CES 2009: Palm Unveils Stunning New OS & Smartphone

There are caveats but this could be the stand-out news of CES 2009...

OK, perhaps the most vital keynote for any company at CES in 2009 comes from Palm – a company surely headed only one way (and fast) if it doesn’t get this right. We were expecting the company’s long overdue new mobile OS and a new touchscreen handset with a sliding physical keyboard. So is it live or die time? I’ll tell you what – I think it may just scrape through…

In short the Palm keynote was a triumph with the struggling company announcing a remarkably polished looking mobile platform and an impressive handset that is a kind of hybrid iPhone, T-Mobile G1 and INQ1. So let’s cut to it.

First let’s get the hardware out the way first. It’s called the Palm Pre and as expected it combines a 3.1in 320 x 480 touchscreen display (capacitive and multi-touch capable thankfully) and vertical physical sliding Qwerty keyboard. Closed the design is somewhat like a rounded, almost soap bar-esque, iPhone and the keyboard looks similar to that found on the bold. It’s slightly curved when open and packs in EDGE, GPS, WiFi, 8GB of storage, 3MP camera with LED flash, Bluetooth 2.1 EDR with A2DP, a 3.5mm headphone jack, removable battery, accelerometer and “fast” new TI OMAP 3430 CPU. Weight is a smidgen on the heavy side at 149.3g but livable.

Now the real news however: ‘Web OS’. This is Palm’s long overdue, Android-snubbing, bet-the-farm platform on which the company’s future hangs – drum roll… it’s ”good”, it’s REALLY GOOD!’

Certainly surpassing expectations of everyone in the keynote, Web OS is a cross between mobile OS X, Android and that of the INQ1 and it really does seem to cherry pick the best parts of each. There’s smart contact aggregation which seamlessly combines data and photography from social networking sites with your existing contacts, apps which happily run in the background, sharp performance, support for multi-touch pinching to zoom in and out, swiping to move between photos and back and forth between apps and it’s all built using standard web tools so Ajax, Java and Html programmers can happily design for it.

As you might expect however, the killer aspect is the UI and this is where Web OS shines. iPhone users will be immediately familiar with the basic navigation gestures and Android fans will recognise the ability to swipe open the main menu of application icons but where things take a different – and potentially superior – turn is in ‘Cards’.

Much like shuffling through a hand of playing cards (I believe browser tabs to be a better analogy) users can swipe between their apps, reorder and drag them to the top of the screen to close them. Most impressively though is that all Cards remain operational at all times, so they can be controlled from this view and notifications such as new emails, IMs and text messages are unobtrusive to the user appearing at the bottom of the screen where they can be swiped to dismiss or touched to access.

A ‘Conversation’ stream also takes threaded messaging to the next level combining all forms of communication with a contact (text, IM, phone call records, etc) into a single unified stream. The browser is also full screen and operates just like that of the iPhone with full page rendering, pinching zoom controls and double tapping to snap to text.

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