A PALM PRE-VIEW: Smart phone in Canada by year

Let’s cut to the chase: If the Palm Inc. engineers who created the company’s new smart phone set out to kick some ass and take some names, they can pull out their pens and notepads now.

The company announced the Palm Pre – the most-buzzed-about smart phone since the Apple iPhone itself – will be available in Canada on the Bell Mobility network before the end of the year. Palm’s product line manager Matt Crowley put it through its paces for the media in a series of press sessions Wednesday.

It’s a slightly curved slider phone, with a full touch screen and a slide-out QWERTY keyboard. In the open position, the slight curve angles the screen toward the user, and exposes an engravable vanity mirror on the back. Closed, as it was for most of the demo, it looks a little like a bar of onyx soap.

In terms of user experience, take the intuitiveness of Apple Inc.’s iPhone and add the ability to flick through several applications at a time and some very useful data and application aggregation functionality.

“We realized a couple, three years ago, we really had to rebuild the OS from the ground up,” said Palm Canada managing director Marc Tremblay.

That new operating system, webOS, pulls data and applications together from disparate sources for a much more seamless experience. For example, contact information displays not only the data stored on the phone, but also Facebook updates, messaging status and shared calendar information. E-mail from several accounts appears in a single inbox, and replies are sent from the corresponding outbox. In the universal search mode, if a term isn’t found on-device, the Pre provides one-click search of Google, Google Maps and Wikipedia without having to open a browser.

In terms of hardware, it weighs in at 135 grams, about the same as the iPhone. It’s equipped with Bluetooth and Wi-Fi (b and g) connectivity, global positioning system, an accelerometer, a micro-USB port and 8GB of non-expandable user memory. The TouchTone charger is wireless; magnets hold the device in place while the battery is topped up using inductive charging technology. While the phone is charging, it defaults to speaker-phone mode for incoming calls.

But it’s increasingly about the apps in the smart phone market, and Apple’s got a leg up with 35,000 already available in its App Store. Crowley said there will be a catalogue of downloadable applications, but Palm hasn’t announced a business model yet.

The Pre’s software development kit allows developers to create apps using the JavaScript, cascading style sheet and HTML 5.0 skills they already have, Crowley said, allowing them to develop quickly without having to learn new languages. In fact, he said, the calculator application that will ship with the Pre was written by a designer – not a developer – in one day from open source parts.

Crowley said Palm hasn’t announced yet how much hardware-level access developers will have to the device to incorporate accelerometer, GPS and camera functionality. He did say, though, that key developers will have more device-level access than others.

The Pre seems to be targeted at the increasingly narrow space between Research in Motion Ltd.’s BlackBerry devices on the enterprise side and Apple’s iconic iPhone on the consumer side, and there’s the rub. The Pre is clearly superior to the iPhone and anything RIM has created in terms of usability, but that might not be enough to make it a game-changer.

RIM’s hold on the enterprise market is largely due to its BlackBerry Enterprise Server and the manageability it affords administrators. Apple’s 35,000 apps are daunting enough, but coupled with the only online music store worth feeding, it’s a huge challenge for Palm to make inroads on the consumer side.

“It’s got a lot of features a professional would want,” Crowley said, but also incorporates lifestyle features that make it appealing on a consumer level. “I don’t think you compromise much on either end.”

Pricing will be a big factor in the Pre’s success or failure, but that isn’t being announced for now. Since the phone is due to launch before the end of the second quarter of this year on the Sprint network in the U.S. – “And we’re running out of second quarter,” said Tremblay – we should shortly get a preview of how the Pre performs in the States a few months before it launches here.

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