Pre-Conceived Notions

The big mobile telephony news out of the Consumer Electronics Show was the introduction of the Palm Pre. Powered by "WebOS", the Pre is Palm's attempt to regain lost momentum and carve itself a strong niche in the smartphone marketplace.

It's far from clear that this will work.

That's not to say the Pre is a bad device, or that WebOS is a bad operating system. In fact, both could be quite excellent — we will see once the devices are available. However, even though the Pre will be distinctive, that may not lead to a sustainable market presence.

First, it is unclear who will be able to use WebOS. Certainly, Palm will, for the Pre and presumably future devices. While some bloggers claim it will be open source, the Palm press release for WebOS conspicuously fails to mention this, nor can I find any solid evidence of an open source intention. Even short of open source, it is unclear if Palm would license WebOS to other hardware makers.

If WebOS winds up a proprietary operating system, used solely by Palm, that reduces its potential market penetration simply by having too few options. This is exacerbated by Palm's apparent decision to lock the Pre to Sprint, at least at the outset. As with the iPhone/AT&T marriage, this leaves out a lot of potential users who are unwilling or unable to switch carriers. At least with the Android/T-Mobile hookup, you knew other manufacturers and other carriers were involved with the Open Handset Alliance, so Android-dom would be larger than just the T-Mobile G1.

Of course, the iPhone is evidence that you do not need multiple manufacturers, or even multiple carriers per market, to grab significant market share. Palm is a nice firm. Apple is a consumer marketing juggernaut. To assume that Palm can replicate Apple's success would be quite the leap.

Of course, WebOS could get a "killer app" written for its platform, right?

The problem there is, that "killer app" is quite likely to be also available on Android, possibly iPhone, perhaps others.

Why?

Because, if the stories are true, WebOS applications are based on HTML, CSS, and Javascript. Presumably, WebOS makes a Javascript library available for access to lower-level hardware operations (e.g., GPS location lookups), and offers some means to package these Web-like applications into something that can be used offline. In fact, the rendering engine for all of this purportedly is WebKit.

Well, iPhone has WebKit. Android has WebKit. I will be stunned if, within 72 hours of the WebOS SDK release, we do not have an Android workalike for the WebOS SDK that at least covers "Hello, world!" applications. A month later, and Android will probably have a workalike that covers a substantial portion of the WebOS SDK. The iPhone will as well, so long as the iPhone App Store rules don't prohibit it.

This means that a "killer app" developer could build for WebOS and quickly get the same application running on Android and, perhaps, iPhone or others. Any "killer app" author worth her salt will take this step, since "killer apps" don't remain "killer" forever.

The net: the Pre and WebOS may not be as open as Android (or, soon, Symbian), won't have the consumer marketing engine of iPhone, and may not wind up with any WebOS-only "killer apps".

This does not mean the Pre is toast, but Palm's long-term strategy is still murky at best.

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