On the Palm Pre vs. the iPhone

It was inevitable, I suppose, that folks would compare the Palm Pre to the iPhone. To begin with, the mainstream media has taken to love controversy more than the simple truth, and the tech media’s no different. There are over 20 million iPhone users worldwide, and I believe around five million in the United States alone. The phrase “iPhone killer” is bound to stir up some controversy at least among the iPhone faithful, and that’s a fairly significant constituency–and therefore a comfortable target for the press.

Beyond that, though, legitimate reasons do exist to compare the Pre to the iPhone, not the least of which is that the Pre is, indeed, perhaps the first smartphone to offer real competition to the entrenched market leader. Note that by “competition” I don’t necessarily mean market competition (which is a pretty heady challenge) but rather technological competition. That is, the Pre is the first smartphone to offer a user experience that’s as accessible as the iPhone while taking usability a step further. Indeed, the Pre has the iPhone beat in many respects, including the ability to run–and just as important, easily access–multiple applications at once and to notify the user of various events in an unobtrusive and yet effective fashion. Where the iPhone is a nice application launcher, the Pre is a true productivity environment–I guarantee that I can start and use more applications in a given timeframe than I could on an iPhone.

For example, as I write this I have nine cards open on my Pre:

  1. A Web browser running Facebook Mobile
  2. The Evernote client and a note in their own cards
  3. Email, showing the contents of the inboxes from four separate email accounts
  4. One Tweed card each for my two main Twitter accounts, @aboutpalmpre and @foodorpoison
  5. My calendar in day view
  6. Accuweather
  7. Pandora, playing my Genesis Radio mix

Each of these cards (except Tweed, unfortunately, at this point) are live and updating in the background. Pandora, of course, is playing without interruption and with easy access to pause, next song, and like/dislike buttons in the Notifications area. Each card is fully visible, meaning that I can get real information from them at a glance even when they’re minimized. For example, right now I can see the cover art for the Genesis tune that’s playing, it’s 67 deg. F outside, my calendar is empty today, I have no new emails since I last checked, and my Facebook news feed hasn’t updated (edit: I’m not actually sure if the Facebook Mobile page automatically updates, but the browser is capable of doing so). For the most part only one card is visible at a time in the default minimized view, but viewing the contents of each is a simple matter of flicking each card left or right.

The iPhone does nothing like this, of course. Some combination of these applications would require opening and closing the others in sequence, adding application launch and updating delay and offering a very unintuitive approach to accessing information. And obviously, an application like Pandora is far less useful when it can only be used by itself. Compared to most smartphones, this really isn’t that much of a knock against the iPhone–for example, it’s still probably easier to open and close applications on an iPhone than it is to move between multiple applications on a Windows Mobile device. But compared to the Pre, the iPhone is a lot like DOS in the old days–most applications simply can’t run alongside another, meaning that the iPhone OS is, essentially, a single-tasking environment. Or, as I called it earlier, it’s an application launcher.

Beyond that, the comparison begins to pale even further, at least for me. Certainly, the iPhone is a better media and audio player in many ways, although for many people its being tied to the Apple ecosystem is a liability rather than a strength. The build quality of the iPhone hardware is arguably better than the Pre, and indeed this is Apple’s core strength. They do make good hardware (albeit with inherent functional design compromises, like non-removable batteries). And nobody can argue with the iPhone’s lead in available applications at over 50,000, although even then there’s a caveat–many of those applications are worthless. I don’t think anyone really knows how many of those 50,000 apps are quality apps and how many are permutations on flatulence and baby shaker simulations, but even if only 10% are worth a damn, that’s still a vastly larger number than is currently available in the Pre’s App Catalog.

However, I’m one of those “iTunes is a liability” folks, and so I wouldn’t use an iPhone as a media player even if I owned one. In fact, I wouldn’t use any smartphone as my only media player, but I might be in the minority here. Next, I don’t like the iPhone’s look and feel–it seems uncomfortable to me as a phone, and it’s much bigger and bulkier than I like. The Pre simply feels better to me as a smartphone, I don’t automatically equate plastic with cheap, and I still can’t believe that Apple gets away with denying users the ability to change their own batteries. Finally, I’m fully confident that Palm’s App Catalog will grow quickly once the SDK is released, because of both the buzz around the Pre and the relative ease of WebOS development. And, ultimately, I think that the WebOS environment is capable of supporting better apps than the iPhone OS, at least from a productivity perspective–multitasking and Synergy provide a pretty powerful foundation upon which to build applications compared to the single-tasking and siloed nature of the iPhone.

On a more technical level, the iPhone does offer deeper access into the guts of the OS and thus supports more hardware-intensive applications–i.e., games. I have no doubt that Palm will open up the Pre sooner rather than later, however, and the Pre has essentially the same hardware, or so it’s speculated, as the iPhone GS 3, and so gaming capabilities should eventually be leveled out between the two. Because that’s highly speculative, however, I’ll give the nod to the iPhone when it comes to creating a compelling gaming environment.

Obviously, I like the Pre better than the iPhone, and feel that the usability and usefulness gap between the Pre and the iPhone will only expand over time. As Palm’s finances improve, as I believe they will, they’ll have more money to invest in better hardware, and so the iPhone’s advantage there will dissipate as well. Apple won’t stand still, of course, and so who knows what the iPhone OS 4.0 will look like, not to mention future iPhone hardware. But the day of the iPhone reigning supreme over the smartphone market, at least in terms of technology, are over, and for that Palm should be commended.


  1. betogonza says:

    I been with my pre and lovin it. A few flaws that I’m sure will be updated quick. Keyboard just takes time ti get use to but works better than that damn virtual keyboards that with my fingers I keep touchin wrong keys. I know more apps will arrive which I can’t wait, I enjoy the ones we have now. I really can’t stand the power cable on the side, kinda annoyin tryin to use the phone while chargin

  2. Happy Pre says:

    A main reason I could never get an iPhone is that, like all apple products, you’re stuck with apple software which I personally can’t stand. My Pre on the otherhand talks to everything I care about (MS Exhcnage and G-Mail/Google Callendar) because like all of Palms previous devices, Palm does not limit or dictate how you use their products. Is is an iPhone killer? That’s not even a question I ask because to me, iPhone is not even in contention.

    (Submitted from my Pre)

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