updated 06:00 pm EDT, Mon June 8, 2009
Palm Pre Faces 99 iPhone
With the launch of Apple's $99 iPhone 3G and the iPhone 3GS now less than two weeks away, owners Palm Pre -- as well as prospective iPhone buyers -- may be asking how the two devices compare. Electronista has taken a close look at the two and can say that both Palm and Sprint should be very concerned; the new iPhone mix is likely to create severe pressure on Sprint to lower the price of the Pre, though it's not quite as much of a discount as it would appear on the surface.
To put it bluntly, the original iPhone 3G at $99 is a near-direct match for the Pre most of the at half the up-front price. Both have 3G, GPS and Wi-Fi as well as 8GB of built-in memory. Their screens are also the same at 480x320 with multi-touch, so in many respects visuals are at a draw -- though the gesture area on the Pre gives some screen space back that on the iPhone is taken up by navigation buttons.
Either has certain trade-offs: while the Pre has a hardware QWERTY keyboard, a replaceable battery and a higher-resolution 3-megapixel camera, it also has a smaller screen, a thicker body (17mm versus 12mm) and reduced build quality. These drawbacks won't necessarily matter to some users but, combined with the added price, mean that customers are paying $100 extra for features that don't automatically matter; those who find the hardware keys uncomfortable won't consider the Pre an advantage at any price.
Also, the situation is just as difficult at the same $199 price interval with the iPhone 3GS now in place. For the same amount, Apple's hardware has twice the internal storage, faster 3G (on those networks that support it) and a camera that supports video capture where the Pre only allows still photos. Only one Pre model with no expansion leaves buyers with little choice if they need more than 8GB of space. And Apple has other, minor advantages specific to its ecosystem, such as a bottom dock connector (useful for speaker systems) as well as Nike+ support for runners.
It's in software that Apple's advantages are much less clear. The Pre has one key edge that no iPhone to date has: multitasking. Owners of Palm's latest can keep their web browser open while they stream Internet radio or track a flight on FlightView while keeping open the e-mail message that provided the flight number. While this carries its own pitfalls of performance degradation for those who abuse the feature, Pre users have the option; iPhone owners don't, at least this year.
However, Apple has at least closed many of the gaps that would otherwise be glaring, and most of them solely in software. Even the $99 iPhone 3G now has copy-paste text, device-wide search, MMS and voice memos; an iPhone 3GS adds voice control for many common apps. Unless pre-supplied (and admittedly useful) Sprint apps like the company's turn-by-turn navigation app are essential, many of the differences have been eroded in one fell swoop.
iPhone apps may also have a decided edge in being allowed to talk directly to the hardware for nearly every task. This permits 3D games and other advanced apps to run where the Pre's webOS only enables limited access. Palm has hinted to Electronista that this could change, but for now iPhone apps will go "deeper" than Pre apps -- even if iPhone apps have to run one at a time.
service plans and the network
If there's one area where Palm (or rather, Sprint) can claim an advantage, it's in its network. Although the Pre's minimum Everything Data plan costs the same $70 as AT&T's base iPhone plan, it also bundles in unlimited messaging and free access to Sprint's navigation service. AT&T charges at least $5 extra for messaging and doesn't have a solution of its own for GPS on the iPhone. Over the course of a typical two-year plan, a Pre owner will likely save $120 if compared against AT&T's basic plan, and as much as $480 if they truly need unlimited messaging.
AT&T's network, in turn, can be a disadvantage by itself in certain regions. In major cities where the iPhone user base is particularly high, such as New York City or San Francisco, the iPhone is still likely to suffer from dropped calls and slow or non-existent 3G service. Sprint may have less to worry about due to fewer subscribers and less demand, but its network has typically avoided many of these problems. Even during the WWDC keynote, some users were reported as relying on their Palm Pres to relay information where iPhones and the rest of the AT&T network were all but disabled.
The main caveat is the longevity of the network technology. AT&T plans to upgrade its 3G service to faster speeds and will eventually move to 4G, with 3G as a legacy format. Sprint also has plans as well, but CDMA and EVDO are unlikely to survive at a certain stage. It's unlikely that both will be shut off anytime soon, but it does mean that the cut-off point will come sooner.
Also, the Pre's choice of network standards mean that world roaming isn't an option. Outside of Canada, the Pre will more than likely not work at all. Roaming fees can be exorbitant, especially for data, but they're at least an option.
Palm and Sprint can claim at least a minor win on paper. The long-term costs of ownership are indeed lower, and the hidden benefit of a more reliable network may be worth any added initial cost. There will also be power users who simply need multiple simultaneous apps or who are experienced with hardware keyboards.
Much of that, however, won't matter to many casual iPhone buyers. The $99 iPhone 3G is sufficiently inexpensive enough that the Pre's plan advantage is negated. And while an iPhone 3GS will be more expensive to use over two years, there's no escaping that it has more headroom for storage and already has more features, at least until Palm can upgrade webOS in earnest.
There will always be those who buy a Pre because they're existing Sprint subscribers, because they dislike (or just can't use) AT&T's network, or because they believe Apple is too controlling. But with as many as 40 percent of iPhone customers coming from other carriers even before the $99 model's debut, we suspect many will only see the initial price tag and overlook Palm altogether.