Sprint recently announced that the latest Palm OS device, the Palm Pixi, will go on sale in the U.S. on November 15th. The original Palm OS device, the Pre was released in June of this year. There has been a lot of commentary relative to the Pixi positioning. It’s got some great design features and some head scratching limitations as well.
Let’s take a closer look.
One of the things Palm has been credited for is the ‘invention’ of the ‘Candy Bar’ smartphone. They were the first with a smartphone that did voice, PDA and internet in a device that can be held and used with one hand. The first such model was the original Palm Treo 600.
The Treo was immensely popular for years as it did most of its functions very well and did so with the ability to ‘whip it out’ and use it with one hand very quickly. Eventually, however, Palm rested on their laurels, and other vendors operating systems and hardware leapfrogged the Treo line. To this day, I feel the Treo is one of the most productive smartphones on the market, but since Apple released the iPhone, ‘sex and sizzle’ is what sells, and let’s just say, the Palm OS and Treo seriously needed some Viagra.
Thus the WebOS and Palm Pre was born. (See my recent article on that here.) The WebOS and new hardware designs of Jon Rubinstein (who formally headed the iPod division at Apple) showed that Palm to could compete in the slick new smartphone space that has emerged in recent years. Smartphones have now essentially become computers that can fit in the pocket.
The first device, the Pre, was designed to ‘out slick’ the iPhone, by producing a unit that had extremely clean lines with almost no visible buttons or jacks but yet hid a fully usable ‘real’ keyboard in the device. This is the main philosophical difference between Apple and Palm. This design also allows for a fairly large screen (3.1″) in a very small and compact device. To be able to hide the keyboard meant that to use it, required the user to slide it down and start typing.
This last part can get quite annoying with heavy use. For those of us use to being able to take the smartphone out of the ‘holster’ and start using it, the need to use two hands (it’s almost impossible to do it with one without risk of dropping it), and the difficulty of holding the thin bottom part with one hand and typing, means there is no way to do a ‘quick’ check of things. For those of you who own or know people who own a Blackberry, you see them grab it, use the trackball and scan some emails very quickly, all with one hand. This is not happening with the Pre.
About two years ago, toward the end of the Palm OS life-cycle, Palm released a unit that in terms of sales numbers was their most popular single model ever. This was the Centro.
The Centro had three things going for it that prior Treo’s didn’t.
- First it was smaller and lighter than all the prior units. It was the first Palm OS device that didn’t make you feel embarrassed by the size and thickness when compared to the iPhone or Blackberry’s.
- It was very affordably priced. Depending on time and carrier, it was about $99. Prior to that Treo’s during their prime were $300+, with a contract.
- It had less capability than recently released Treo’s. Primarily that the 700p was out and was the first Treo to support 3g. It was a head scratcher when the Centro only support the slower non 3g connections. Correction, The Centro did support 3g. It didn’t on the AT&T Network
The other common complaint was that the phone was so small, that the keyboard was difficult to use compared to the Treo, especially for big fingered guys. However, the phone turned out to be a huge success. Primarily because due to the price, colors and size, it was the first decent Palm device that appealed to woman. Previously, the ‘big fat’ Treo was seen as a geeks device.
The Pixi and Pre side by side. Notice how thin the Pixi is.
So that is where we get to the new Palm Pixi. It has amazing similarities to the Centro. Many are saying the Pixi is to WebOS what the Centro was to PalmOS. The Pixi will essentially be identical to the Pre in terms of application compatibility and operation. The Pixi will ship with some new apps, including a Palm released native Facebook application which the Pre has sorely been lacking other than through third parties. This app will also be made available to existing Pre owners through a free OS update. The Pixi is actually longer than the Pre when the keyboard is not out, but when you slide out the keyboard, the Pre is longer than the pixi. Because the Pixi doesn’t need to slide away the keyboard, it is remarkably thin. It is currently the thinnest Smartphone (and one of the thinnest phones period) on the market.
So, let’s look at the three point comparison between the Pre and the Pixi.
- The Pixi is thinner and smaller than the Pre
- The Pixi is affordably priced. $99 after the various PITA rebates. (this is only $50 less than the Pre, but still less)
- The Pixi has less capabilities than the Pre
Hmm. Noticing a pattern here? This is why it’s called the Centro of the WebOS line. The Pixi will also come with an option for designer based back panels as shown here:
It’s pretty clear that this phone, like the Centro, will be successful with the female demographic as well. As a matter of fact, my wife who owns one of the plainest simplest phones around has been getting teased by the Facebooking girlfriends that she can’t even text, and this is the phone she now wants.
I also think there will be some, but not all, Pre users and those on the fence who would choose the Pixi over the Pre for the key reason I stated above, and that is that the keyboard is always there and ready versus fooling with a slider (which always seems to be the point of hardware failure on many devices.)
The reason there is alot of grumbling with Palm fanboys is this. Nobody knows if it was for cost, engineering or marketing reasons, but the Pixi is inferior to the Pre in these ways.
- It only has a 2 megapixel camera instead of 3 megapixel camera
- The Pixi has an ARM processor instead of the state of the art TI OMAP processor that the Pre (and the new Verizon Droid) uses. It’s a good processor but it is slower.
- The Pixi does NOT support wifi. This is a biggie. Especially for those of you that are in fringe coverage areas. With WIFI, you get lighting data performance and coverage in areas that the carrier may not support.
- To support the size, the screen is about 20% shorter, It has the same aspect ratio so the text will be the same size, but you can’t see as much at the same time. For most operations this should be OK unless you are watching alot of Video where the picture will have to shrink to show the whole frame. This however, is one nice thing about the WebOS design versus a fixed resolution design like the iPhone. A variety of size and form factors can come out and all the software should automatically support it since the rendering engine allows for variable window sizes and resolutions.
Personally, if Palm is listening, I would love a device that has the power of the Pre, but in a form factor that is similar to the last PALM OS device, the Treo Pro. That is, a device that is a tad wider and longer (can stay thin though) allowing for a bit more screen real-estate, but more importantly, a bigger keyboard for faster typing. Something similar to the Blackberry Tour dimensions.
So that’s it in a nutshell. The Pixi is probably going to sell well and Palm needs this in order to generate excitement among potential developers. Us smartphone geeks wish Palm didn’t make the above sacrifices as it seems that 6 months later, a phone should get more powerful, not less. But perhaps the marketing guru’s at Palm are on to something and they are merely emulating the Centro success formula. If history truly is repeating itself, then hopefully Q1/Q2 of 2010 we get the WebOS version of the TreoPro. A device that is more oriented to a business user, even if it has to sacrifice not having bragging rights to being the smallest/thinnest device. Hopefully in that time, they can also optimize some of the key productivity applications so that some of the functionality/productivity that was lost going from PalmOS to WebOS returns. I comment on those issues here.