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A Smart Phone Built on Web Tools

Palm’s new smart phone targets Web developers as well as a loyal fan base.

This Saturday, Palm will launch what some are calling a last-ditch gamble: its new smart phone, the Palm Pre. The media has been buzzing with speculation about another iPhone challenger, and Palm loyalists see the Pre as the best hope for their favorite underdog to regain its former glory. But behind all the hype and hoopla, the real innovation is a brand-new operating system based on widely used Web technologies.

Palm reader: The Pre features a slide-out physical keyboard as well as a touch screen.

“It’s a very different concept,” says Andrew Yu, MIT’s Mobile Platform Manager and Architect. “It’s revolutionary in the sense that they are opening the door to mobile app development.”

The Pre’s new operating system, webOS, runs on top of Linux. But rather than requiring applications to be written in a high-level coding language, the way that other smart-phone platforms–and Palm’s previous operating systems–have done, webOS lets Web developers use tools like HTML, CSS, and Javascript, which should be more familiar to anyone who has programmed for the Web.

In the past, application developers have often had to familiarize themselves with a new language in order to build programs for mobile systems. To make an app that is compatible with Apple’s iPhone, for example, developers have to use the relatively obscure programming language Objective C. In contrast, according to information released by Palm, developers should be able to manage data storage on the Pre using HTML5, in addition to having access to data from the phone’s Contacts and Calendar. A software development kit (SDK) for the Pre called Mojo will also include tools to extend Javascript to access hardware features on the device, including the accelerometer, the camera, and the phone itself.

The advantage to this strategy is that more developers already speak the language.

“Anyone who can program for the Web can potentially build apps for webOS,” Yu says. That could also make it simpler, Yu adds, for developers to translate existing Web apps to webOS. The ease of writing Web code could open up a developer pool of millions, rather than the tens of thousands who already know languages like Objective C and Java, the language used to write applications for Google’s Android platform.

There is some evidence that Web developers will be eager to try their hand at mobile development too. For a year after the iPhone first launched, there was no way to develop a native application–one that would run on the phone itself. So instead, many third-party developers created Web programs that ran inside the phone’s browser. It wasn’t until Apple released its SDK that app developers could write real native apps, taking advantage of the phone’s underlying hardware like the accelerometer and touch screen. The interface layer for webOS, on the other hand, acts like a browser itself, with multiple applications running in separate windows–what Palm calls “cards,” because of how they’re displayed on the screen.

This strategy could give the Pre some interesting capabilities. For instance, Palm has revealed that the phone’s search feature will automatically search the Web as well as the data stored on the device itself.

Attracting application developers will be crucial for Palm, says Mike Gualtieri, an analyst at Forrester. As the company tries to build up its own app store, it will run up against fierce competition. With so many smart phones on the market, each with its own OS, its own store, and its own apps, individual and professional programmers will have to make tough decisions. Gualtieri says that this might be where Palm has a chance to shine.

Gualtieri has seen a trend toward companies expanding into more-advanced Internet applications. So when companies go looking for a mobile applications platform, Palm may be positioned as the easiest, most accessible choice, based on Web standards that match the technologies that the company already uses.

Still, the road to simpler, faster, Web-integrated apps won’t be easy at first. The Pre’s webOS SDK isn’t yet widely available to programmers, for one thing: it’s currently only in private release. Analysts suggest that this may be so that Palm can work out any bugs before the masses get hold of it–which is understandable, they say, if frustrating for developers. But with one shot at a comeback, Palm isn’t taking any chances.

The Pre has a few other features designed to lure prospective smart-phone users: a slide-out physical keyboard as well as a touch screen, a removable battery that recharges without a cord, and the ability to run multiple programs simultaneously. Like other mobile platforms, however, it will be restricted to one carrier, Sprint Nextel, for at least its first six months.

The battle won’t be easy, and Palm will be fighting on two fronts: one for users, another for developers. “They have to get people writing apps for the phone,” says Gualtieri. “They’re dead if people say, ‘This is a beautiful phone, but it’s tough to write apps for.’” How the Pre fares may determine Palm’s future. And this time, app developers may lead the way.

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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