Pre Is Not Competing with the iPhone

As a long time (10+ yeas) Palm owner, I am looking forward to the Pre. The first version seems not ready to compete with iPhone, Palm better fix it soon. I may deflect to iPhone if the next generation iPhone is attractive enough.

Pre vs iPhone

Palm’s Hail Mary pass of a product will win over current Palm customers first.
by Lance Ulanoff

Palm PreThere’s little doubt that the Palm Pre will become Sprint’s best and most sophisticated smartphone when it launches this week. I called it the most exciting product at CES 2009, and it is, in fact, the only product we’re still talking about six months after the show. Still, I think there are a lot of misconceptions about who will buy this phone and why those people might consider it in the first place.

But let’s get something straight first. The Palm Pre is not competing with the iPhone. I know that everyone likes to create this kind of buzz. Anything new, fresh, and exciting is always seen as “The [Insert Market Leader Here] Killer.” That’s why every new search engine is pitched or touted as a “Google Killer,” though none are.

When the Pre launches, it will have an App Catalog with as many as two dozen apps. The iPhone didn’t launch with any apps—or an App Store, for that matter. Actually, the iPhone SDK launched almost eight months later. But less than four months thereafter, the App Store arrived with 500 applications. As far as I can tell, the Pre is launching with an application store and some applications, but it has not delivered the SDK to more than a handful of select vendors. I have trouble understanding why hundreds of Palm Pre developers haven’t been working with the SDK for months. Seriously, I don’t think app development for the Pre is going to be rocket science or even as complex as it likely is for the iPhone. Most of the apps developed for the Pre will be based on HTML, for heaven’s sake, so what exactly do developers need to know? The SDK should be incredibly simple.

More interesting to me is the lackluster lineup of games that will launch with the Pre. When I asked Palm Product Line Manager Matt Crowley to show me a hot game, he brought up Connect 4 on the device. First you see a picture of the familiar, vertical Connect 4 game. To play, you touch one of the columns and a red or black checker drops into place. That’s cool, but when I tried to turn the Pre over to virtually shake the checkers out—well, you can guess what happened. Nothing. We both kind of laughed about it, but I was disappointed. I expected the Pre’s built-in accelerometer to tell the app that the phone was upside down and send the checkers tumbling out of the device and onto the virtual floor.

Other apps that will debut with the App Catalog include Fandango, LinkedIn, and APNews. Uh, okay. No barn burners here, either. Crowley insists that the Pre is plenty powerful enough to handle more intense apps. Apps built for the Pre, however, do need to be Web-based. Though the core OS is Linux, developers are getting access only to the browser-like layer. Of course, I’ve seen some pretty amazing things online, so the fact that the Pre is, at one level, based on a Web platform—and not pure programming code—shouldn’t be much of an issue.

As for Flash support on the Palm Pre—which would, as far as I’m concerned, seal the deal in terms of cutting-edge interactivity—there won’t be any on initial launch. This should change, however, by year end. There’s also the promise of an updated SDK, which will allow developers to build code that skips past the browser layer and possibly touches that nifty Linux core.

That said, Palm execs don’t seem particularly anxious about the relative lack of rich apps. Perhaps they’re just not all that interested in letting third-party developers stretch application boundaries and make full use of the Pre’s native capabilities—at least for now.

If the Pre were competing with the iPhone, this could be seen as a major failure. But it’s not. The Pre’s market is existing Palm customers. So anyone who owns a Treo or Centro along with Sprint users looking for a great smartphone, are all perfect candidates for the Palm Pre. If you don’t think this is a big enough market to support the Pre, remember that Palm has sold about two million Centros, alone.

Another false assumption is that iPhone owners might consider switching to the Palm Pre. This is laughable. No iPhone owner is going to give it up for the Palm. This is not because the iPhone is fundamentally better than the Pre (Mobile Analyst Sascha Segan’s final word on the phone is here). Instead, it’s because iPhone owners have too much invested in their phones already. They’ve likely bought dozens of apps that they love and cannot run on anything else. They’re not going to switch to a Palm Pre that won’t be able to run their apps, or even purchase similar apps that they can adopt instead.

Over time Palm’s App Catalog will grow, and I’m certain we’ll see developers build more intense apps and games, but that will take time. Initially, the app selection may not be even compelling enough for current Palm owners to make the switch, unless they get really excited about running the MotionApps “Classic” emulator on a Palm Pre—something I seriously doubt will be the case.

A clearer competitor for the Palm Pre would be virtually any RIM BlackBerry phone, with the possible exception of the physical keyboard–less Storm. RIM’s software catalog is smaller than Apple’s but significantly larger than Palm’s. As a new BlackBerry owner, however, I know that downloading and installing third-party apps is not an essential activity. Both Palm’s and RIM’s phones (the Storm excluded) feature a combination of brilliant screens and QWERTY keyboards. The Pre, of course, adds the touch screen and accelerometer—features you’ll find only on the Storm, a product that has not won a great deal of support in the tech analyst community. Even so, I have to wonder how many people will consider switching from, say, a BlackBerry 8330 with its clean, good looks, efficient interface, and, of course, industry-leading push mail system. Again, this leads the Pre back to its own waters for prey.

It would be naïve to think that Palm will not at least go after undecided smartphone consumers—the vast number of people still carrying around dumb feature phones. They’re rich targets for both the iPhone and Palm Pre, and I’d say the new Pre has a fighting chance in this market, too, even if that’s not its primary target. Obviously, the iPhone will still seem sexier and, until Palm clarifies (and enriches) its App Catalog, the iPhone will remain the better choice. However, the Palm Pre is an achievement in its own right, and as those changes come and good word of mouth spreads, I expect the Pre to give virtually any smartphone a run for its money. Just don’t expect any iPhone owners to switch.

3 thoughts on “Pre Is Not Competing with the iPhone”

  1. if they don’t get their SDK out to every developer under the sun asap, they’re doomed. forget abt iphone or bb. they will struggle to play with WM or symbian. sure, the OS has some really cool features and is definitely the way forward for mobile OS, but without cool apps what good is an OS? and of all companies, palm should know how important apps are…….

    and i’m not sure about driving switching from bb either. i mean, they are making inroads in the consumer space but majority of their users uses company issued devices. i somehow don’t think corporate IT departments will look kindly upon an unproven platform unless it can generate some serious traction in the market (as iphone did)

  2. Tzigane: My company used to only support Black Berry, but it just add support to iPhone. Why the change? Because the guys in IT department use iPhone themselves and they love it.

    Uncleray: Don’t believe any hyped news headline in HK. No one knows how well Pre’s WebOS works on the field.

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