Elgan: Palm and Sony out-Apple Apple

Fine time for these laggards to start innovating again.

One of the great industry dramas that occurs each year is the concurrence of Macworld and the International CES event.

As Apple invades the consumer electronics space and cell phone market -- and as CES replaces Comdex as the "everything" show -- the contrasting style and substance of Macworld and CES provide a dramatic glimpse into who's up, who's down and who's who in consumer technology.

Macworld slaughtered CES in 2007 with Steve Jobs' shock-and-awe iPhone rollout. In 2008, Macworld killed again with MacBook Air, more iPhone goodness and a lot of bragging about the general ascendance, elegance, awesomeness and unstoppability of Apple in consumer electronics.

But this year, Macworld landed with a thud. News preceding the show sucked the wind out of the normal enthusiasm. What's a Macworld keynote without Steve Jobs? What's a Macworld without Apple?

Still, the Mac Faithful proved hopeful, predicting stunning new innovations for Macworld 2009.

Before the show, the Applesphere buzzed with chatter about an impending "iPhone Pro" or "iPhone Elite" upgrade. The wonderful improvement would, according to this vision, include a physical keyboard that wouldn't reduce the size of iPhone's huge touch screen. It would fold or slide out. Some also hoped for a better camera, new user interface innovations and other iGoodies.

The other major fanboy expectation was that, finally, Apple would enter (and, natch, dominate) the thriving netbook market. Nobody expected a boring mini-MacBook, but instead a revolutionary new form factor that would demonstrate, once again, that Apple is smarter than everyone else.

Surprisingly, an "iPhone Elite" and a "MacBook Nano" were both announced. But not at Macworld and not by Apple. They were unveiled at CES by Palm and Sony -- two industry laggards written off as pathetic has-beens.

Palm Pre

Palm helped make the dreams of iPhone fans a reality with the Palm Pre, which has all the expected trimmings of a modern smart phone: GPS, Wi-Fi, QWERTY keyboard, 3G, stereo Bluetooth, 3-megapixel camera, accelerometer, etc.

Faithful to the Faithful's vision for the iPhone, the Palm Pre is a full-screen, multitouch phone with a slide-out physical keyboard.

The Pre's webOS operating system is something altogether unique, innovative and unexpected. While the UI lacks iPhone's severe minimalism, it trumps the iPhone in raw inventiveness. With multitasking built around the organizing metaphor of "activity cards," it's fundamentally different from any other device ever sold.

It even has a unique inductive charger (you set it on top of its base rather than plugging anything in or inserting the phone into a cradle). Doesn't that sound like something Apple would have announced?

The Palm Pre is the second true MPG (multitouch, physics and gestures) consumer product ever to ship (the iPhone was first). But the Pre's webOS adds some new gestures, such as the ability to get rid of stuff by flicking it off screen.

While many expected Apple to announce something like this, nobody expected Palm to do so. Palm caught the industry and the pundits by surprise.

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