the Pre -- which is ultimately the life blood of any connected device.
Palm honchos Rubenstein and Roger McNamee noted during their presentation at yesterday's D7 conference that Pre will provide an opportunity "to persuade people to move from the 'feature phone' [i.e., iPhone] to the integrated device."
The smartphone market is getting incredibly crowded: the iPhone, already doubling its U.S. market share, is about to get a serious reboot, Google says 18 new smartphones running Android will be shipped this year, Nokia is pushing the E71x and the N97 (for which it has no carrier for the time being), and of course Research in Motion remains a dominant force in the market as well.
And all of these smartphones support Webkit, which is great for end users (and awful for Microsoft, the only major vendor not to support the new open standard).
Palm better not miss the window of buzz it will get when the Pre is introduced, but it does have that window, and it does mean a lot in this market. Zeus Kerravala, an analyst with the Yankee Group, told me this week that leadership in the smartphone market can change in the blink of an eye. "There's faster share-shifting in smartphones than we've seen in any other industry except maybe gaming," he said.