Why Some Developers Think the Palm Pre Could Upstage the iPhone

By Darryl K. Taft  |  Posted 2009-04-27

Why Some Developers Think the Palm Pre Could Upstage the iPhone

Will the Palm Pre be the device to challenge not only the coolness, but the functionality and elegance of the iPhone? Some developers respond with a resounding yes.

Ian McFarland, a principal and vice president of technology at Pivotal Labs, which is a consultancy specializing in Web and mobile development, said he first started talking to Palm about the Pre last November, and "we realized it was not just another me-too platform."

McFarland said he grudgingly waited in line to get a glimpse of the Pre at the Consumer Electronics Show in January, "but I came out really impressed," he said.

"It has a first-class user experience, and one thing that stood out for us was the ease of development for the platform because it's based on Web technology-HTML, CSS and JavaScript," McFarland said of the Pre.


Indeed, the Palm Pre's WebOS operating system and Mojo Software Development Kit (SDK) enable developers to use familiar Web technologies to create applications, without having to learn different languages or technologies.

"That made it easy to build applications quickly and not have them feel like second-class applications," McFarland said, noting that up to now, many of the applications built with Web technology did not come off as rich as those built with native or custom technology.

Moreover, "all the little annoyances I have with my iPhone were made plain," McFarland said. "I really didn't even know I had these 'annoyances,' until I started playing around with the Pre. But it showed me that you are able to really multitask on a mobile phone. Going from e-mail to do something else is a hassle on other devices, but with the Pre you can have different applications open with multiple views. And notifications are handled elegantly. Meanwhile, BlackBerry, the iPhone and all the others have pain points."

"It's got a real multitasking OS [operating system]; Android gets closest, but it doesn't have the ease of use the Pre does."

Added McFarland, "Any time you can look at an iPhone and the Pre device and say this is much better, that's disruptive. It's a beautiful little device," he said of the Pre.

Not only does it provide a good user experience, but it also makes for a good developer experience, McFarland said.

"It has nice developer tools," he said. "And while it's hard to do test-driven development [TDD] on the iPhone and BlackBerry, we like to do TDD and we like how we can do TDD on the Pre. And the fact that it's JavaScript and you're dealing with a scripting-oriented language means you don't have to deal with long compile times. It opens up development to a lot more developers. It's very declarative and has a powerful tool set," McFarland said.

He noted that Pivotal Labs will be responsible for several applications that will be available when Palm makes the Pre generally available to the public, which could be as soon as May. McFarland said Pivotal is creating a Pre application of its own and is working on four other applications under contract with third-party organizations that will ship them under their own brands. Pivotal has 10 developers dedicated to Pre application development, with two additional developers on call to pitch in when needed.

Why Some Developers Think the Palm Pre Could Upstage the iPhone

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McFarland said he believes the Pre can become the next great enterprise-class device. "I think it's a great fit for that space," he said. "Palm already has some penetration in that area. And the Pre delivers an easy tool set to develop against. If you're developing for an enterprise and you're taking Web services back ends and tying them to AJAX [Asynchronous JavaScript and X M L] front ends, you can take exactly the same skill set and build applications for this platform. It's going to be a really good fit for custom apps for the enterprise, and for Web app developers in particular to do custom apps."

Palm has said the Pre is the first in a series of devices that will use the WebOS. However, the company has not said, as has Google with Android, that the operating system will eventually run on netbooks. Yet, "there's nothing that would preclude it from doing that," McFarland said. "It should be fully portable."

Moreover, McFarland said he believes the uptake on the Pre will be substantial once it is released. Yet, he scoffs at the notion that some say he talks up the Pre simply because Pivotal stands to make money developing applications for it. It was not a chicken or egg scenario, he said. "We chose to develop for the Pre because we believe it will be a game changer," he said. "I think we're going to make money off of it because people are going to adopt it."

Meanwhile, Mike Benjamin, CEO of FlightView, which makes a flight tracker application, said the Pre is "really one of the first mobile devices that have things that the other devices don't have-you can run tasks in the background, and that is a big deal."

FlightView is a showcase partner for Palm and the Pre.

"We've been around for 28 years in the business of tracking airplanes and providing data to people on what's going on in the sky," Benjamin said. "And mobile devices are just a great thing for our business" because they enable users to have quick and easy access to data. FlightView provides its applications on the iPhone and the BlackBerry, among other devices.

Yet, "we think with the advantages of the Pre, it's going to be the best flight tracker out there," Benjamin said, noting the multitasking capabilities of the device.

In addition, developing for the Pre is a cinch for the 30-person company, Benjamin said. "We're building a special version of our software for the Pre. It has a lot of the same features as the other versions, except the maps have been customized and the user interface is a little different. The flow of what you do is similar, but the look is customized.

"With the iPhone you've got to have a guy who's an Objective-C wizard, and we didn't have a lot of those guys, so it's more of an outsourcing play," Benjamin said. "The Pre is Web-based development, which is what we do anyway."

Yet, among the challenges of writing for the Pre is its newness. "You don't have a whole lot of applications you can look at to see how they handle things, but that also allows you to be creative."

A Great Feel


Benjamin agreed with McFarland on the potential uptake on the Pre, for both consumers and enterprises. "It has a great feel," he said. "It's a lot smaller than the iPhone, and it fits in your palm comfortably. It has keys, which i like. And the screen looks great and the integrations are very nice."

When asked why his company is developing applications for the Palm Pre, Evan Conway, executive vice president of marketing at Handmark, said, "Handmark has a history of developing applications on new pre-production platforms.  There is a reason why these platforms are called ?ö?ç??pre-production'-they are often unstable and the specifications [are] still changing. That is the frustrating part. The exciting part is being in early on the first phone to challenge the iPhone in terms of top-to-bottom inside-and-out innovation."

Moreover, Conway cited some of the challenges of developing for a new platform like WebOS and the Pre. "There are inherent challenges when you are developing on a pre-production platform-you don't have a wealth of tried-and-true expertise to consult, for one," he said. "But in many ways, it is exactly those constraints that make the end result all the more fulfilling. Certainly, there are times that we wished we could drop down into Java or C#, but we also built a great looking application with considerably less effort than it would take on many other platforms."

Handmark is a provider of entertainment, information and productivity applications for mobile phones. The first application the company will be providing for the Palm Pre will be Express Stocks. "The name should speak for itself," Conway said. "Stocks-fast and easy." Handmark provides applications for Apple iPhone, Android, Windows Mobile, Symbian S60, BREW, BlackBerry, Java and Palm OS.

Todd Williams, vice president of technology and co-founder of Genuitec, which has been eyeing the Pre and its developer platform, said, "The Pre is the only phone that fully embraces the belief system that mobile Web applications are the way that enterprise mobile content will be delivered going forward. And the mobile Web is the only programming model for the Pre. WebOS is basically a WebKit-based browser that has been expanded into a complete operating system. Thus, the 'native' programming model for the Pre is HTML5/CSS3/JavaScript. There is no other model. Mojo is a JavaScript framework that provides easy integration and access with all ?ö?ç??on phone' content [contacts, calendar, etc.] so applications as rich as any phone's native applications can be built with modern Web technologies."

Williams noted that he believes developing for the Pre will present fewer challenges to developers than developing for other mobile platforms because there are "no funky subsets of Java to use [Java ME or Android's Java SE minus random stuff] or native languages [Objective-C and XCode for iPhone or C++ for Symbian].  What millions of developers need to know, they already know: HTML5/CSS3/JavaScript.  All standardized and ready to go."

John Jackson, vice president of research at CCS Insight, agrees with Williams.

Asked why develop for the Pre, Johnson said:

"The short answer is WebOS, which should be development-friendly to a universe of Web developers. This contrasts with competitive environments that tend to require a higher degree of technical proficiency for developers, and may have more proprietary developer tool sets.

"I think you'll see the Pre attract lots of innovation just on the basis of its super-geeky cool architecture. The Pre is a from-the-ground-up build of a Web environment on a mobile phone, and in this way, it's absolutely cutting edge. So, as Palm has said, anyone familiar with CSS, HTML and X M L-and that's a lot of people-should find development intuitive."

Yet, when it comes to challenges, Johnson said he sees a different set of challenges for Palm. "The challenge is to hold developers' interest," he said. "Apple does this magnificently by wrapping the platform in a commercial juggernaut that gives developers a clear path to revenue and massive transaction volume assurance. Nobody else comes close. So for Palm and all other aspiring competitors, cool and cutting edge only get you so far. You need to create revenue for both developers and the channel-in this case, Sprint. That's a function of unit volumes and transaction volumes [application usage]."

As for his expectations for the immediate success of the Pre, Johnson told eWEEK:

"I think its sales profile at Sprint will resemble that of the G1 at T-Mobile. They'll capture a good portion of whatever high end user base remains at Sprint as well as some of the technoratti. But it's unlikely the device will attract significant high-value defectors from other carriers as the iPhone has done for AT&T. Furthermore, Palm/Sprint will be coming to market on the eve of the next iPhone launch, which we expect in June. So there are significant positioning and channel challenges. These could be offset or mitigated with a 3G variant of the Pre launched in other markets such as Europe."  


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