January 13, 2009

How Palm Pre Could Change the Game

By Phil Glockner of Scribkin (FriendFeed/Twitter)

The Palm Pre has surprisingly gotten the gadget industry abuzz after being announced at CES this year, after the company had largely been given up for dead after seeing its leadership decimated. And they are working to ensure the buzz doesn't end up being a one week blip. Apparently, Sprint has been 'softening the ground' so to speak by giving Palm Centro owners a sneak peek at this new gem to ensure a excited and willing reception when the Pre is released to retail. But today I wanted to speak more about some of the user interface choices Palm made in designing the software and hardware for this phone.


The Pre is a silky little pebble of a device. When the screen is off, the shell is inviolate except for the single button and earphone grill. The back of the device is much the same, with speakerphone and camera ports. The back cover comes off to reveal the battery in case it needs to be replaced. So we have touchability covered. Yeah, I probably just invented that word. But it works.. the Pre looks touchable.

Surprise number two is a hidden keyboard. Slide the screen up and the keyboard (more of a thumb-board) is revealed. And if you look at this keyboard, you might notice a resemblance to the keyboard on the Palm Centro. I am sure this is no accident. The size and orientation tell me this is specifically to ease the transition of people off of other Palm products and on to the Pre.

There is a 3.5mm headphone jack.

On the front of the device, we have a single, centrally placed button. Visually, this may be a nod to the iPhone, but the button in fact does something quite different than the iPhone's 'home' button. Surprisingly, the button is actually the least interesting part of the area on the Pre. The smooth expanse of plastic surrounding the button is where the magic happens.

User Interface

While the iPhone has boldly wasted space around their home button in the name of asthetic pleasingness, Palm engineers have taken the concept of a 'touch area' going back all the way to the Palm Pilot and have extended the touch input sensor down around the button. This small change is at the core of the user-interface innovation on the Pre. It's extremely clever.

First, Palm probably secured a patent on gestures outside of the display area a long time ago.

Second, there is a competely mental resistance some people have to touching a surface with an image projecting through it. Think about when people at work touch your monitor screen. Doesn't that drive your crazy? I know it does me. And I have an iPhone, I'm constantly cleaning the screen. The touch area below the screen means no mental resistance to befouling the pretty display.

Third, and this is the big one, having these areas do the same magic no matter where you are in the interface means that they could get away with all sorts of interface cues, close and minimize buttons, menus, etc. When you sensitize yourself to what you are seeing when you watch one of the Pre OS demos, you will notice this. Applications only have content in them, no UI elements. When an app is relegated to a 'card' (what Pre calls an app running minimized or in the background), no controls appear. The Pre OS has the most invisible user interface of any smartphone currently out there.


The last big game changer I am going to touch on is Palm's focus on what they call 'synergy.' They designed the Pre OS from the ground up to be aware of applications that live online (or 'in the cloud' or 'software as a service,' etc.) Apps like Google Mail, AOL Instant Messenger and MobileMe calendar sharing. But support for these things aren't bolted-on like they might be in an older, more established mobile OS. No, they are integrated so tightly that the apps combine all the information from these various sources and present to you a unified view.

In the world of online calendaring, this has been done for a while. Most calendaring applications have had the ability to display a full or filtered view of multiple overlaying calendars for years now. But how about your phonebook pulling in not only your email addressbook, but your buddy lists and other sources and then intelligently combining the results? How about an instant messaging application that not only shows you a combined view from AIM, Yahoo! IM, Google Talk, etc. but also shows you when you get an SMS in the same interface, or lets you choose how to send a message to your friend, via IM or SMS? And threads the resulting conversation together seamlessly? Now you are getting the picture.


Not a game changer, but worth noting. The OS lets you open and run any of its apps simultaneously. From a workflow perspective, this is essential and something the Blackberry gets right as well. The iPhone? Not so much.


What Palm has done here is fundamental stuff. It may not be as flashy as some other phones, but its real meat-and-potatoes work that will pay off big in the long run for them. Why? Wait until the phone is released. Get one and use it for a week. Then try to go back to your iPhone or Blackberry. You will find yourself wondering why your old phone is slow, or clumsy, or doesn't do something so simple you got used to it in 5 minutes on the Pre.

Final thought: When you remove the back cover to expose the battery, it appears that the battery is thicker than base of the phone (the part that doesn't slide up and down). How do they do that? The only thing I can think of is they have a hollow space behind the screen that allows the battery to intrude a bit. Fascinating.

Read more by Phil Glockner at Scribkin.com.