1/17/2009

The Palm Pre and Smart Phone Platforms

I am quite excited by the Palm Pre - largely because I'm hoping it will prove a worthy competitor to apple.  I don't mean this from an Apple fanboy perspective (well, not mostly).  What I want to see is an alternative smart phone operating system design model.  

The iPhone uses a variant on the Mac philosophy of integrated OS and hardware with fairly locked down apps but a healthy hacker community.  This model emphasizes design and build quality and tends to deliver an unparalleled user experience.  The iPhone was the first all-in-one that didn't suck, it is still very young and has much room for improvement, but it is miles ahead of the alternatives.  The single biggest asset for the iPhone platform is the developer SDK - the Apple developers have the single best coding language around with Cocoa and a remarkable set of provided tools that greatly speed up the process and improve the overall quality of the app ecosystem.  And that's before you count the amazing indie mac developer community.  

Android has a lot of potential, but it seems to be progressing too slowly - as is typical for Linux, it's closest comparison in the computer world.  There is not enough developer support or good SDK, it is really only suitable for the hobbyist hackers - in a decade or so it may catch up... barely.  The best bet for Android is if Google really puts more resources behind it and gets some quality designers working on the thing, but even then it will always be a cool, very versatile open source platform that delivers a mediocre user experience at best and shitty design.  

Blackberry is great for email, and just email.  It is a dedicated device with a very clear design focus, as all good dedicated devices are, but it is not even close to being a real all-in one.  The others - windows mobile and um, symbian? and whoever else - well, they're all in the just plain sucking category.  In about 5 or 10 years one of them will come along and pull a windows 95 - do a 'good enough' copy of the iPhone OS without a platform-tie-in.  It will gain reasonable market share, but always offer a suckier user experience and ripped-off designs that prove that their 'designers' don't have even a basic grasp of what good UI design is but it will look 'close enough' for the cheap-ass morons that don't value design or build quality.  

The Pre though, it offers a whole new design paradigm - probably closest in nature to the webapps that are the latest fad in Web 2.0.  It is built using all web standards - Java, html, and all that jazz.  This means that it integrates extremely well with the existing net services - it will pull in your facebook friend's contact info into it's equivalent of the contact book for example.  Really, it is a whole new paradigm beyond the windowed OS experience with it's cards concept - very very fascinating UI idea that has a ton of potential power.  The fact that it is all built essentially as webpages makes the barrier to entry for designers extremely low - I could do it - but also poses a very severe limit on the power and flexibility.  There is no way you can create the sort of rich apps that you get from the Mac or iPhone Cocoa environment - and apps are what makes or breaks any computing platform.  I see huge potential for Pre to be a great low-power device - akin to a netbook maybe in utility, ideal as a personal organizer and such, but distinctly limited in power, versatility, and design polish.  The biggest unknown right now, is how well designed the Pre OS will be - they have a lot of talent, so they could really pull it off - I certainly hope so.  That whole Sprint-exclusive to start dealio is a huge setback though - Sprint might as well not exist for all the coverage they provide and they have worse customer service than even AT&T remarkably. 

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