Palm Pre: Nice UI, severe lack of functionality

Using the Palm Pre: Everything but an exciting experience :(

During the last week I've started to use my new Palm Pre (for those of you who're living under a rock: The Palm Pre is a smartphone powered by an Operating System called WebOS, which is in turn powered by the Linux kernel and lots of other "standard" Linux programs like glibc, alsa, udev, ...

This adherence to a more standard Linux userland makes the Pre much more attractive than the Android based products out there. Android is reinventing the wheel everywhere, and things that Linux users and developers have been taking for granted during the last five to ten years simply don't exist on Android.

To be honest, the experience was everything but exciting. More about that later. Lets' start with the positive side of things. Yes, I like the device for the following facts:

  • it's using a not-too-ancient Linux kernel
  • it uses a fairly standard Linux userland, that
  • the development tools are also running on Linux (albeit proprietary)
  • there is an easy way to access the command line of the device via USB
  • there is software for re-flashing the phone in case it is bricked
  • the WebOS "distribution" is built using OE and uses the ipk packet format
  • they did not try to lock the device down from their users. You can easily be root on your phone, install additional ipks from third parties and own your phone
Which is what got me excited and made me buy one of those expensive devices.

However, looking at it from a strict user point of view, I am not very happy with it. It simply lacks so much in functionality that it is not even funny.

  • No RSS reader
  • The Nokia web tablets had a working, built-in RSS reader even many years ago when the n770 was released. Given the importance of RSS feeds and blogs in todays web, I'm surprised that webOS does not ship with a RSS reader. To make it even worse, I could not find any third-party RSS reader for it!

  • No Jabber / ICQ / AIM support
  • The messenger supports only SMS and Google Talk. WTF?!? What about the millions of Jabber, ICQ, YIM, MSN and other users? Don't you think they want to use their default messenger application with those accounts? This is particularly funny, since they're using libpurple for the actual messenger protocols, which is a LGPL'd library of the pidgin chat client. So the library has all those capabilities, but Palm decided to arbitrarily remove them in their LibpurpleAdapter program. Luckily that one is LGPL'd too, so removing the restriction is relatively easy. But not for a regular user!

  • Some applications always want to use the cellular network, even when wifi is available
  • This is particularly stupid when using their e-mail client. While I'm at home or in some other area with wifi coverage, I don't want to squeeze every bit through a high-latency cellular network. Why not simply make that decision a per-application property that the user can set?

  • Cheap mechanical quality
  • The mechanical quality is really disappointing for a device that sells for EUR 481. It's much lower than what one is used to from Nokia, Blackberry or HTC devices in a similar price range. As one example, the entire plastic of the device squeaks every time I carefully push one of the keys on the keyboard.

  • E-Mail client does not support pre-downloaded messages in subscribed IMAP folders
  • A standard feature that every desktop e-mail program has: Pre-download and cache the message headers for fast listing / browsing through a mailbox. Not on the Palm Pre, where the interactivity of the mail program is close to zero, fetching every bit over a high-latency link. The entire point of using IMAP is to have local copies/caches and to not suffer the latency/interactivity penalty of e.g. webmail!

  • Calendar offers no integration with standard calendar formats/servers
  • There is no way how you can simply feed data from ical or xcal calender data into the Palm Pre calendar. You can synchronize with Google and Exchange. WTF? Why do we have [more or less] standard file formats for calendar data? Exactly for enabling interoperability.

  • No support for standards-compliant address books
  • You can import your contacts from Facebook, but you cannot import contacts from vcard files, or let's say from a LDAP based address book. Great. So I first need to disclose all the personal contact details from all my contacts, put those into Facebook (into the US jurisdiction and a company that I don't trust) to simply get my contacts on the phone ?!?

  • Too low battery life
  • I can barely make it through one day even without making phone calls, simply having the e-mail client running. The battery is too small. I would not mind a bigger/heavier device in exchange for more power!

That is simply the user point of view. I also have many more technical points from a developer perspective, but that is probably better kept for another post. Meanwhile I'm not sure if the Pre was all that much of a good idea. The N900 is coming up next, and will be much closer to the standard Linux userland stack (including X11, GTK, Qt, ...) than the Palm Pre is.