Sunday 13 January 2019

Palm Pre (2009)

Launched January 2009

When Palm launched their Palm Pre smartphone half a decade ago, we were quite excited. Perhaps this was the phone that would have wowed consumers and changed the market forever. If it had been launched two years previously, that is.

Today, we still think the same. The Palm Pre was a brilliantly unique smartphone, which despite a few rough edges gave a user experience that was superior to anything else at the time. Designed from the ground up to be an easy-to-use multitasking operating system, the Pre’s webOS environment ran different apps as “cards” that users could swipe between easily. Comprehensive email support (which was important at the time), a decent web browser and even a reasonably large selection of apps were all available, combined with a cute curved design which made the Pre look very different from the rival iPhone. And it had wireless charging too, which was certainly a novelty for the time, and a physical keyboard set it apart from Apple's offering too.

Palm had been a pioneer – perhaps the pioneer – in early handheld computing. The Palm Pilot (launched in 1996) dominated that market segment, to the extent that the phrase “Palm Pilot” was sometimes applied to any PDA. But the rise of early smartphones such as the Sony Ericsson P900 effectively killed off standalone PDAs, and it took a while for Palm to respond with its range of PalmOS-based Treo smartphones that it acquired from rival firm Handspring.

A move into Windows phones hadn’t provided the boost that Palm was looking for, so they started to develop a completely new operating system called webOS. When it was launched in January 2009 along with the Pre, Palm still had enough market presence to have the phone dubbed an “iPhone killer” by the press (spoiler alert: it wasn’t).

Although the software environment was promising, the hardware was pretty shoddy. Palm fans who decided to be loyal to the brand were rewarded with brittle screens and cases, and keys and control sliders that would break or malfunction. This did not help sales.

The competition was also getting serious – the iPhone was in its second generation with the much improved 3GS on the way, HTC had already kick-started the Android market and Samsung was on the verge of releasing its first Galaxy smartphone. And if you didn’t want either of those, the Nokia 5800 XpressMusic was a pretty accomplished alternative. And all of those rivals had more apps to choose from than the Pre.

As good as it was – and even with the goodwill of Palm fans – the Pre was neither a success nor a failure. The Palm Pre 2 (launched nearly 2 years later) fixed many of those faults, but it was really just the product that Palm should have launched four years earlier. Even with the weight of new owners HP behind it, the entire line was heading for extinction.

WebOS eventually ended up with LG, who use it in smart TVs and other appliances, and the Palm name lives under today with the peculiar Palm Palm, made under licence by TCL who also build BlackBerry and Alcatel smartphones. Collectors of esoteric devices might be interested to know that the various generations of Pre can be picked up for between £10 to £50.

Image credits: Palm, Inc.

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