Palm Pre vs. Apple iPhone: how they stack up

Moribund Palm, in danger of becoming just a Windows Mobile running dog with lackluster handhelds, seems to have scored with its introduction this week of the Palm Pre 3G smartphone, powered by the new webOS operating system. But how does it stack up against Apple’s iPhone?

Watch a slideshow where we pit the BlackBerry Storm vs. the iPhone.

For the Pre, Palm created a more capable Web browser than its previous offerings. And the company seems to have designed the phone to be smoothly and deeply integrated with the Web sites, data and applications mobile users increasingly rely upon.

Overall, the Pre seems to be a match for the iPhone in many areas. The question is whether Palm’s Web integration focus represents a “user experience” advance that can draw and hold end users.

“It’s not an iPhone killer, nor a BlackBerry killer, but it doesn’t need to be,” says Avi Greengart, research director, mobile devices, for Current Analysis, who spent about an hour actually using a Pre. “It builds on Palm’s heritage of building the best personal information management devices. And they’re extending this beyond a single data store, to all the places [on the Web] where you have information, like LinkedIn or seven different e-mail accounts.”

The Pre’s new operating system is the basis of a user interface that matches the high standard set by Apple’s iPhone, according to Greengart. “They didn’t take an existing mobile OS and [rework it to] make it touchable,” he says. “They designed it from the ground up knowing that you’d be using a finger. They did a very good job with the UI.”

The phone and software were unveiled at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. Palm Pre (pronounced “pree”) is due out by mid-2009 exclusively via Sprint, which has not yet released pricing for the phone.

Here are the basic specifications:

Several things stand out about the Pre, based on the live demos and reactions by bloggers and pundits.

Display: The Pre has a big screen: 3.1 inches, with 320×480 pixels. That compares to the 3.5-inch iPhone screen, also at 320×480. Apple touts the 163 pixels per inch of the display; a Palm PR spokeswoman had no details of the Pre’s ppi number. Like the iPhone, Pre has an accelerometer and displays can switch from vertical to horizontal modes just by turning the phone.

Support for gestures: the lower part of the Pre’s screen supports gestures, not just single touches. With the Pre, you can brush a finger over the screen to clear away an application or file, for example. That’s not quite the same as the iPhone’s multi-touch screen, but there seems to be some similarity.

Wireless: 3G cellular and Wi-Fi (as well as Bluetooth): all wireless, all the time, like the iPhone.

Web integration: this is an area that needs more exploring, and a lot more information from Palm, which seems to be taking a much different tack than Apple in this area.

Palm has released little information so far about its new Web-standards-based OS for the Pre. Developers can leverage existing skills in Cascading Style Sheets, XHTML, JavaScript and other standards to build Pre applications. Palm promises an on-device application store to support over-the-air access and downloads of these applications, analogous to Apple’s App Store marketplace. But Palm hasn’t released details yet of how it will work, how developers will participate or how applications will be priced.

Palm has already begun exploiting webOS, with the Synergy synchronization framework. Synergy can pull contact, calendar and other information from your online Web accounts and social networking sites to create a unified, up-to-date “database” on the Pre. The idea seems to be: plug the Pre into the Web cloud, leverage Web standards and interfaces to extend, in effect, the individual user interface across multiple sites. That way, you can not only link to but integrate and synthesize multiple sources of Web data and Web services.

That’s a step ahead of the iPhone, which also ties into a service infrastructure (App Store, iTunes, as well as the MobileMe services). But MobileMe is a separate Web service offered by Apple, not a way of exploiting other services on the Web. Even the Android OS implemented in T-Mobile’s G1 phone and more recently Kogan Technologies’ Angora, though it has some elements of Palm’s approach, emphasizes integrating with a single Web-based service platform — Google — in contrast to what seems to be Palm’s more expansive embrace of the Web.

Web browsing: Palm seems to have created a more effective mobile Web browser that looks to rival the ease of use of Apple’s Safari browser on iPhone. But so far Palm has released very little information about this. How Pre and iPhone compare in other areas:

Cellular interface and carrier: for Pre, you’ll have to go to Sprint (EV-DO Rev A), as with iPhone you have to use AT&T. According to J.D. Powers’ research, Sprint and AT&T are consistently in the lower-end of almost every wireless telecom category in almost every region of the United States. But that hasn’t stopped Apple and AT&T from signing a lot of iPhone users.

The Pre will feature an array of on-device Sprint services, according to Palm, among them, Sprint TV, Sprint Navigation for GPS-enabled turn-by-turn directions, and several streaming radio applications (one being Sprint Radio, with more than 150 channels).

Cost: Nothing has been released for pricing on the Pre. For iPhone, with the required two-year contract, the 8MB model is around $200.

Enterprise-readiness: The enterprise is not a major focus for either Palm or Apple. The Pre, like the iPhone, supports Microsoft Exchange Active Sync to connect with corporate Exchange servers. But the iPhone also supports Cisco’s VPN client and Wi-Fi Protected Access 2 (WPA 2) for WLAN connections.

Media: both support an array of current audio, image and video standard formats.

Right now, the biggest disappointment with the Palm Pre is the lack of information from Palm about the details, which people are clearly hungry for.

Apple’s corporate ethos is “we’re cool and you’re not, use the product and bask in the coolness.” Palm has the opportunity to crystallize a new corporate ethos more suited to the Web’s democratic openness, and more importantly, to the Web’s sense of that “Star Trek” adventurousness of boldly going where no man has gone before. Just take the users along for the ride, too.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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