iPhone vs. Palm Pre: It's Still War!

By  |  Tuesday, March 17, 2009 at 11:37 pm

Hulk HoganGoing into this morning’s Apple iPhone 3.0 unveiling, one of the biggest questions of the year in the world of tech was how Palm’s upcoming Pre phone would stack up against the iPhone. The Pre looks like it’ll be the most interesting and imaginative new smartphone to date that isn’t an iPhone, and the only one with a software platform that has a shot at out-innovating Apple. (I have high hopes for Google’s Android over the long haul, but if that OS changes everything, it’ll have to do it on a handset that’s more groundbreaking than T-Mobile’s G1.)

Now that we have a better sense of the iPhone software that the Pre will compete with when it shows up–I’m guessing that the Pre’s planned launch time frame of the first half of the year and iPhone 3.0’s summer release will result in both showing up around the same time–it still looks like the competition between the two phones will be fierce and fun.

With iPhone 3.0, Apple is bringing its phone up to parity with the Pre, more or less, in terms of mundane features like cut and paste, MMS, and search. The basics of the iPhone interface, however, aren’t changing much–with the exception of the nicely done cut-and-paste finger maneuvers, iPhone 3.0 is visually and conceptually identical to iPhone 2.1. That leaves Palm with an edge in terms of fresh ideas, such as the Pre’s “card”-based multitasking user interface and hooks into social networking sites like Facebook.

iPhone is likely to maintain an overwhelming advantage in terms of available applications that make it really useful to all sorts of people–there are 25,000 of ‘em already, versus none for the Pre. Even if Palm does a solid job of building a platform and software distribution channel that appeal to developers, it’ll likely be a long, hard slog to get anywhere close to where the iPhone is after less than two years on the market. I think developers are still gunshy about pouring resources into a Palm product–since the Pre was announced, I tend to ask phone software companies I chat with if they plan to support the Pre, and the most encouraging response I’ve gotten is “maybe.”

Service? Both AT&T and Sprint seem to inspire plenty of love-hate relationships among their customers, although there’s enough evidence that Sprint has a strong data network that I’m curious whether the Pre will be avoid some of the iPhone’s AT&T-related challenges.

That leaves hardware. We know that the Pre is trying to compete with the iPhone by being different, not similar: It’s a smaller, more phone-like device with a slide-out keyboard. I’m guessing that iPhone admirers will continue to be partial to its larger screen and full-touch interface, and that a lot of folks who aren’t so sure about on-screen keyboards will find the Pre’s real keys alluring. I’d call it a wash. Except…

We really don’t know what iPhone hardware will be shipping this summer when version 3.0 of the OS is scheduled to arrive. Odds are there will be something new, but it could be a minor refresh, or a great leap forward. Or a whole family of phones including one that’s more Pre-like than the current model. It’s impossible to have an educated opinion about whether the Pre stands a chance of being a better phone than the iPhone until we know what iPhone it’ll compete with.

Of course, the standard disclaimers about the Pre apply: We can’t judge it based on demos, it could ship late, and it’ll have to be a big hit to restore Palm to vibrant long-term health. For that matter, it could be a huge hit by Palm and Sprint standards and still be a vastly smaller one than the iPhone. Whatever happens, I’m looking forward to getting enough hands-on time with both phones to come to some definitive conclusions…

 
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20 Comments For This Post

  1. Tim F. Says:

    How come no one ever mentions the Pre’s iPod functionality or its iTunes desktop software or its iTunes Music Store? Palm does have these, right? They aren’t struggling to copy 5 year old features, are they?

  2. Daniel Says:

    Tim F,

    Why would Pre need “iPod functionality” when it has an awesome music player that does virtually everything the iPod does. No need to copy anything there.
    Why would Pre need iTunes desktop software when it syncs with iTunes when you plug into any PC or Mac, not to mention drag and drop MP3 capabilities! Does iPhone have drag and drop? Not sure, but regardless, again no need to copy anything there.
    Why would Pre need an iTunes music store when it will have an Amazon Music store and a Sprint Music store, which combined will be just as big or bigger than iTunes Music store, not to mention with download speeds that are almost twice as fast (fact: mobile speed tests clock ATT 3G service at 200 kps, Sprint 3G service at 389 kps)! Again, no need to copy a thing!

    But here is a good question: Why does Apple need to release “iPhone 3.0″ at all? Answer: They realize that there is somebody else out there that has more, better, faster features (even after iPhone 3.0, haha)!
    iPhone 3.0, which is really just a glorified firmware update, contains features that the iPhone 2.0 should have already had – example: MMS, cut/paste, third party push – all which most Sprint smartphones and Palm Pre have already demonstrated!

    The only advantage iPhone has over Pre is it’s enormous App Store (that’s full of junkie, useless apps), and to be fair, the Palm WebOS app catalog was just created 2 months ago.

    Face it, it’s time to stop being an iPhone groupie.

  3. Michael Says:

    Let’s hear it for competition. That said, I’d be worried if I had money invested in Palm. Lots of buzz, but no shipping product and the market leader about to rev their product.

  4. tom b Says:

    Last I checked, Pre didn’t have a real SDK; it was all “web widgets”. Have they fixed that?

  5. Synthmeister Says:

    The problem for Pre isn’t whether or not Pre is better, the problem is that Apple already has 30 million iPhone/iPod touch OS groupies and Pre has none. Developers simply don’t develop for nonexistent platforms. Their dev tools and OS are going to have to be spectacular.

    Second, from what I understand, the PreOS, while very innovative in many ways, can’t really support feature rich apps like the iPhone OS. For example, games like “Metal Gear” will be near impossible on the Pre.

    Furthermore both Pre and Sprint are on financial life support. That’s very bad considering that Apple has a huge head start AND a huge pile of cash AND a huge developers group AND a huge app store. They apps may or may not be crap but the app store alone is headed towards $1 billion in revenue by 2010. Palm, Google, RIM, Nokia and Microsoft can only fantasize about that kind of software revenue. In less than two years Apple is generating $4 billion per year from its iPhone division.

    Finally, the peripherals market is also HUGE for the iPhone and the 3.0 upgrade will only add gasoline to the explosion. For example have you seen this?:

    http://www.alesis.com/protrack
    No one else is anywhere close to this kind of innovation for other smartphones.

    The iPhone may or may not be just a shiny bauble. That isn’t the problem. Apple has already created an entire universe around the iPhone and that universe is generating tons of cash for Apple, developers and peripheral makers. Meanwhile, Sprint is two years too late to the party and stuck with the smallest telco in one country.

  6. Steve Says:

    @Daniel,

    It’s kind of funny to hear people talk about the Pre as if it were an actual product. Right now, it’s vaporware. Palm put on nice demo that demonstrated a few specific things. We won’t know how the Pre does as a phone until it hits the market and gets put through it’s paces in the real world. That’s when the real criticism starts to come.

    Palm didn’t go into great detail with regard to multimedia capabilities and how it will compare to the iPhone’s iPod like features. Surely, if they had something better, they would have tried to demonstrate that.

    No product is perfect. Palm made waves because it was an iPhone like product that also delivered MMS, Copy & Paste, stereo Bluetooh, etc. Apple just nullified that potential advantage with the iPhone 3.0 announcement.

    Palm’s only software advantage is the ability to run user defined background apps. But, as Apple mentioned, let’s see how well the Pre fares with regard to battery life. Running jobs in the background kills the battery life, even in standby mode.

    The major disadvantages are being tied to Sprint (btw, the tests vary wildly from location to location and Sprint has less coverage overall). The Pre will be limited to web applications. We all saw how well that went when Apple tried that. In short, it won’t be able to compete with the native applications offered on the iPhone. To your point, when you have 25,000 apps some of them will be junk. However, there are a ton of great apps out there and the development momentum is squarely behind the iPhone right now. For that matter, the who ecosystem of accessory makers are squarely behind the iPod/iPhone.

    I expect the Pre may be enough to save Palm from extinction, but that’s a far shot from being in iPhone killer.

  7. Simon Says:

    From what I have seen/heard of the Pre, it looks promising and it is currently my phone of choice if it were availbale based on what we have seen and heard. I am very excited to see what it can do in the real world once it gets released.

  8. Sanjiv Says:

    I keep hearing people saying iPhone has a head start. Thats right but when you have innovative products the head start is not of that much importance. There was already a lot of competition in the smart phones market when iPhone (a very innovative product) first came out. Even though it did not have some of the basic features like copy paste, MMS etc it still was able to capture the market in a matter of a year or so.
    Similarly Pre is a very innovative product. Lets just wait till its out. The multitasking feature + keyboard + removable battery + a real phone + all the other little bells and whistles that are not there even in iPhone 3.0 will be enough for it to give it a good boost as compared to iPhone.
    Also I do not agree that a supposedly few high speed games that iPhone currently has available will fare poorly on Palm pre. Did you know that Pre has a faster and better processor that iPhone which does power managennt. Its the whole experience that counts more than being able to play a few fast paced games on your phone.

  9. Steve Says:

    @Sanjiv,

    I agree that innovative products can quickly capture marketshare. In the case of the iPhone, it was an extreme departure from the status quo and received much more press than the Pre. Even with that, Apple had to struggle to carve out a nice niche.

    The most exciting thing about the Pre is that it is the most iPhone like of any Apple competitor. Sure, the original iPhone had a few glaring omissions. These were the highlights of the Pre demonstration. However, the iPhone is a moving target. The iPhone 3.0 software update negates most of the compelling arguments for the Pre over the iPhone. Similarly, you’re comparing the demo of future Palm hardware to existing shipping iPhone hardware. Surely, the next generation iPhone hardware will leap beyond what’s shipping today. Remember, Apple even bought a semiconductor (PA Semi) for the purpose of custom chips to give the iPhone / iPod a competitive advantage over what’s available to others.

    The question is, will a removable battery and slide out keyboard be enough to draw people away from the iPhone and it’s vast software platform? I’m more than doubtful of that. Palm’s best hope is a modest success enough to keep the company alive.

  10. Don Says:

    The biggest problem is that people are forgetting to ask: what about the iPhone’s multi-touch patents? Clearly, the Pre directly goes where other phone companies, including Nokia, RIM and Google’s Android fear to tread!

    Palm can bluster all it wants, but Apple is bigger, richer and can much more easily afford a legal battle with Palm! If Palm is correct and the have the right to copy Apple’s ‘zoom-to-pinch’ and other patents, then so too can every other mobile OEM! This means that Palm will soon lose out to the big players such as RIM and Nokia as they app Apple’s multi-touch patents!

    The Palm OS requires developers to limit their software to web standards, in other words, it will never be able to produce the quality that OS X can deliver in it’s apps that OS X delivers! Remember: developers first created all of their apps on web based technologies like the Pre. They did some great stuff, but when compared with the stuff developed with it’s SDK, they are all very cheap looking and inferior in performance. I expect the same with WebOS apps as compared with the iPhone’s real OS apps!

    The AppStore itself, with over 27,000 programs and 800,000,000 downloads in a mere eight months is something that no one – Palm included, has any hope in hell of really competing against! The iPhone has become the Microsoft Windows equivalent in the mobile world!

    The iPhone’s new peer-to-peer abilities makes it the true “Social” that the Zune bragged it was! Only the iPhone’s “Social” is unlimited as was and is the Zune’s to only sharing a few measly songs for a short period of time!

    There is also the big if? Meaning what if Apple reveals not one, but even several new hardware additions when the iPhone 3.0 software ships this summer? By all accounts, the iPhone 3.0 beta points to a much more business like phone that could mean, if as an option, business users could be getting a physical keyboard as well! What advantages will the Palm Pre, which was suspiciously spear headed by ex Apple employees, like John Rubenstein, have over the iPhone then?

    Also, let’s not forget Apple’s acquisition of P.A. Semi last year. By all accounts, they have been working on specialized chips for forthcoming iPhone’s that could make them cheaper, faster and more powerful than anything seen to date!

    In the end, the Pre is a phone that simply copied most of it’s advances from the iPhone. It added some cool new twists, but that’s about it.

  11. mark Says:

    At last year’s March unveiling, Apple didn’t preview the UI changes that had little consequence to app developers. So the released iPhone 2.0 had UI changes that hadn’t been seen previously.

    Based on that, I think it’s early to judge the iPhone 3.0 UI relative to Pre. App developers need not know what the App manager looks like (in the same way, Mac developers rarely see the Finder UI before the final release.)

  12. Constable Odo Says:

    Why would Apple have to lie about the battery being used up when apps are running in the background? Does anyone think they are exaggerating about the power usage? I’m sure this can easily be proved. Does anyone here believe that Apple does not know how to design an OS that can multi-task efficiently or balance it to not use up much foreground processing? That being said, why does everyone want a cellphone that can run background processes. Are people really going to do background rendering on their cellphones while their foreground app response starts to get sluggish. I’ve been told time after time that every smartphone maker allows as many background processes as you want. But is it really necessary? Does the average user even care? We are talking about what basically amounts to a low-powered cellphone and not some server.

    I’m sure many people notice how sluggish some smartphones UI’s are when doing scrolling, vertical/horizontal re-orientation or loading web pages. Maybe they’re trying to do other things in the background, so the foreground app gets slowed down. The foreground app should get 99% to 100% of the processor and what’s wrong with that. What rule says that a mobile handset really needs to run background processes? Because every OS has that capability and everyone uses it whether it’s necessary or not. If Apple is able to save battery power and still get push notification through, then that should be more than good enough for users.

    I would greatly appreciate it if someone can tell me exactly what type of app they absolutely need to run in the background and why Apple is wrong about not allowing this or just lying to say that they are trying to help users save their batteries. The iPhone is being used for some heavy duty work as it is (browsing, games, music, videos, reading) and it doesn’t have a replaceable battery. Anything to save juice will be greatly appreciated. The iPhone is in a class by itself, so why does it have to do everything the same way every other smartphone does it. Technical buffs say Apple is cheating users by holding back OS features. If iPhone users enjoy and are satisfied with the iPhone experience, then how are they being cheated.

    I don’t think the average user cares anything about the inner technical parts of the OS. They just want to get done what they need done in the foreground and have it done in an instant. Nobody wants a sluggish UI with screen loading delays. It’s very annoying to see that sort of stuff or having to keep tapping on a selection because the OS is falling behind.

  13. rattyuk Says:

    @Constable Odo

    I think there is a case for a background app that streams music from somewhere other than iTunes. You may want to listen to a radio station and email someone – or say pandora or last fm and browse.

    I also wanted to point that Apple didn’t lie about the 80% battery life loss with background apps. I’ve not gone back to check but I think they said that this figure came from testing devices that had this capability already in the market. IE not the iPhone – although I am sure they tested this.

  14. Mindtechnica Says:

    wow, any article that uses a pic of Hulk Hogan and Vince McMahon is awesome in my book. LOL

  15. BC Says:

    Palm is too late to the party, doesnt have and will never have the fan base that Apple has, not only for iPhone but for all its Products.

    Some need something original not another Apple wannabe product

  16. MS Says:

    I’ll go with the Pre. Just the features I need and with a keyboard. My husband has the IPhone and for personal use it is fine, but for texting or business purposes it isn’t a tool that I would use. Also the $30 data plan for crackberry and iphone adds up to $360 per year. I would rather save my $360 dollars per year, work with a phone that meets my needs personally and professionally, let you guys have the cool IPhone and invest my $360 anually for my retirement. Good luck to all of you cool phoners!

  17. carolinamic Says:

    MS Says:
    March 25th, 2009 at 7:16 pm
    I’ll go with the Pre. Just the features I need and with a keyboard. My husband has the IPhone and for personal use it is fine, but for texting or business purposes it isn’t a tool that I would use. Also the $30 data plan for crackberry and iphone adds up to $360 per year. I would rather save my $360 dollars per year, work with a phone that meets my needs personally and professionally, let you guys have the cool IPhone and invest my $360 anually for my retirement. Good luck to all of you cool phoners!

    has sprint even announced a data plan for the palm pre, or do they not charge data fee’s for the smartphones on their network?

  18. idiot speaking Says:

    Background processes? on a cellphone? That is ridiculous. I rather have a 100% performance and battery focused app opened than many sluggish, battery-hungry apps at once! iPhone had the biggest advantage of any phone company out there, it is an APPLE product! Apple Inc., the COMPUTER and IPOD company, made a PHONE! That got everyone hyped up! So, there are some bugs and problems with the iPhone, but so does every other phone. Don’t get me started with the Instinct and its slow OS, don’t get me started with Blackberry and its no wifi connectivity! Don’t get me started with the Palm devices and its many weird OS bugs, like random deletions of my contacts and such!

    iPhone has functionality, maybe some not as good as others, but what definitly kept iphone on the same line is MULTI-TOUCH and its UI! The device itself is also gorgeous and simple. Maybe the other phones will play catch up if they made decent looking devices, too!

    That is funny how you STILL have to COMPARE brand-new devices with the iphone that is 2 YEARS OLD! That is PROOF that the iPhone is a few-years ahead!

    Plus, your little Blacberry Storms and Palm Pres would never exist without the iPhone. It started the phone revolution and that is fact! Those that have the Storms, Pres, ect. should thank Apple for giving NEW IDEAS for the phone companies, so that YOU CAN HAVE THE PHONE YOU ARE HOLDING IN YOUR HAND RIGHT NOW!

  19. Wilson Cheung Says:

    It is good to point out that it’s really Apple that’s responsible for the Palm Pre existing. Back two years ago, before the iPhone was on sale, the other phone companies were scoffing at the iPhone. They criticized that it was way too overpriced for a phone, that it had no keyboard and what could a computer company know about selling cell phones. If the iPhone never came out and someone in Palm came out with the design of the Pre today, they’d probably be laughed out of a job. If the iPhone never came out the most exciting thing would just be a sleeker looking Treo. The iPhone was a big risk in cell phone paradigm that established cell phone companies would be nuts to take given their current success. Apple sort of had nothing to lose in the cell phone market of which they had 0% market share, so they blazed the trail and bit the bullet and took the risk of releasing something like the iPhone.

    At this point you can still criticize that it’s silly that the iPhone doesn’t have MMS. So then there must be something really fantastic that causes so many millions of people to buy this rather pricey phone to offset a deficiency such as no MMS. Apparently missing MMS on other phones would be a deal breaker, but somehow that doesn’t seem to be the case for the iPhone. The bottom line is sales numbers are undeniable. There must be something special that Apple is doing that is more than mere feature for feature shoot off stuff.

  20. zahidpro Says:

    I think developers are still gunshy about pouring resources into a Palm product–since the Pre was announced. memory foam mattress topper

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