Problems with the Palm Pre

The new Palm Pre just debuted.  Here's the coverage at Engadget.

This announcement, for your reference, comes after multiple years of false starts on products like the Foleo, a slightly harebrained idea to tether a shell of a keyboard and screen to the phone (it's not completely insane actually, just not a timely idea) and the completely decrepit Palm OS, which should have been overhauled years ago.  Palm practically invented the smartphone, but it entered some sort of dark period for years where it couldn't get beyond its original technological roots.  People have been waiting for something big out of Palm for a LONG time … and they got it last week.

For your reference, I've used Palm products for a long time.  I really liked my Palm Treo 650,  before the technological limitations of the thing caused me to switch to a new phone.  However, in terms of productivity … being able to access my key applications quickly, synchronize with Outlook, and fill in the gaps with third party software that actually did the job correctly … nothing did it better.  My current phone, a Sprint Touch, is somehow less usable and slower … even though it has vastly more hardware power and is native Windows Mobile.

The Pre is in a tough spot tho.  What niche does it occupy?  The iPhone already has a first mover advantage with two generations of the "usable and cool smartphone" product under its belt … so when it comes to the Pre, it's hard to see how the product is going to dislodge the iPhone from its particular niche.  I don't see Palm taking over the image and style motivator from Apple.  To Palm's credit, the phone at least does not seem to drop the ball on that front.

The Pre will have some refinements to usability here and there that surpass the iPhone.  However, it's too early to tell at this point what those would be.  It's also not easy to imagine a lot of headroom is available on this front to sway potential buyers.

The key differentiator we do have from the iPhone is that an open platform allows application developers to go hog wild.  This sounds promising.  However, with a healthy development ecosystem already up and running on the iPhone, some of that impact is blunted.  On top of that … Android OS phones, starting with the T-Mobile G1, are also looking to occupy this space.  So Palm will be splitting the whole "open platform" market with another major player.

Last, the Pre is rolling out on Sprint.  God bless em, I love my 30/month Sprint plan, but you aren't exactly blowing out to a ton of users by rolling out on them.  This seems to be an issue of AT&T got the iPhone, T-Mobile got the G1, so Sprint had to get the Pre.

So really, we're left with the same question … what niche does the Palm Pre occupy?  Anyone concerned about style or going with simple brand momentum picks the iPhone.  A large portion of those thinking slightly geekier and liking lots of options on their phones are going to go Android.  The carrier being Sprint cuts down the pie even further.

I have a hard time seeing anyone buy the Pre except for former Palm users who really appreciated the phones (a group which I do happen to be a part of).  The rest will have to happen by word of mouth.  Is that a big enough market to sustain them?  Unfortunately, I don't know enough about the smartphone market to answer that question, but I'm certainly wondering about it.

At some point, I need to blog about what makes a perfect phone.  I will say that the Pre, from a hardware perspective, looks pretty great to me, so there is that!

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