Following up on my near obsession with Palm, I managed to get a hands-on demo of the forthcoming Palm Pre this week. Although it was a brief encounter, it's an impressive device. The hardware is slim, the software is cool and the whole package works surprisingly well. I think it will set a new bar by which smartphones are judged.
First of all, the Pre feels very "phone-like." It's basically the same size as a Palm Centro, but lighter, thinner and a bit rounder. It is eminently pocketable. You can use most of the basic functionality (calling, browsing, reading e-mail, calendar etc) from the touch-screen interface without ever using the keyboard. And it's easy to manage multiple applications and browser sessions at the same time. While this was not the final code-freeze of the software, overall responsiveness was good and page loading was quite fast.
Once you slide open the keyboard, which itself is pretty neat, it remains intuitively easy to operate. You may need to learn a couple of gestures for shutting apps, going back, etc., but in five minutes, you're in business. If you're used to typing on a Palm Treo or BlackBerry, the Pre will be very comfortable. For those who have become frustrated typing on the iPhone's screen, it will be a welcome improvement.
I think after many years of struggling to build a new OS, Palm has done it right. I suspect that Palm's WebOS could become the basis for a whole family of products, such as smartphones, tablets, and netbooks. It's a modern multi-tasking architecture that is optimized for mobile connectivity.