With the Pre, Sprint, Palm Hope to Help Each Other

It’s heeeeeere. The Palm-tergeist, that is. But is it enough to scare Research in Motion Ltd. and Apple Inc.?

We refer, of course, to the new Linux-based mobile OS unveiled Thursday at the Consumer Electronics Show by Palm Inc.. It’s officially called webOS — it was previously code-named Nova — and it’s meant to, as you might guess from the name, power devices specifically optimized for tapping into cloud services and Web applications. That’s a sparsely inhabited sliver of the market currently occupied by the Google G1, MIDs and netbooks. “The default thinking of this platform isn’t to hook up to a desktop PC, it is to connect to the cloud,” said Ed Colligan, president and CEO of Palm, at a press briefing. “[This will] redefine the center of your access point to the Internet.”

Palm hopes the focus on the Interwebs is forward-thinking enough to rejuvenate its ailing fortunes. And other people’s ailing fortunes, too, specifically Sprint-Nextel Corp., which has an exclusive deal for the first webOS device, the Palm Pre. Sprint CEO Dan Hesse just told investors at a conference that the carrier has to start adding subscribers again (it’s been hemorrhaging them for several quarters), while trimming costs (by closing as many as 20 call centers and reducing headcount). So, a hot new device just might come in handy.

Is the Pre hot enough to take on market leaders like the iPhone and BlackBerry Storm? To bring Palm back to life (or at least bolster its paltry 14 percent smartphone share)? To save Sprint’s bacon? Well, it’s sleek, it’s black, it’s touchscreen, has 8 gigs of storage, Wi-Fi, GPS, USB port, Bluetooth, accelerometer, 3-megapixel camera. So far, that’s table stakes.

What’s differentiating? It has a physical slide-out QWERTY keyboard, like the G1, which a lot of folks might like better than the virtual keyboards in other new smartphones. OS-wise, it offers the Palm Synergy e-mail portal with an inbox that can aggregate messages from all accounts, from Gmail to Outlook, and also combines IM and texts. And it links contacts, so if you have the same person listed in your Facebook, work and AIM accounts, it recognizes that so you can access all messages from a person regardless of medium. And, it’s got a charging dock, which is nifty.

It has a range of on-device native Sprint services, like Sprint TV, turn-by-turn directions and streaming radio, but the real benefit is access to the Palm Software Store, which is like the Android Market or the Apple App Store. Palm has an advantage in offering an open development environment that’s familiar to tens of millions of Web developers because it’s Linux-based, and not an overly tweaked Linux version like Google Android that requires re-learning.

Will it be enough? Analysts already are shaking their heads that this is too little, too late, especially given the economy. But consider how much people love Palm, and probably sadly migrated away as the Treo et al became a bit obsolete. They might jump on the Pre (due out “soon,” price TBD). And consider the comment of Roger McNamee, a Palm board member. He told the New York Times: “In the 1.2-billion-unit cellphone market, you don’t need much market share to generate billions in revenue.”

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