Bell gears up to meet Palm Pre demand as Canadian launch approaches

Bell Mobility is well stocked and ready to launch the Palm Pre smartphone Aug. 27, with pre-orders already being taken.

The exclusive Canadian carrier for the Pre learned an important lesson from Sprint’s launch of the device south of the border on June 6, says Claire Gillies, director of marketing at Bell Mobility. The phone was sold out there by the early afternoon of the launch day.

But for the Canadian launch, Gillies said, Bell Mobility has procured a large number of units from Palm. “We feel very comfortable with the number of devices we’ll have.”

In May, Bell announced its plans to offer the Pre. A Web site allowing users to register for information about the device has received tremendous traffic.

There’s greater interest here than for any other phone Bell has ever launched, Gillies says.

“We’ve seen unprecedented demand on our Web site,” she says. “The list grows every day as we approach launch.”

Next week’s launch will see the Pre sold in Bell’s retail outlets, as well as Best Buy, Futureshop, Walmart, Telephone Booth and Wireless Wave. For $50 down now, you can reserve the phone for launch day.

As smartphones are becoming increasingly popular among Canadian consumers and business users alike, Palm Pre is hitting the market at the right time, says Kevin Restivo, senior research analyst, mobility at research firm IDC Canada in Toronto.

But it must meet initial demand to have to gain the kind of market penetration that Palm needs, he said.

Just bringing the right amount of supply online is key, he says. “Palm needs to be able to satisfy that initial demand to gain market share.”

Up until now, Research in Motion and Apple led the Canadian smart phone market, with their respective products (Blackberrys and iphones) leagues ahead of Palm in terms of unit sales and customer satisfaction.

However, the very success of those manufacturers may create a market climate favourable to Palm Pre, Restivo suggests.

“Palm is coming to market with the Pre when people are adopting smartphones en masse,” Restivo says. “It’s a rising tide that lifts all ships.”

The smartphone market grew by 49 per cent in this year’s second quarter, compared to last year, according to IDC Canada. That growth is put in context by the overall mobile phone market shrinking by one per cent during the same quarter.

Canadians are swapping traditional mobile handsets for smartphones.

If customer satisfaction levels for the Palm Pre in Canada match what was witnessed in the U.S., this device will likely help change the fortunes of Palm.

After nearly three months on the market, the Pre received a 87 per cent satisfaction rating from users, according to Rockville, Md.-based ChangeWave Research. It’s lower than the 99 per cent satisfaction rating given to the iPhone 3GS – but still impressive.

“Palm’s entered the pantheon of the top three,” says Paul Carton, director of research at Changewave.  “The Pre is right up there at the Apple and RIM level for satisfaction.”

Users of both smartphones had similar likes and dislikes. Both iPhone 3GS users and Pre users named “touch screen” as their biggest like, and “short battery life” as the biggest dislike.

With the Pre, the lack of third-party applications was the second most-oft cited dislike, with one-quarter of users mentioning it.

Palm must encourage developers to start building third-party applications if it is going to succeed, Restivo says.

“The hardware isn’t enough,” he says. “It is sorely lacking on the applications front.”

Yesterday, Palm started to address that issue by inviting developers to submit applications for consideration in the Palm App Catalog. Similar to Apple’s App Store and RIM’s BlackBerry App World, the mobile store front’s beta program will launch mid-September.

Developers can submit either free or paid applications and will receive a 70/30 split of the revenues collected by Palm.

The Pre will be marketed to Canadians who have busy personal lives and also want to use the phone for business, Gillies says. It is priced at $199.95 on a three-year plan and $599.95 to buy with no contract. A minimum data plan of 500 megabytes per month is required.

TV spots for the device started appearing this week.

Both Bell and Telus are targeting the device well, Restivo says. “It’s a consumer or a prosumer device – for the type of person who would want it for both business and personal use.”

The Pre is ” launching on the CDMA network,” Gillies says.

While Bell is working with Telus Mobility to build a HSPA network for launch next year or sooner, it won’t comment on whether the Pre will ever be featured on that network.

“There’s no HSPA device currently available,” says Gillies.

The Pre features a slide-out QWERTY keyboard at its bottom and Palm’s new webOS is noted for its ability to synchronize data from several sources, including the Internet.

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