Palm's Linux secret makes the Pre

The Palm Pre is no thriller as a smartphone, but the SDK reveals the most open mobile platform on the market

You're lucky that you missed the review I had written of Palm's Pre after working with it for six weeks. I couldn't see the attraction. The $299 that Sprint charges to let you out of the store with the Pre isn't justified by the phone's out-of-the-box features, and the anemic App Catalog presents few opportunities to elevate the device to the capabilities of others in its lofty price range. The Pre isn't a bad phone, but it's simply not worth the $200 to $250 premium over the BlackBerry Curve, the T-Mobile G1, and the iPhone 3G.

I grabbed my Pre on June 6, but it wasn't until July 16 that I figured out where Pre, and Palm's WebOS platform, actually fit in the market for professional mobile devices. On July 16, Palm released the SDK for WebOS, a set of tools and documentation that Palm had, inexplicably, withheld. Why, I wondered, did Palm want to keep the SDK out of power users' and developers hands when the WebOS platform was all about the ease with which new applications could be created in JavaScript?

[ How does the Palm Pre stack up against the iPhone? See "Deathmatch: Palm Pre versus iPhone" and see the Palm Pre versus iPhone side by side in InfoWorld's comparative slideshow. Also compare the BlackBerry Bold and iPhone 3G in our "BlackBerry vs. iPhone, side by side" slideshow. ]

Where's the Mojo?

On paper, part of WebOS' appeal is that a Pre user can edit script, HTML, and style sheet files to adapt the device to their liking, and the Web-based approach reached all the way up to the top level of the GUI. I liked this idea, not just for individuals, but for broad corporate or organizational deployments of devices. I was OK with the Pre's consumery feel, knowing it wouldn't take much effort to clear out the gimmicks that cast a cheap pallor on the phone and make a professional user's experience uneven.

As it shipped, the Pre was as closed to configurability and adaptability as a blister-packed prepaid phone. Palm boasted a stable of 500 handpicked WebOS developers working under NDA, and Palm expanded the secret developer program twice, and yet, at the six-week mark, Pre's on-phone App Catalog has not grown beyond 30 apps. Why weren't these developers, working in easy JavaScript, cranking out all kinds of useful apps?

I'll address part of the problem over the next few weeks as I contrast Palm's Mojo Toolkit, Palm's proprietary WebOS JavaScript SDK, with standards-tracked HTML 5 as it's being implemented across mobile and desktop browsers. I think that HTML 5, especially as implemented in Apple's open source WebKit engine, on which WebOS is based, is now credible as a runtime for stand-alone applications. I need to take a hard look at Mojo to see whether and to what extent Palm reinvented the JavaScript application foundation that's built into post-Safari 3.0 builds of WebKit.

[ Dive deep into mobile 2.0 technology with InfoWorld's "mobile 2.0" PDF special report. ]

Open sesame

Something more concrete than this turned around my review of Palm Pre. The Mojo SDK is all about creating, installing, and debugging locally hosted Web apps. But an unexpected part of the SDK kicks Pre into Developer Mode, which opens Pre's Linux to remote login. Once in the Pre's command shell, you discover how robust and open the Linux OS at WebOS' base really is. I think that once Pre developers get into the SDK, they will fall prey to the allure of the command line, shell script, and C. There isn't another mainstream mobile phone that is as effectively rooted at the factory.

Competitors will probably be all over Palm's (current) policy to permit Pre users relatively easy privileged access to the phone's Linux. I think Palm handled it well; the Pre is invulnerable to remote access unless its owner follows a somewhat tedious process to activate Developer Mode, and Palm made locking the phone back down a one-touch operation.

$299 is too much to pay for the Pre as a smartphone, but it is the right price for an open mobile platform. I understand now why Palm was reluctant to let the SDK go public, but Palm's little secret turned out to define Pre's niche in the market.

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