Palm's Comeback Starts With Pre, WebOS

The handset and operating system look impressive, but the company is facing many challenges if it wants to grab consumers from Apple, Google, Nokia, and Research In Motion.

Palm 'Pre' Smartphone

Palm 'Pre' Smartphone
(click for larger image)

The company said the platform was built on industry-standard technologies like CSS, XHTML, and JavaScript, and Palm intends to offer a rich open development environment for third-party developers to quickly create content. For example, the Internet radio provider Pandora was able to create an application in three days, Palm said.

Palm was well known for its rich stable of developers for past smartphone platforms, but getting developers to create compelling programs for WebOS may be the biggest challenge because the market is getting extremely crowded. While developing apps for Palm's platform may be easy, developers are likely to go to where the largest audience is.

Right now, Apple is clearly the most attractive platform because its App Store has had more than 300 million downloads in the last six months. Developers may also be drawn to BlackBerry and Windows Mobile for their large user bases, and Google's Android platform is expected to be on multiple handsets and carriers in 2009. Additionally, many industry watchers expect Symbian to make a strong play for the U.S. market once it has gone open source in 2010, further siphoning potential content creators away from Palm.

This could potentially lead to chicken-and-egg scenario where developers ignore the WebOS platform because it doesn't have a large user base but it can't get a sizeable following because there aren't compelling apps. This shouldn't be an issue with the larger entities like Facebook which have the time and resources to create programs for multiple platforms, but it could keep out smaller developers who create niche or exclusive content.

Additionally, questions still remain on how WebOS applications will be distributed. The company will most likely take its cue from the App Store and Android Market and create a single store for users to browse, buy, download, and install apps on the go. But the company has not said if this is the case, what payment method will be used, and what percentage of revenue developers will get.

Palm has partnered with Sprint to be the exclusive carrier of the Pre at its launch in the first half of 2009, and this has positive and negative aspects. AT&T has the iPhone 3G, T-Mobile has the G1, Verizon Wireless has the BlackBerry Storm, and Sprint will likely make the Pre its flagship handset. This means the Pre will benefit from Sprint's advertising and marketing muscle, and it can take advantage of the company's large EV-DO Rev. A network. But Sprint continues to struggle with maintaining subscribers, and it still has a bit of a reputation for having poor customer service. The companies haven't released any pricing details, but it may be hard to sell the Pre for more than $199, which is what the iPhone 3G and BlackBerry Storm cost.

Palm appears to have cherry-picked popular features and services from its rivals while adding enough unique qualities to make the Pre and WebOS attractive. But there are still too many unanswered questions to say if these products will get it back to the top.

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Mary E. Shacklett, President of Transworld Data
James M. Connolly, Contributing Editor and Writer