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KELLNER: Palm’s Pre to battle iPhone

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They can try "change," but, really, it's over. Decided. The battle is finished. Or is it?

Palm Inc. has, indeed, scrapped everything it previously used and has come up with a new operating system from scratch. It will be offered on a phone that features many of the functions of Apple Inc.'s iPhone: touch screen, Web browser, music player, organizer and so on. No price has been set, but the mere fact that the new phone - Palm is calling it the "Pre" (www.palm.com/pre) - will go toe-to-toe with the iPhone when it hits the market sometime this year is sure to cause excitement.

I've already seen one estimate that Palm, which put a lot of muscle in the smartphone biz only to see that bicep flattened by its Cupertino, Calif.-based rival, would sell 1.5 million Pre phones the first year. That comes from a Citigroup analyst, Jim Suva. Media reports about the prediction noted the iPhone 3G sold 1 million units in its first 72 hours and that Palm's smaller Centro smartphone sold 2 million copies in its first nine months.

Is Pre the iPhone killer? Will this move re-establish Palm atop the personal-digital-assistant heap? Will the soap opera take another turn?

Maybe, maybe not.

I write without having seen a Pre close up or having used one. However, I also have worked with just about every other Palm device since the first Palm Pilot. I used to regularly sing the firm's praises -- and odes to its products. The Palm OS, now supplanted, was a good, capable hand-held operating system, and it served many people quite well. (In fact, I know one physician who still uses it daily, and he's not alone.)

So, while I'll freely admit to conjecture here, I think it's speculation informed by a good decade-plus of hands-on experience. Palm's got a shot, but like a precious field goal during the Super Bowl, it better land smack-dab between the uprights.

Palm may be on the right track by offering a phone that can keep multiple applications -- e-mail, music, Web browser - open at the same time. You can surf while listening to Oingo Boingo, or to Dvorak's "New World" symphony, check e-mail and switch to a photo album. I could see having a conversation while checking my calendar, and that's a good thing.

It's also nice to have a slide-out keyboard to go with any "soft" keyboard that may appear on-screen, but this is really a matter of personal taste. After starting with Palm's unusual system of stylus-based gestures and symbols, moving to a thumb-scaled keyboard and now to Apple's on-screen delight, going back to buttons is a bit too retro for me. Maybe not so for you.

The webOS, which Palm says is always connected to the Internet, subject to wireless signal availability, is a departure. It expands on the potential of "push" technology - having your e-mail "pushed" to your phone when it arrives at a server - to keep all sorts of information, presumably, flowing to your device.

Here, the proof of the pudding really will be in the tasting. How much bandwidth will be required, how available will it be and how reliable? I'm guessing the answers are not much, pretty available, and they've tested it. If it fails on any of these points, watch out.

On top of the operating system, Palm will need to encourage third-party application developers to create programs for the Pre. There's talk this is coming, but will it be as easy to develop Pre applications as it seems to be to develop iPhone apps? I'm betting on Palm here, solely because so many people were able to develop (and make some money from) PalmOS applications; a great company called Handango (www.handango.com) became quite successful as a mobile-applications clearinghouse and vendor in just that way.

Perhaps the real linchpin will be content: Will you be able to read The Washington Times' e-edition on a Pre? Will a version of the Physician's Desk Reference, a guide to pharmaceuticals, be there if desired? How will I buy music? Or videos?

Since the days of the Palm Pilot, content has come to matter as much - if not more, perhaps - as the platform. Palm (and Reston-based Sprint, the carrier first to sell the Pre) have a shot at this. Just watch between the goal posts.

&#8226 What's in your pocket? E-mail mkellner@washington times.com.

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