The iPhone started a paradigm shift in mobile that led to a deluge of touch-screen devices, which differ only slightly in feature sets and overall experience. Marek Pawlowski of MEX writes a very detailed account how Palm went back to its ideological roots and to the blackboard to design a unique mobile device–the Pre. In some aspects, the Pre seems to make improvements on common features such as the ergonomics of the QWERTY keyboard:
The curvature of the handset improves the balance when typing, combating the “top heavy” feeling users complain of with standard QWERTY monoblocs like the Blackberry Bold and Nokia E71.
However, beyond some tweaks to existing models, there are three features that are truly revolutionary. The first is Palm’s dedication to web connectivity as the heart of the device:
Indeed, as the name suggests, webOS has been designed with web connectivity at the very heart of the platform… Users can add contacts from a wide range of sources, either by desktop synchronisation or from web services such as Facebook, and Palm’s webOS will intelligently combine them to ensure duplicate contacts are avoided.
Secondly, Palm has cast away the limitations of buttons on the device and created a touch-sensitive strip below the touchscreen, called the Gesture Bar, that reads gestures as inputs:
Palm has also chosen to extend the input area below the touchscreen. The lower portion of the device face, immediately below the the screen, is actually sensitive to gestures. For instance, swiping a finger backwards across this area will take you back a step in webOS.
Finally, the good folk at Palm took a huge gamble and snubbed the cute and sexy icon-based input grid. They opted instead for a text-based method of selecting device applications and features:
[The text-based universal search], where a user simply starts typing the first few letters of any item they want to find on their handset – from contacts and bookmarks to applications and emails – may be one of the most significant contributors to the webOS user experience… It may not sound as intuitive as selecting an attractive icon from a grid, but in trials it has proven itself to be an incredibly effective way of encouraging wider use of handset features. Crucially, it provides consistency: one discovery method can be used to access anything. The human mind loves routine and learns it quickly, so interaction methods which allow users to repeat processes tend to lead to much quicker task completion times. In contrast, completion times slow when the user has to pause and consider which interaction method they should use to proceed. The consistency of universal search can have a dramatic effect on customer experience.
The jury is still out on the potential of the Palm Pre (Gizmodo thinks it’s amazing), but it does bring some interesting new innovations to the table. Game on.