The nationwide launch of the Palm Pre on Saturday was more like a soft launch compared to the crowds that lined up to buy new iPhones. But Palm enthusiasts nonetheless gathered outside Sprint Nextel Inc. stores and other retailers in the hopes of being among the first with the highly anticipated smartphones.
For many buyers, the purchase of a Pre with its new WebOS, was a good investment in an exciting new smartphone, but also a way to support ailing Palm Inc. and even wireless carrier Sprint.
"As an original Palm Pilot user, I want to support Palm and see them make it, but this Pre is also just a bloody cool device," said Skip Tannen of Upton, Mass. He said he liked the way it felt in his hands, and was especially impressed with the QWERTY keyboard, instead of the touchsreen on the iPhone, which he also uses.
Tannen, an IT operations engineer at Babson College in Wellesley, Mass., waved his arms in victory holding his newly purchased Pre high as he left a Sprint store in Framingham, Mass, about 20 miles west of Boston. He was the first in line at 8 a.m. when the store opened, having left his home three hours earlier.
A Sprint spokesman characterized the launch in East Coast cities as "a nice flow of customers," with some stores attracting crowds of 40 to 50 people waiting to get in at 8 a.m. when many stores opened.
"Our service reps have been able to spend time with customers to set up the new Palm Pre and make sure they know how to ... use the features," said spokesman Mark Elliott.
Sprint sells the device for $200 after a $100 mail-in rebate, plus a two-year service agreement. Elliott, who was stationed at a store in lower Manhattan, said that by 11 a.m., there had been a steady line of customers at several East Coast stores he'd heard from.
In downtown Boston, there was still a line of about 15 people outside the Sprint store two hours after it had opened. According to Boston.com, the store sold out of its 55 Pres by 11 a.m. At at a Framingham Best Buy, where the $100 rebate is automatic, a store manager was waiting outside before the official opening to give Pre buyers a ticket to come back for activation at 10 a.m. He said most Best Buys only had three or four of the devices, and characterized the first day of sales as a "soft launch." At 9 a.m., he still had tickets available for two Pres.
Sprint would not say how many devices were available nationwide, although the Framingham Sprint store had sold at lease 20 Pres in the first 90 minutes, based on the number of customers seen leaving with one device. Sprint will replenish its stock, depending on when Palm makes them available, the spokesman said.
Seven successful Pre buyers who were interviewed at the Framingham store said they wanted a new smartphone with a bright screen and a hardware keyboard. Of those, four said they were willing to switch from Verizon Wireless and AT&T to do so. All of them said they had tried the iPhone, or owned one, and wanted a hardware keyboard instead of a touchscreen, finding the touchscreen hard to use.
Some had more specific interests, including learning about the Pre to consider writing applications for it that Palm would sell in its application storefront, called the App Catalog.
Adam Cooperman of Boston, who works for a health insurance company, said he wanted to get access to Palm's Software Developer Kit (SDK) to try to market a simple personal productivity application. "If it sells, great, but if not, then I have it for myself," he said.
Cooperman was one of the first to buy a Pre, and had to switch his wireless carrier to Sprint from T-Mobile USA. Minutes after he purchased the smartphone, the screen went blank. He quickly returned it for another, and said it was "probably something minor." Sprint officials said they knew of no similar widespread problems with the new Palm Pre hardware.
Jennifer Stoner, a private tutor from Newton, Mass., said she was hoping the Pre would not pose battery problems for her, since she had read early reviews saying it would work for five hours on a charge. "I need eight hours, as I'm driving around," she said. She uses a solar-powered charger that she stores in her car to keep her cell phone powered up.
Stoner was undecided about buying the Touchstone, a hockey puck-shaped charging dock offered by Palm that requires no cables and sells for $70. "I'm undecided on the Touchstone, even though it's adorable," she said, laughing.
Stoner, like several others at the Framingham store, is a longtime Palm user. Her current Treo smartphone is four years old and needs to be replaced. "I hope the Pre helps Palm, since Palm has always had the greatest apps," she said. A Pre will also impress her students, she said, giving her the ability to quickly browse for facts and information.
"A lot of my students are Korean, [and] they all have the latest phones and know devices," she said.
Richard Rosmarin, another longtime Palm user, said he was eager to have a multitasking smartphone like the Pre so that he could read his e-mail while also listening to music from it in the background. "Of course my wife asked me if having this Pre is critical to my life, but I'm getting it anyway," he said.
Rosmarin, a restructuring consultant at Cornerstone Management LLC in Wellesley, Mass., has followed the fates of Palm and Sprint for a long time. "Sprint needs something like the Pre, since they've lost customers recently," he said. "They need a cool device with pizzazz like this."
Anne-Marie Kenney, an assistant dean of student life at Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass., said having the Pre would help her sort through e-mail from Google, Yahoo and others more quickly in a common interface.
She smiled as she also bragged to people waiting in line that she could sync the Pre to iTunes to get access to about 1,000 songs she has there. Even if Apple Inc. decides to turn off that sync capability soon, she said, she will sync them as soon as she can to have all the songs available on her Pre.
Apple has not commented on plans to disrupt the Pre's sync capability with iTunes, although analysts predict Apple will either sue Palm or write the iTunes software to stop the Pre syncing. Palm has defended the sync capability as making it easy for Pre users to access their purchased songs, however.
The Pre customers who switched service from Verizon Wireless and AT&T Inc. said they found the Pre compelling enough to buy it now, rather than wait at least half a year before either competitor sells the Pre.
Verizon announced plans to sell the Pre and AT&T has said it is interested, although the expiration date of the Sprint deal as the exclusive Pre carrier is still up in the air. CEO Dan Hesse suggested Friday that the exclusive deal might last beyond the end of the year, although David Owens, director of Sprint consumer marketing said later it was through the end of year.
Elliott, the Sprint spokesman, attempted to rationalize both of those predictions today by saying, "What we've been saying is that the exclusive with Palm Pre lasts through at least the end of the year."
Nick Barber of the IDG News Service in Boston contributed to this report.