CES: Palm Pre features touch screen, new OS

Gestures feature is part of smart phone's new interface, built on new Palm Web OS

LAS VEGAS -- Palm Inc. today announced a new operating system running on a new smart phone called the Palm Pre, which will ship by July exclusively on the Sprint Nextel Inc. 3G network.

In an elaborate demonstration before hundreds of reporters at the International CES, Palm executives called the new operating system, dubbed the Palm webOS, the basis for development of future Palm devices and applications in the next decade.

The new phone features a touch screen with a slideout QWERTY keyboard, although many of the functions don't rely on touching a button. Instead, users will employ gestures similar to some on the Apple iPhone, such as flicking fingers or pinching them together, although Palm seems to expanded their usage. For example, to finish a text message, picture or application, the user flicks the application off the screen to the top, and it is automatically stored without the need to find a button to store it.

Palm Pre
The Palm Pre is slated to be available from Sprint in the first half of this year.

Palm officials said they are trying to limit the way most smart phones require users to open and store each application before moving to another, likening the navigation in the interface to using a stack of playing cards that a user shuffles and sorts. With the new Palm webOS innovation, users can quickly move from application to application, they said, in a system dubbed "Synergy."

The arrival of the phone and operating system were eagerly anticipated by some analysts, especially since Palm has been criticized for taking so long to develop the new platform.

With stiff competition from other smart phones, the originator of the Palm Pilot device had been under pressure to offer a better, more innovative device. Several analysts said they wanted to use the new device before passing judgment on it.

Independent analyst Jeffrey Kagan called the Palm Pre demonstration impressive and said the Web browsing capability looked like a "big improvement" over prior Palm devices. "Traditional Palm users should be very happy," he said. Whether the device helps Palm stay competitive, however, is another question that remains to be answered once it ships.

The new Pre (pronounced PREE) has a curved shape and a 3.1-in. touch display with 320-by-480 resolution. It comes with EV-DO wireless wide-area access, as well as Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and 8GB of storage. The back is removable to replace the battery. It weighs 4.8 ounces and at 2.35 inches wide, 3.96 inches long and 0.67 inches thick, is slightly smaller than other popular smart phones. It also includes a 3-megapixel camera.

Palm also announced a new method of charging the Pre through induction, by introducing a hockey-puck shaped device called the Touchstone. Users will lay the phone on the Touchstone to charge it, instead of attaching a power cord. From its position atop the Touchstone, a user can lift the phone to answer it without touching any buttons.

Palm CEO Ed Colligan said the Pre will fit in the smart phone market as offering the "perfect balance" for users that need it for work and play. "We think it is one phone you can user for your entire life," he said.

Dan Hesse, CEO of Sprint, said the Pre will stand out by allowing users to keep multiple applications running at once, and making it easy for the user to move among them with a gesture. "A number of smart phones allow using of applications, but in the background, and you have to close and open them, but flicking through with Pre is particularly nice."

Hesse said he was able to hold a speaker phone call from the Pre while also checking his calendar and e-mail on the device, which can't be done with many other devices.

Sprint will benefit from the Palm partnership, Hesse said, since more than 60% of all Sprint wireless customers have used a Palm device, such as a Treo, in the past.

Palm officials said all the applications for the Pre were developed using Java, CSS or HTML, which are all standard and well known. While the operating system was expected to be built off some form of Linux, Palm officials did not provide many details.

Colligan said the shipping date was indefinite because Palm wants to get the proper certifications and ensure the Pre functions properly. Sprint did not announce pricing.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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