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Palm Pre-View: Developers High on webOS

Could webOS be the make-or-break Palm Pre's secret weapon? CTOs with experience developing webOS smartphone apps think so, saying the mobile operating system's familiar building blocks will create a new paradigm in mobile programming.

The fate of the embattled handset maker relies on the success of the Palm Pre, which goes on sale Saturday. All eyes are on the Pre as it will compete with new versions of the iconic iPhone, expected to be released days -- or weeks -- later in what's shaping up as a competitive summer in the smartphone market as rivals roll out signature products.

At stake is nothing less than the lion's share of the lucrative smartphone market, which is growing amid a wider slump in cell phone sales.

For Palm, the Pre marks the company's rebirth -- and its future. After years of losing market share, it has to successfully launch the Pre and follow up with other models built around a viable ecosystem, and this largely depends on the experience the software delivers, both to consumers and developers.

The Pre webOS is built on HTML, Javascript and CSS, standard Web environments, so developers say they can complete applications much more quickly, and with less effort, compared to other mobile operating systems.

Notable elements of the new operating system include enhancements such as the "Deck of Cards" design that lets a user scroll through applications and toggle between them without having to open windows and support for continual information updates in real-time. The user interface also centralizes e-mail accounts, contact and calendar information, and the phone itself boasts a full slide-out keyboard in addition to a color touchscreen display.

Indeed, the capability to synchronize functions will be seen in the Pandora app at launch. "It's the Pandora fans know and love, but unique to the Pre is that Pandora is integrated with the OS, so you can listen to music in the background, and use the controls without being inside the Pandora app. If you're in e-mail, you can type the e-mail, pause the music if you need to, and then start it all up again without skipping a beat, without leaving the e-mail app," Tom Conrad, Pandora CTO, told InternetNews.com.

Likewise, Mike Benjamin, CEO, of FlightView, says the capability to run applications in the background while providing real-time updates is key to his company's flight status app. "If you're interested in a flight, the Pre does it in the background while you're not paying attention, and then can give you an alert, with other platforms, you won't see it unless you bring it up. Palm integrates it into the native app of the phone so you see the info in your calendar, too," he told InternetNews.com.com.

But for developers, Conrad says the low barrier to entry of webOS is the key as it will usher in a quicker development cycle, which will help nurture a thriving and necessary developer community.

"What's exciting about that dimension of webOS is that mobile applications has been a black art. You needed a specialized set of skills. To be a mobile developer you had to steep yourself in mobile-specific technologies and platforms.

"The iPhone is fantastic, but it continued that. What's game-changing about webOS is its built on Web standards that are already largely understood by most developers, they can just jump right in there," Conrad told InternetNews.com.

Ted Wugofski, CTO of business app maker Handmark, agrees, saying webOS is also less expensive in terms of time and financial investment on the part of developers.

"I'm extremely excited about webOS. I've been doing this for 10 years now, and it's been evolving. The challenge has been that you build specialized apps for particular platforms, which means it's costly to do anything on mobile. With webOS, programming for the Pre is a lot like programming for the Web, we're getting closer to a program paradigm that's right for the industry," Wugofski told InternetNews.com.com. "For us, what's important is getting to market quickly and keeping costs down and having a great user experience, and, in a nutshell, webOS allows us to do that.

Furthermore, he said because webOS is so closely integrated to the Internet, Palm has an advantage over other mobile operating systems, namely, the iPhone OS X.

"If you look where the Web is going today, stuff like HTML 5, and where Palm is taking mobile devices, they're ahead of the game, ahead of both Apple and even Android when it comes to evolving the platform closer in line with the rest of the Web," Wugofksi said.

And while the mobile operating system is being lauded for the capability to synchronize applications and streamline content, some have questioned how well the Web-based platform will support gaming. Conrad doesn't think it will be an issue for the majority of gaming apps. "Certain kinds of games, you want to program right to the metal, so to speak. The current OS leaves that unanswered, but there's nothing I know of that fundamentally says it's impossible to do that."

Meanwhile, some analysts have criticized Palm for a lack of developer support at launch, though Fandango, Pandora, FlightView and Handmark are on board, and they aren't worried.

Conrad, for one, says starting off with a handful of partners is prudent. "Palm is poised to do well, I think we'll see a great deal of interest in the developer community and it will be thriving once the environment matures."

Aside from benefits to developers, Conrad warns against underestimating the fan base of Palm, saying it's still there, waiting for a reason to be reawakened after a fallow era in the company's history, which bodes well for the company's future success.

"Palm is a tremendously successful brand, they've built a loyal fan base, there's a lot of affection for Palm, and the Pre can tap into that same type of emotion on the part of the consumer, the way Apple does," said Conrad. "Very few companies have that connection, but Palm is one that does."

Fandango CTO Shane Shane O'Neill adds that a reignited fan base will trigger the cyclical nature integral to a successful app ecosystem.

"I believe there is a strong Palm following. This will in turn create new Palm users. And in turn this will mean that more developers will want or need to produce for the device," O'Neill told InternetNews.com.

Palm first presented the Pre at a trade show in January, saying it would be out by mid-year. Since then, industry watchers have been waiting for the introduction of the smartphone, which has generated buzz as a potential "iPhone killer."

In terms of how it will stack up compared to the iPhone, Wugofski, who says the "the Pre had me at hello," thinks it should fare well. "I don't want to say if it's an iPhone killer or not. That's a loaded comment, but I think it will do extremely well. In terms of apps, it will have to play catch up, but because you can use your existing Web developers, you don't have to hire C# and Java programmers. The barrier is low enough that it can compete."

While it remains to be seen exactly how the Pre will do once it goes on sale, one thing is certain: This summer will be a smartphone showcase of spectacular proportions, said Wugofski. "We're going to have three new platforms. The next iPhone OS version, Palm Pre's webOS and the next version of Android out there. I don't believe the market has ever seen such a season, both from a user and a developer perspective."