Mobile device deathmatch – Will the Palm Pre blow past the iPhone?

There’s been one promised iPhone killer after another – the Google Android-based HTC Dream and Magic, the RIM BlackBerry Storm, the yet-to-ship, years-delayed Windows Mobile 7 – but none has given it worthwhile competition to date.

Now Palm has its Pre, a device that looks to be a serious contender for the best next-gen mobile device crown.

Not only does the Pre offer a modern, Web-oriented OS — suitably named WebOS — but its design leadership comes from Apple, including key players from the original iPod team. So there’s reason to believe that the Pre mixes the technical smarts and elegant usability that make the iPhone a tough device to beat.

If the battle between the BlackBerry Bold and the iPhone 3G was in essence a replay of PC versus Mac, the battle between the Pre and the iPhone 3G is more like a battle between Windows 7 and Mac OS X. The matchup, on paper, is close.

So we set out to dig deeper. Galen has spent a lot of time with the iPhone as part of InfoWorld’s previous mobile deathmatch between the iPhone and BlackBerry, while Brandon bought a Pre as soon as it came out and has quickly made it a key part of his everyday life.

Deathmatch: E-mail, calendars, and contacts Galen: Until the iPhone 3.0 OS update became available last month, I would have rated the iPhone and Pre equal on e-mail, calendars, and contacts. Both can connect to Exchange, IMAP, and POP accounts; make and synchronize appointments; and manage contacts.

Both allow for “push” synchronization with Exchange. Both preserve your Exchange folder hierarchy for mail and make navigating among folders a snap. And setup is easy.

But with iPhone OS 3.0, the playing field has changed. First, iPhone OS 3.0 allows iPhone and iPod Touch users to initiate calendar invites, which the Pre can’t do. And although you can search for e-mail in the Pre’s e-mail app (which the iPhone 2.0 OS could not do), iPhone 3.0 lets you search within your mail and across all applications — the Pre can do neither.

Brandon: If you get a calendar invitation as an e-mail attachment on an iPhone, such as from a Notes user, you can’t accept it from your e-mail; the iPhone can only sync invites already handled by Exchange. Plus, you can’t move an event from one iPhone calendar to another, such as from your personal calendar to your work one. That’s just dumb.

The Pre, on the other hand, allows you to move events across calendars, and it can accept calendar invites and handle reminders from Exchange and Google.

Galen: Reading e-mail is a comparable experience on both devices, though the iPhone’s larger screen, its ability to view messages in landscape mode (where the text is bigger), and controls over the inbox’s text size reduced the strain on my middle-age eyes. With the Pre, I need reading glasses.

I also liked the iPhone’s ability to select multiple messages for quick deletion, which the Pre doesn’t do. But I got frustrated that I had no way to search e-mails on the Pre, something very useful that the iPhone 3.0 OS update adds to the iPhone.

Brandon: It’s true that bulk deletion is not currently possible on the Pre. But for individual message deletion, the Pre has the iPhone beat: A single push of the screen is all it takes. On the iPhone, swiping in the right place to get the Delete button — without opening the message instead — is tricky.

Both the Pre and the iPhone let you view common attachment formats such as Word, Excel, and PDF. But neither can handle zipped attachments. I give Pre a nod for letting you save attachments for use with other apps, which the iPhone still can’t do.

On the Pre, adding a person from a phone call, SMS, IM, or e-mail is a simple click operation. With the iPhone, it’s a single tap, so that’s a draw. And both devices show multiple calendars, while distinguishing each; both also preserve calendar names from Exchange, iCal, and so on.

As for integrating conversations with the same person across IM and SMS in a single view, only the Pre can do that.

Galen: In the address book, the iPhone lets you jump easily to contacts by tapping a letter, such as T to navigate to people whose last names begin with T. Or you can search for someone in the Search field by tapping part of the name.

Brandon: The Pre has a similar function, using its universal “type for what you want” approach: Type a T to get to the T’s. And you can type more of the name to narrow your search, just as the iPhone can in its search window. So there’s one way to navigate the address book, not two.

The winner: The iPhone, by a nose. Overall, the iPhone — thanks to the iPhone 3.0 OS upgrade — is more suitable for business communications, but the Pre comes in a close second. Most people would be satisfied with the Pre, and those who communicate through multiple channels will prefer it.

Deathmatch: Applications Galen: Palm has made a lot of noise about the Pre’s ability to run multiple apps simultaneously. The iPhone can’t do that, and often when you switch from one app to another and then back, the first app resets. I really like how the Pre handles multiple simultaneous apps, letting you move among them through the row-of-cards metaphor. It really makes Apple’s push notification addition to iPhone OS 3.0 look pathetic.

Brandon: This is the Pre’s strongest feature compared with the iPhone. If, for example, you need directions to colleague’s office, you can dial the first few letters of the person’s name (first or last), choose the contact profile from a list of search results, tap the address, and automatically launch the Google Maps app to get directions from your current location. As soon as you get to your destination, you can use a left-to-right gesture to scroll back to the contacts app where the phone number of your colleague is still displayed.

Galen: Where I think the Pre falls short on apps is in its app store, which has very little to offer, and Palm’s delay in rolling out its SDK won’t help matters. So there’s not a lot you can do with the Pre in terms of apps, even if you can switch among them easily. The inability to peruse Pre apps from the desktop is also a detraction, or it will be when there are enough apps available that the confines of the Pre’s screen inhibit finding them.

Brandon: If Palm wants to gain an edge over Apple in this regard, it will let users load applications from anywhere rather than having to go through a central app store. This open platform approach would complement the already more progressive multitasking capability of the Pre’s WebOS, which facilitates interactivity among apps to accomplish tasks.

Galen: What really frustrated me on the Pre was its Launcher, where your apps reside. By default, it’s one screen that you scroll through vertically. But that screen shows only some of your apps; the rest are hidden on additional “pages” that you have to scroll to horizontally.

But you can’t scroll to them until you move this little slider icon at the bottom right of the Launcher. Who would figure that out? Making you scroll vertically implies one long page, à la a Web page; the hidden horizontal control is hugely unintuitive. The fact that you can’t launch apps from the Launcher’s list view also mystified me.

Brandon: There’s an easier way to find apps than what you suggest: The Pre’s automatic search functionality will display apps in the search results as soon as you begin typing the first letters of the app’s name.

Galen: For business document editing, I used the $20 Quickoffice for iPhone, a productivity editor for Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint documents that lets you perform basic edits and retain revisions tracking in the original document. But it doesn’t work with zipped files.

And Apple’s prohibition against saving files on the iPhone means that Quickoffice can’t get to those e-mail attachments. Quickoffice does offer a cool tool to transfer files to and from the iPhone over Wi-Fi, but you need your computer up and running to do that — in which case, why would you edit the documents on the iPhone?

Of course, there is no document editor available for the Pre. Yes, DataViz has announced Documents to Go for the Pre, but given the recently released iPhone version, I’m not that hopeful: All it can do is basic editing of Word docs — though it does let you edit them from e-mail attachments, at least.

Brandon: We’ll have to see what apps come for the Pre in the future, so I’ll concede Office editing for now. But the iPhone’s inability to edit documents in e-mail is huge; how much advantage does the iPhone really have here if you can’t get to the documents in the first place?

Galen: I also use Google Docs on the iPhone. It’s barely possible to edit a spreadsheet; the most you can do is select and add rows and edit an individual cell’s contents. You can’t edit a text document, and for calendars all you can do is view and delete appointments.

Brandon: The iPhone may not be so great for Google Docs, but the Pre is. There is the hindrance of having to zoom in and out of each file because of the mobile screen size, but the Pre does a great job of allowing you to view and edit Google Docs.

The winner: A tie. The iPhone’s breadth of apps is unmatched, but iPhone users will be jealous of the Pre’s multi-app capability and its ability to work with Google Docs well. The iPhone’s lack of multitasking is a major limitation to using the huge array of apps out there, and it keeps them from working together. The Pre, on the other hand, needs more apps and perhaps a simpler presentation of the apps you have installed.

Deathmatch: Web and Internet Galen: Before the iPhone had a wealth of apps, it had a wealth of Web sites, thanks to its Safari browser’s support for most modern desktop Web technology, though Flash support is the big omission. That means you can view most Web pages on the iPhone, as long as you are willing to zoom in and scroll. But as noted in the previous section, Web-based tools such as Google Docs are a different story. Here I find the Pre easily as capable on the Web as the iPhone is.

Brandon: With Flash expected to arrive on the Pre this fall and its status on the iPhone a continuing mystery, the Pre may soon be a better Web device than the iPhone.

The winner: A tie. Both the iPhone and Pre are real Web devices, giving you the true Web experience — minus Flash.

Deathmatch: Location support Galen: Both the iPhone and the Pre support GPS location, and both can triangulate location based on Wi-Fi signals. Both devices also come with Google Maps, which can find your current destination, provide directions, and otherwise help you navigate. Both devices let developers integrate location information in their apps, so location is just another native feature.

I have to admit I like the Pre’s implementation of Google Maps better when it comes to following directions. The iPhone pages from one junction to the next, so I lose the context of where I am in relation to my whole trip. The Pre moves the map along the path, so you have a better handle of the next junction point.

Brandon: Well, you took the words right out of my mouth. In both devices, location really is built in as a foundational capability. That’s why in both devices, for example, a single click on a contact’s address can automatically set a destination in the Google Maps application.

The winner: A tie.

Deathmatch: User interface Galen: One of the biggest criticisms of the iPhone is its touch-based virtual keyboard. I admit that it takes longer to get used to than a physical keyboard, but once I navigated that learning curve, I found I was just as fast on it as on a physical keyboard. Still, I have trouble on the iPhone with Q, W, O, and P, due to the optical illusion as to their location caused by the glass.

But not having a physical keyboard lets you enter text on the iPhone when it’s rotated — try that with a keyboard. Sure, Apple (or someone) should sell a plug-in keyboard for the iPhone, but overall, I think the virtual keyboard criticism is overstated.

Brandon: I like having the physical keyboard because it is faster to use and doesn’t require a learning curve. I can get used to the touch screen for typing, but with the Pre I don’t have to. And I like how the Pre has keyboard shortcuts — something that isn’t possible with the touch-only iPhone.

Galen: I didn’t like the Pre keyboard as much as the BlackBerry’s. The biggest reason: Its keys are shiny, so they’re hard to read in sunlight, such as near a window. And the red-on-black for the number keys is hard to read even in controlled lighting. As with the BlackBerry, the keyboard’s labels are so tiny I needed my reading glasses to use it.

Typing numbers and special symbols on the Pre can result in hand-wrenching positions, and you really do need to use both thumbs, due to how the Shift and Orange keys work. (The Orange key is sort of like a PC’s Alt key.) Entering numerals with regular text is particularly burdensome. The iPhone works best if you use just your index finger, which, for me, is quicker than double-thumbing on a Pre.

And speaking of reading glasses, I need them to do almost anything on the Pre. The reason: The Pre’s smaller screen and smaller text — and the lack of options to increase text size in most apps.

I also get frustrated at how basic copy and paste is not accessible in many applications on the Pre. You can’t copy text from e-mail, the Web, or Doc Viewer, for example, though you can on the iPhone. Nor can the Pre copy graphics.

When you can copy and paste on the Pre — editable fields, such as a URL, phone number, or address — it doesn’t work as easily as it does on the iPhone, as the Pre makes you tap to choose a start point, press the Orange key, then hold Shift while you select the text. (With the iPhone, you just tap and hold the start point, then drag to select what you want.)

When I try to move the Pre’s selection pointer, the device often thinks I am clicking elsewhere and moves to an adjacent field because I haven’t pressed Shift fast enough. And it rarely copies my entire selection even when I do press Shift in time.

But my biggest UI complaint on the Pre revolves around its touch interface. The main screen is a touch screen, so you can tap, scroll, swipe, pinch, and so forth. But there’s a separate area that you use for gesture-based navigation, such as going back a level in an app or “minimizing” the current app card to see the other open apps’ cards. I find the two touch areas confusing, especially because sometimes you can use either for the same function but other times you cannot. I’m sure over time I’d develop the muscle memory necessary to know when to use each, but it’s not logical or obvious. By making all gestures occur on the touch screen, the iPhone prevents such modal confusion.

Brandon: I share the frustration over the Pre’s copy and paste, and I agree that having a separate gesture area on the Pre imposes a steeper learning curve, but it also supports the Pre’s commitment to dissolving the walls between applications.

The gesture area and the button that sits in the middle of it offer quick ways to move from app to app or to return to the card view to quickly get a higher-level view of the tasks you want to accomplish. The gesture area breaks meta-navigation out from the inner workings of each app so that movement from one to the next remains consistent despite the UI choices made available by disparate app developers.

The iPhone makes you switch modes by pressing the Home button to return to your Home screen and select the next app. In a sense, it uses the Home button as the much more limited equivalent of the Pre’s gesture area. Pre’s approach can scale, while the iPhone’s cannot. As for the screen’s readabiity, I had no problems.

The winner: The iPhone, by a head. The Pre has a lot going for it, with most differences that an iPhone user might object to being the result of legitimate design decisions, not due to poor choices. The iPhone wins here because the Pre should have a more legible keyboard and the ability to make onscreen text more legible. And the Pre’s limited copy and paste is inexcusable.

Deathmatch: Security and management Galen: Speaking of modal confusion, the Pre also frustrates me in how it handles device preferences. They’re scattered throughout the apps, with a few dedicated apps for specific device preferences mixed in with your other apps.

It becomes a treasure hunt to find, for example, where you turn on the device password or wipe the app’s data. Setting up a VPN or installing a security certificate happens in yet other places. The iPhone’s Settings app is much easier to use, putting core preferences one place (individual apps can have their own preferences directly accessible within them).

Brandon: The Pre offers preferences at the time and place the user needs to access them rather then centralizing them into a single overwhelming menu. I’ll concede that Palm may need to accommodate users accustomed to Control Panel or System Preferences on their desktops and, thus, expect a central location from which they can access the preferences for all apps. But does it really make sense to leave the Mail app on the iPhone to change mail settings? On the Pre, you set mail preferences in the Mail app.

Galen: The iPhone, while still trailing the BlackBerry, is a device that IT can actually manage, thanks to the basic Exchange management tools that the iPhone OS supports and to the sophisticated controls over passwords, configurations, certificates, and so on that the free Apple Configuration Utility provides. The Pre has none of this, just basic remote wiping capability comparable to the iPhone’s.

Brandon: It’s true that the Pre doesn’t have the kind of management and security functions that the iPhone now has. But it does let users set an alphanumeric password, not just a numeric one.

The iPhone only allows alphanumeric passwords if you use the iPhone Configuration Utility, which individual users won’t. And the remote wipe capability on the Pre is instigated through SMS, so you can wipe a device even if you don’t use an Exchange Server — the iPhone’s remote wipe is tied to Exchange.

And the Pre backs up its core profile data wirelessly to the service provider, while the iPhone backs up such data only to iTunes, which most large businesses would prefer not to have on corporate PCs.

The winner: The iPhone, especially for larger businesses. But individuals and small businesses will likely find the Pre’s security capabilities perfectly adequate and will not need the iPhone’s management functionality.

Where the Pre wins There’s no question that the Palm Pre shows the iPhone how multitasking should be done. Apple apologists may cite the safety and security of the iPhone’s one-app-at-a-time approach, but it died on desktops nearly two decades ago and has no place in the mobile world.

And the Pre’s activity card metaphor for navigating among apps is highly intuitive, more so than always having to go back to the Home screen to switch apps, as is the case with the iPhone.

We believe that the Pre’s ability to not only run multiple apps but let them work together is a significant leap forward that the iPhone must make for its long-term viability to be assured.

Where the iPhone wins The iPhone is a better device for business users, especially those in enterprise environments. Its ability to send calendar invites is one of those little things that make all the difference when you’re doing business on the road. And the iPhone has a bunch of better-thought-out capabilities. Plus, its management and security capabilities are much stronger than the Pre’s if you use the free iPhone Configuration Utility.

The iPhone’s device search is more capable, and its copy-and-paste functionality is both easier to use and more broadly usable. And the iPhone has a major leg up in the wealth of apps available for it.

The overall winner is … The Pre is a surprisingly strong competitor to the groundbreaking iPhone. RIM’s efforts to compete with the iPhone have been uninspiring; the Google Android platform turned out to be a weak competitor, too wrapped up in Google’s offerings to the exclusion of the business world; and Microsoft has been AWOL.

For business users, the iPhone wins InfoWorld’s mobile deathmatch, but it was no knockout fight. Individual users will have a tougher decision to make and likely end up choosing based on device and UI aesthetics (Galen prefers the iPhone still, but Brandon is quite happy that he chose the Pre) and the appeal (or not) of the communication collaboration the Pre enables but the iPhone does not.

A year ago, the Pre could have derailed the iPhone. Today, the iPhone has moved enough ahead to stay in front. But the Pre is close on its heels, and its multitasking strength is what could ultimately let it blow past the iPhone in a next iteration.


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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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