To Pre or not to Pre?

June 14, 2009

But first, a little iPhone talk.

The interwebs were all abuzz last week with misplaced outrage over what it's going to cost some current AT&T customers to upgrade their iPhone 3G to the just-announced iPhone 3G S. Unfortunately, their anger is poorly thought out and in any event likely isn't going to change anything in the forseeable future. The only way iPhone prices are going to come down is if Apple decides to decrease their margins on their latest devices. (They won't.)

I understand that a lot of people will feel they've been "baited and switched" after going through the process this Friday of getting the latest hardware revision, and in some respects it's not a completely illegitimate gripe, the product of both ignorance and "low" prices that have been advertised (together with fine print) and thus ingrained in Joe Public's mind. A lot of Joes are going to waltz down to the Apple/AT&T store this week, whip out their credit cards to pay $299 for their 32GB iPhone 3G S, and then scream bloody murder when they're told that it actually is $499.

The issue is this: iPhones and all other top-of-the-line mobile phones — you know, pocket computers — are expensive. There's just no getting around that. AT&T (and every other provider) has decided on a two-year contract term, while Apple is on a yearly product cycle for the iPhone. The disconnect is obvious and it's not going to change any time soon. That said, it may help to think of your iPhone as a subscription rather than as a purchase. (One thing I've never understood is why, if a phone is subsidized and therefore the "loan" is being paid off via monthly service costs, the monthly service costs of someone using a non-subsidized phone aren't lower. Oh, right, because the telcos can do whatever they want.)

For much of the last decade I would order my phones from overseas — unlocked — and use them on Cingular/AT&T and T-Mobile (the US GSM operators) without them ever being the wiser (or caring for that matter). What this allowed me to do was maintain always the latest mobile tech (for those catching up, it was only until very recently that the US started producing the best mobile phones, namely the iPhone and the Pre), but there was a heavy price to pay for that bragging right, namely the cost of unlocked, unsubsidized phones. However, much of my expense usually could be recouped by selling my current phone, for which I always could charge a premium because most people in the US had only just heard of the phone I had been using for the last three months.

With this in mind, two years ago I wrote the following regarding the iPhone and future upgrades:

However, the difference this time around, and for the foreseeable future, is that there will be no hunt -- the next best thing is going to be the next iteration of the iPhone. Can any of us go back to a pre-iPhone phone after playing with this thing for a few days? Everything else is kind of laughable at this point and I think it's going to be at least a couple of years before the iPhone begins to see any legitimate competition.

The best part about Apple making mobile phones is that I no longer have to scour the earth looking for the "new hotness" and then hoping that it's unlocked, uses GSM, and costs less than $1000. The worst part about Apple making mobile phones is that I'll now be the rule instead of the exception (and I think part of me kind of enjoyed being the exception).

Now two iPhone revisions in and my prognostications are proving to be true: two years on and the iPhone is still king, but the Palm Pre is gunning for the crown. (For the record, I think the argument that Palm is going after RIM instead of Apple is shortsighted and borderline nonsensical. Palm is looking for customers anywhere it can find them. The delineation between corporate users and everyone else is slowly but surely disappearing, and I'm fairly certain it's going to be either Palm or Apple that bridges the gap.)

Before discussing the Pre for a bit, let me just say that I think it's something of a miracle that anyone, much less Palm, has come up with a device that is making me, and people like me, even entertain the idea of moving away from the iPhone. For the last couple of years no one has really gained on the iPhone's dominance, no one has really made me say, "Wow, that's pretty neat." Android made me do a double-take or two, but it never really threatened the grip I had on my iPhone (with time, I think Android will be fantastic). The Pre on the other hand most certainly has me sitting up straight and paying attention, and definitely has the potential to get me to switch at some point, if only to give something else a try.

I tend to get bored rather easily with my devices, which is part of the reason I used to switch so often, but that constant switching was at a time when most of the phones I bought were on similar playing fields (indeed, most were based on Symbian), but the iPhone is on another level completely, and so switching over the last couple of years just seemed illogical (hell, I can "live" out of my iPhone when required; no one else has been able to give me anything approaching that ability). (Yes, I did give up my first-gen iPhone after half a year, but that was before iPhone OS 2.0 gave me corporate email, rather a requirement for my profession.)

I've spent only 45 (solid) minutes with the Palm Pre, but I can say this much: it's impressive. There's no question that certain parts of webOS were rushed to meet launch deadlines (but man is it beautiful!), and elements of the hardware definitely could use some work, but it's a solid foundation on which to build the next stage of the company (and I'm hoping it will be successful enough to give them just that opportunity). If anything, it's nice to see someone other than Apple finally innovating in the mobile space. It all had become so stagnant in the few years before the iPhone knocked everyone on their asses, and nothing since had really piqued my interest. (Also, could Windows Mobile be any less relevant? I mean, seriously.)

For me, the big thing about the Pre is the ability to run multiple apps simultaneously; you know, like pretty much every other smartphone in the world except the iPhone. (Despite Apple's insistence that simultaneous apps would tax the battery too much, etc., I really wish they'd let me make that determination.) The card metaphor that brings the Pre's multitasking functionality to fruition is fantastic (think cmd-tab switching on the Mac), and I especially like that each web page gets its own card (this one-pagerarr;one-"window" thing would never work for me on the desktop, but it's perfect for a mobile phone). Cards just feel so natural and "right." Scroll through the "deck" to switch between open apps and flick a card up to close an app. Nice.

Obviously a large part of the mobile experience is the browser, and the iPhone totally and completely shook up our expectations when it came to viewing and interacting with web pages on the go. Every other mobile browser implementation since has been laughable. Instead of it being the rule that something couldn't be achieved via a mobile browser, Mobile Safari made that scenario the exception. All of that said, the webOS browser is wonderful and certainly gives Mobile Safari a run for its money (unsurprisingly, it too is based on WebKit, which really is starting to take over the world). It's very fast, acts much like Mobile Safari (a good thing) and the under-the-screen gestures are great.

I really like the way notices and such are relayed to you when you're inside an app other than the one to which the notice "belongs." Similar to Android, the notification doesn't necessarily require an immediate response, but instead can be retrieved and acted upon at any time. In The iPhone's SMS app needs some work, I said the following:

The lack of mark-as-unread is most annoying when I receive a text message while inside another application; when this situation arises, a modal window appears with the text message, and gives me two choices: close and reply. If I choose "reply," I'm shuttled out of the current app and into the SMS app; "close" kills the semi-transparent pop-up and marks the message as read. These limited options mean that if I receive a text message while doing something else, I either have to respond to it immediately, or run the risk of forgetting that a response is due.

I've been given no indication that this sort of thing is going to be remedied with v3.0, which is a real bummer. There really is nothing more annoying than being forced out of an application, much less being forced to quit an application (which is what the iPhone does when you "switch" apps). UPDATE: v3.0 actually does take care of this for the most part as there now is an "unread" count on the messages icon, and if you choose "close" when you receive the modal notification window, the message will remain unread. I still would like to be able to manually mark a message as unread, but these additions certainly are better than nothing.

My biggest gripe with the iPhone still is the virtual keyboard. I hate it. It's the kind of thing that when I know I have to use it for anything more than a text message my blood starts boiling because I know I'm just going to get really frustrated. Imagine my glee then when I learned that the Pre would have a hardware keyboard; unfortunately though, it's not all unicorns and candy canes in Pre keyboard land. During the brief time I spent with the Pre I was left slightly nonplussed by the keyboard. It's really small (to the point that you end up typing with your thumbnails half the time) and the keys are very squishy and rubbery. It amazes me that it's so hard to get a hardware keyboard right, especially if you've shipped 10-15 of them in the past. You'd think that the R&D on that would be over and done.

I obviously can't speak to some elements of the device as I simply haven't been able to spend enough time with it, but I've read every review on the intertubes, and some issues have become quite clear.

  • The battery life isn't great.
  • The system can become pretty bogged down after prolonged, "heavy" use.
  • The hardware keyboard could definitely use an auto-correction mechanism, which might allow some to type with more than just their nails.
  • The phone doesn't feel quite as solid as it should, especially when the keyboard is exposed.
  • Synergy is very promising but effectively useless until some sort of contact filtering is implemented.
  • The number of Sprint-centric apps is a little disconcerting. I'm assuming that Palm, given its current financial situation, simply wasn't in a position to argue for complete control of certain apps, etc. (unlike Apple with AT&T), and we all know mobile carriers just can't help themselves from meddling with your device whenever possible. (At some point the carriers will have to come to terms with the fact that we want only their pipes. Nothing else.)

Despite all of that, good and bad, at this juncture the biggest barrier to me switching teams is applications. I've spent a ton of money on apps for the iPhone, but more to the point, those apps have become a big part of my daily routine. I just can't imagine not having Instapaper, Amazon Kindle, iStockManager, Tweetie, etc. in my pocket, and there's really no telling if or when they'll ever be available on a webOS device.

Had Apple never released an iPhone SDK enabling developers to create native apps, this whole issue would be moot, because developers essentially would have developed for the Pre and the iPhone in very similar, easily-ported ways (i.e., via HTML, CSS and JavaScript). But Apple did release an SDK, and many of the developers of some of the most popular applications (especially the ones I use) are Apple-only developers who likely will never develop for webOS, even if it becomes the dominant mobile platform and the development path remains fairly frictionless.

Finally, I think a lot of the flak being given the most recent iPhone rev is somewhat unfair and kind of misses the bigger picture. I've a feeling that, as Gruber discusses, the under-the-hood speed improvements made to the 3G S are going to prove much more significant than most think, and very likely will close the perceived speed gap between the Pre and the 3G, thereby obviating at least one of the Pre's potential advantages over the iPhone.

Oh, before I forget, I should say that the carrier (i.e., Sprint or AT&T) never really entered into the equation for me. Fact is, they're all terrible. What one provides, the other doesn't, and then it's pain all the way down. More on this later.

I think at this point I'm probably going to buy a new iPhone 3G S on Friday (if I can find one), but will be keeping a very sharp eye on the development community bubbling up around the Pre and webOS. If Palm can get just a small percentage of the bazillion iPhone developers to also develop for webOS, the Pre (and its progeny) is going to start looking even more attractive than it already does.

It's going to be a very exciting few years for Palm, Apple and consumers.

You should follow me on Twitter here