Will Palm Get Its 'Mojo' Back with webOS and Pre?

As smartphone developers await the release of devices based on Microsoft's Windows Mobile 6.5, tinker with the recently released Google Android SDK, and pine over the one billionth iPhone app downloaded, a grassroots movement by some influential developers is pushing the adoption of an alternative mobile platform.

A burgeoning community of developers are investing time and resources on a device and platform they've barely seen from a company that was, until recently, written off for dead: Palm Inc. While many observers are skeptical that Palm can make a sizable dent in the mobile market, hundreds of developers are eagerly awaiting the release of the company's new webOS and the Palm Pre mobile device.

These developers have signed up to participate in dev camps that are slated to take place on the first weekend after Palm releases webOS and Pre. These camps are being organized by the developers and are not under Palm's purview, nor Sprint's, the carrier designated to sell the device in the United States, according to the organizers.

Palm could launch its new OS and device later this month or in June, according to published reports (while the company is not officially commenting, it has said they would be available by the end of June). The preDevCamp will take place in at least 73 cities and possibly more; the list grows weekly. Its organizers say the camp is modeled after the original iPhoneDevCamp program, in which developers get together and write code.

"When we first did iPhoneDevCamp, we had 20 or 30 people out of the 500 who showed up in San Francisco and gave talks. And from that, over 80 applications were developed in that one single weekend," said William Hurley, also known as "whurley" and a member of the original iPhone development team. Currently, whurley is chief architect of BMC Software's open source strategy and one of the founding organizers of the preDevCamp.

Emigrating from Apple
Proponents of webOS and the Pre say its appeal to developers is simple: Anyone who can develop for the Web in JavaScript can build apps for it. While offering a touch interface, the Pre will also have a physical keyboard, addressing one of the key shortcomings of the iPhone. Another iPhone drawback, critics say, is its lack of true multitasking. Others don't like Apple's strict licensing terms.

Indeed, many Pre enthusiasts appear to be dissatisfied with the iPhone's development model. While it's hard to bemoan Apple's success with the iPhone and the Apple App Store these days, a lot of developers say they welcome the Web-based programming environment promised by Palm.

"One of the main frustrations I had with GUI development with things like Java is you have to write a whole bunch of code to build your GUI, whereas HTML is a declarative language," said Dan Rumney, a global support manager with IBM who, like whurley, is working on the preDevCamp program in his spare time after taking an interest in webOS and the Pre.

"It really feels like the right environment for writing an inherently graphical application because they've separated the UI with the HTML and with CSS, where JavaScript has full functionality," he said.

Rumney, along with whurley and independent software developer Giovanni Gallucci, is part of the core team that created the foundation for preDevCamp. The three took an interest shortly after learning of the new Web-based programming model, saying they would like to see it succeed as an alternative mobile dev platform. Now many others have signed on and are planning to organize or attend local preDevCamps.

Greg Stevenson, who is based in Irvine, Calif., has developed a scheduling app called Runway that links the Pre's calendar with multiple online calendars. Evgeny Likhoded in the U.K. runs his own blog focused on webOS and plans to launch a Pre developer store.

Likhoded recently explained in a blog post why he is switching his allegiances from the iPhone to the Pre. Among the key reasons, Likhoded said in an interview, is the Pre's ability to handle multitasking. "You can switch between applications very quickly," he said. He also cites the Synergy feature, which allows for the integration of applications and online services. This capability will let developers have access to core services such as contacts, schedules and messaging. "This device will be much more integrated," he said. "Plus, because it's JavaScript, HTML and CSS, there are thousands of developers."

Both Palm and Sprint declined to comment about the dev camps, but several developers said they have discussed the effort with officials from both companies. In an earlier interview, Mitch Allen, Palm's chief technical officer of software, described the webOS and its Mojo framework, which includes user interface widgets, services and device APIs.

"All of this is built into a JavaScript framework that developers can use to access the device, and then we will have tools to help with debugging, primarily emulators that then can run on Mac, Windows or Linux, depending on their development platform," Allen said at the interview. "Developers are also able to use existing tools and existing code editors and things that they are used to, as well."

Allen believes webOS addresses key shortcomings of rival platforms. "Apple has some excellent tools but it's still largely an embedded platform environment, and BlackBerry is Java-based, though I am not very familiar with development on those platforms," he said. "But I think they are very different than webOS, which is built around tools and models for Web applications. That implies a certain kind of workflow for the developer in terms of being able to build their applications fairly rapidly, iterate very rapidly using the kind of browser-based debugging tools. I think that workflow is a lot more productive than any of the embedded workflows, to be honest."

Weighing the Odds
Until recently, such an outpouring by developers seemed improbable. Palm, the company that helped shape the first commercially successful smartphone, is unexpectedly showing new signs of life since announcing the Pre at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in January.

With Palm's stock price trading at just $1.14 per share in December, few analysts and developers considered the company's aging Palm OS platform a major threat to the rapidly growing iPhone and BlackBerry. Even Windows Mobile, despite its fits and starts, and platforms like Nokia's Symbian and Google Android seemed to pose steep competition for the one-time sector leader.

When private equity firm Elevation Partners said it was investing $100 million in Palm in late December, many observers questioned the chances for a payoff. But after showing a prototype of the Pre at CES, Palm's fortunes rapidly changed. Its stock now trades at over $10 per share and there's pent-up demand for its recently released Mojo SDK. Developers say Microsoft is likely being selective in its marketing of the SDK.

One potential issue is the lack of legacy Palm OS app support in the new webOS operating system. Third-party developer MotionApps recently announced that it will offer an emulator to run PalmOS apps on the Pre, though it's unclear if that will be enough to win over original Palm OS developers, many of whom have moved on to other platforms.

Can the Pre gain the mass-market appeal of the iPhone, BlackBerry and Windows Mobile platform? Many argue that limited network support (only Sprint, at launch) could pose a problem. Sprint's business continues to struggle; the company has announced its revenues of $8.2 billion were down 12 percent for the first quarter, and its loss jumped to $594 million from $505 million over the same period last year. Some analysts say the Pre could be pivotal to the carrier's prospects.

"Sprint has gone through some tough times. They continue to lose customers, though they obviously are hoping this will bring in a whole new group of customers," said Creative Strategies analyst Tim Bajarin, who has seen the Pre and is among those who believe it has given Palm another lease on life. "At this point, it's hard to tell how successful they will be."

Stevenson, creator of the Runway app, said he's hopeful but realistic. "I would say I have guarded optimism," he said. "It may go nowhere or it could be a huge success. But it's worth at least giving it a shot."

About the Author

Jeffrey Schwartz is editor of Redmond magazine and also covers cloud computing for Virtualization Review's Cloud Report. In addition, he writes the Channeling the Cloud column for Redmond Channel Partner. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreySchwartz.

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