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Palm Places Bets on Sleek Phone, Web-Centric OS

Palm Pre at CES 2009
The new Palm Pre smartphone, unveiled at CES 2009. Source: Palm. Click to enlarge.

Embattled mobile device pioneer Palm is wagering that a new, cloud-centric smartphone platform called webOS and a curvy new phone, the Pre, will help to reverse its sagging fortunes.

Both webOS and the Pre, the first phone to use the new mobile operating system, made their debut in Las Vegas today during the company's media event at the 2009 Consumer Electronics Show.

The event comes as industry observers are looking to gauge Palm's (NASDAQ: PALM) ability to make a comeback following years of slow declines -- while rivals like Research in Motion's BlackBerry and Apple's iPhone made inroads into the mobile device and smartphone spaces.

According to Palm, the Pre and its webOS software give users the ability to centralize mobile content and resources in one centralized place -- the cloud -- and thereby deliver a mobile experience unlike competing devices. The Linux-based webOS platform is designed to help users sync their phone content with other Web-based and PC sources, so it's accessible elsewhere on the Internet, according to Palm's live blog from the event. All user data created on webOS-based devices is automatically saved online, the company also said.

"WebOS and Pre bring game-changing simplicity to an increasingly mobile world by dissolving the barriers that surround your information," Ed Colligan, Palm's president and CEO, said in a statement.

If that's indeed the case, the timing couldn't be better for Palm. The launches come at what some analysts have described as "do or die" time for the handset maker, which is struggling against competition from newcomer Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) and its rabidly popular iPhone, and the BlackBerry line of devices from Research in Motion (NASDAQ: RIMM), the market leader in smartphones. Analysts have said that Palm's financial future depends on it being able to deliver a new mobile platform that outshines both competitors.

"If the new OS and devices live up to the hype, Palm then needs to capitalize on it," Bonny Joy, analyst with the Global Wireless Practice at Strategy Analytics, told Internetnews.com. "This is a crucial point for them -- a last chance, as they are in a box at this point."

To better its odds, Palm is hoping to entice smartphone buyers with some unique features.

For starters, webOS's roots in the cloud enable it to automatically link a user's information to multiple sources -- including Microsoft Outlook, Google and Facebook accounts. As a result, an update made to a contact's record while using Facebook on a PC will be updated on the phone.

The OS performs similar integration for instant messaging and text messaging: Users can view all messages with a contact in a chat-style view, regardless of whether the conversation took place through IM, text messaging, or both.

The Pre's webOS user interface is also designed to stand out from rivals. For one thing, it's not icon-centric, as are most smartphone touchscreen displays. The UI instead relies on a design that enables users to flip among applications and information screens.

"We use a deck of cards that you can move through with one hand as our basic metaphor. Every application is a card, and you can shuffle through these cards with gestures," the company said on its blog.

[cob:Special_Report]Another key user interface feature is how the webOS handles notifications -- which Palm said is done using a more "diplomatic" approach. If a user receives a text message or e-mail, a scrolling notifications bar at the bottom of the device screen lets them react immediately or ignore it for later response.

Palm also said users of the webOS can run multiple applications at the same time, moving from one to another without having to first close out of an app.

To entice developers to embrace the platform, Palm said developers who can write software for the Web will be able to easily develop for the webOS. According to the company, webOS leverages basic Web technologies such as CSS, XHTML and JavaScript.

Palm also said developers would be able to distribute their apps via an on-device, over-the-air application store.

As for the new Pre smartphone, the device features a rounded-edge design and a slide-out keyboard. The phone's 3.1-inch touchscreen display uses an iPhone-like accelerometer, enabling users to turn the device horizontally to improve viewing of Web pages.

The Pre also includes Wi-Fi, 8GB of storage, Outlook Exchange synchronizing capabilities and a three-megapixel camera. Palm officials called the device "beautiful" and "brainy."

Palm declined to state pricing and said the Pre will be available in the first half of this year from its exclusive carrier, Sprint.