Commentary

Palm Pre: After The Creepiness Fades

Before I even cracked the box of the Palm Pre, I admit that this latest iPhone wannabe started out at a disadvantage. Sorry, but those TV ads have got to go.

The first series of Pre spots were bad enough. Were those supposed to be Tibetan monks in synchronized land swimming routines? There were waves of undulating figures plus a voiceover. "My life. Like so many other lives...all of them rearranging themselves, all the time. Isn't it nice when they all flow together?"

Is Deepak Chopra going to pop out and tell me something pointedly cryptic about "being and somethingness" now? And before you think I am getting all Hannity on the New-Age crap, even my vegetarian, sandal-wearing, unreconstructed Dead Head of a life partner looked up from her Green Party pamphlet and said, "Is that supposed to be advertising a phone? What does it do?" This from a woman who hasn't set up voice mail on the prepaid cell phone I got her last year.

The next set of ads didn't help clarify things in my house. The blonde spokesmodel with the pot-hazed eyes says "You ever have one of those days when everything seems to work? Like when you're driving and all the red lights ahead of you are turning green...Just going with the flow?"

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"She is kinda creepy, Dad," my daughter offers.

"Don't smoke pot, honey. See what happens? You lose your judgment and end up in an ad parody."

So after befuddling my partner and creeping out my daughter, the Pre has a bit of a hill to climb with me. Boot the thing up and the flow silliness continues. The setup actually has you traveling through the grassy fields of those ads. Really, at this point I have had it with the concept phone idea. Deepak Chopra would be comic relief now.

Since I have only had a couple of days so far to play with the Pre review unit and have not seen any great "flow" yet among my contacts, I will stick with my impressions of the mobile marketing angle. Like the current nominee to the Supreme Court, I lay aside my prejudices and aim for impartiality.

First the positives.

The multitasking makes a difference, and will be one of the most noticeable value-adds to an iPhone veteran. Having Pandora playing in background as I went through other tasks feels right. One can imagine marketers leveraging this true multitasking effectively by adding elements to the OS that can stay live and at-the-ready all the time. It is easier to be of use when you are always-on.

That is where the flow matters. Icons on the bottom of the screen keep you apprised of what is open and the floating card interface is much more usable than the G1/Android's descending window. While performance can be sluggish on the Pre, the multitasking lets a marketer pop you out from an app without forcing the user to lose the app experience altogether. There is simply more flexibility available knowing you can pop open a new function just like another open window and not destroy the current operation.

The Web browser is quite snappy and renders very well. YouTube, Facebook, MySpace are all there in the box for ready access. Like the iPhone, Flash support is not present. I don't find the tap-to-zoom or pinch and stretch screen function on full Web pages as responsive as on the iPhone, but it is no worse than the G1. Most full sites looked good and seemed to load as least as quickly as they do on the iPhone.

The Pre's app store is as limited as you have heard. The AccuWeather, AP, NYTimes, Fandango, Today Show, Pandora downloadables are here, but even the Android market had more than this at launch. And like the G1, the on-deck merchandising of the apps is pedestrian and uninspired -- just a lot of vertical scrolling. You do get screen grabs, however.

The apps themselves work just fine. It is hard to see at this point how well they might integrate with the other apps like the Google maps and contacts. I can't quite see a reason why a developer would want to start on this platform and then migrate to iPhone and Android. My guess is that this becomes a second or third target for development. One very accomplished and well-funded iPhone developer with good ties to Apple asked me the other day if Pre had even released an SDK yet. He was asking me.

Without an online iTunes store to work with and a limited on deck storefront, I am wondering if apps on this platform will have even fewer ways of standing out than they already do in the cluttered Apple App store. I admire the download and installation speeds of these apps, however. The swifter pick-and-try process may be more conducive to app snacking.

Among the standout weaknesses right now for the Pre as a marketing platform, multimedia is very patchy. I played iPhone and Pre Pandora versions side by side and the external audio from the iPhone was far superior. And while the display is bright and sharp on the Pre, it is noticeably smaller than the iPhone's. In full Web pages this makes a very big difference to my eye, and generally one doesn't get the sense of there being quite the expansive palette. When playing a game or watching a video, it's easy to lose sight of the iPhone screen's dimensions. The Pre's visual landscape always feels like a phone, albeit a really pretty one.

Video quality itself was oddly mixed. The phone benefits from being more tightly tied into Sprint's existing Sprint TV service, which is varied. Its limited video quality is not served well by the larger, sharper screen, however. On the other hand, a YouTube version of "Thriller" was sharp and clean of artifacts. But video rendering in the AP News app as well as some Web sites were noticeably more pixilated on the Pre than on the iPhone. Something is up with that. It follows the overall problem with the phone's feel and build quality. From the way the screen slides up awkwardly to the tiny and difficult keypad, the Pre is more phone-like than wholly new.

As I have time to test the Pre on some Web and SMS ad campaigns, search and other marketing functionalities I will get a greater sense of its potential. But fundamentally it follows through on the movement the iPhone initiated without reorienting that (pardon me) "flow" in any significant way. It is another device that makes mobile data more usable. It makes the experience more effortless than it had been on pre-iPhone devices.

For marketers, these advances make the mobile platform a reliable place to work and play, to engage the consumer without having to jump through the technological hoops and painful speed barriers that retarded the field for so many years.

Bravo for that. No revolution, but a nice sign that the mobile hardware and software combines are on the right track now.

But all due respect to the Palm folks and their many longtime fans. This is the first phone I felt I had to personalize immediately just so it wouldn't freak out my daughter with its faux spirituality. I am fearful that the woman in the ads was brainwashed at Palm HQ and may be in need of a cult deprogrammer.

3 comments about "Palm Pre: After The Creepiness Fades".
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  1. Roy Smith from FlyCast, July 16, 2009 at 12:45 p.m.

    Steve,
    Your statement here re:multitasking is a bit out of date - many iPhone music apps such as ours and Pandora (also including the built-in iPod of course) allow music to play while other things are done on the phone. That's not a differentiator at all for the Pre.

    Roy Smith

  2. Marcia Chocinsky from Fahlgren Advertising, July 16, 2009 at 1:11 p.m.

    waves of undulating figures . . . so that's who those spots are for . . . I keep missing the advertiser as I'm trying to figure out what is goin on. Thanks for clearing that up! :)

  3. Steve Smith from Mediapost, July 16, 2009 at 2:10 p.m.

    Roy

    You'll have to explain that part to me. My Pandora on iPhone cuts off when I have to pop out to use another app. What music app can continue to play music in background?

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