Palm stole the show last year at CES when it revealed the Palm Pre and webOS, the company’s new flagship smartphone and Linux-based mobile software platform. It was a bold Hail Mary from a company that many industry observers thought was already out of the game. Palm’s press briefing this year was less daring, but still delivered some significant evolutionary advancements for the company’s mobile vision.
Palm is boosting its hardware lineup, augmenting its software platform, and expanding its developer ecosystem. The biggest news is a pair of new devices—incremental updates of the company’s existing Pre and Pixi smartphones. The new handsets, called the Pre Plus and Pixi Plus, will be available later this month from Verizon. The Pre Plus got a minor facelift with a simplified design that ditches the front navigation button. It will also have more memory.
Palm has been working on webOS 1.4, a new version of the software platform that will introduce some significant new features, including support for recording, editing, and uploading video. It will be made available to users as an over-the-air update at some point in February. Palm also announced the availability of a Flash 10 beta plugin, which users will soon be able to download from the App Catalog.
In order to accommodate efficient execution of more computationally intensive workloads, Palm is introducing a new native plug-in development kit (PDK) that will allow developers to implement some parts of their application in C and C++. This is similar in principle to the NDK that Google released for Android last year. In addition to providing major performance advantages, it will also make it possible for Pre developers to reuse some of their existing C and C++ code.
The PDK will help to address one of the most glaring deficiencies of Palm’s third-party application offerings: the lack of games. A number of prominent game development studios are launching major titles for the Pre (but not the Pixi, unfortunately), including Sims 3 and Need for Speed with real 3D rendering. During the press briefing, EA vice president Travis Boatman says that Palm’s PDK made it possible to bring modern games to webOS without having to sacrifice the performance that users expect.
Palm is opening up its worldwide developer program to everyone, and will be accepting more software into the App Catalog. The company has also vowed to open up the App Catalog’s database of application metadata so that third-party websites can publish information about webOS software. This will make it possible to create custom webOS software indexes with social features and custom ranking capabilities.
The company has been working to lower the barriers to entry for development and distribution. It says that it will allow unrestricted distribution over the Internet outside of its own App Catalog. During the briefing, Palm also touted Ares, its impressive new Web-based development environment, which we looked at last month.
Palm is also expanding its carrier partnerships. Both AT&T and Verizon will carry Palm phones, with the latter getting the Pre Plus and Pixi Plus starting January 25. AT&T will start carrying Palm’s phone later on this year. The updated phones will also be able to run a new mobile hotspot app that will allow them to share a 3G data connection to up to five clients over WiFi.
Following Palm’s announcement of its plans for the PDK and developer program, we spoke with independent developer Ed Finkler, the creator of a popular open source Twitter application called Spaz. Finkler, who recently announced version 1.0 of Spaz for webOS, is one of several third-party developers who have participated in Palm’s developer program from the start.
“I think [Palm] are doing what they can to make webOS dev-friendly. It seems like they are addressing a lot of the issues they had, especially with more direct access to hardware,” he remarked. “They’ve really embraced the homebrew community, far more than any other major hardware provider I am aware of. That’s pretty awesome.”
Indeed, Palm marketing VP Katie Mitic took the opportunity to personally thank the homebrew community during her segment of Palm’s press briefing. It was a meaningful gesture that demonstrates Palm’s increasingly developer-savvy approach to community-building. It’s a much different attitude than the company exhibited when it got a bit of a rocky start with homebrew developers last year.
Although Palm didn’t announce anything radically new at CES, the company is clearly refining its strategy and working to build momentum around its platform. The PDK, which seems like a particularly compelling addition to the webOS development platform, is already bringing a lot of value to Palm’s customers thanks to the new video games. Palm is clearly still an agile contender in the smartphone arena.